An Interview with Margery Turner, Vice President for Program Planning and Management at the Urban Institute, a non-profit policy analysis group based in Washington, D.C.
Is there a general trend – are communities and neighborhoods re-segregating; do the numbers bear that kind of a trend out?
I think it’s difficult and perhaps even dangerous to try to give one answer for the whole country, because the trends that we’ve seen over the last 30-40 years really vary dramatically from place to place. For example, communities that have seen a large volume of immigration, particularly Latino immigration, are seeing really different patterns today and different trends today than communities that haven’t seen that diversification from Latino immigration and continue to be mostly white and black.
I think in general, whites and blacks are somewhat less segregated from each other than they were at the time the fair housing act was passed in 1968 or the time that the Brown v. Board of Education decision was handed down. Segregation of whites from blacks has declined slowly across most parts of the country. It’s still very high; whites and blacks are still more segregated from each other than they are from Latinos or from Asians.
Now, in some places, when people talk about re-segregation, we see sometimes a pattern in which a neighborhood that was previously all white and excluded blacks through legal and informal means, that when blacks were able to gain access to that community, the white people moved out, white people stopped moving in, and the neighborhood shifted from being one that was predominately or even exclusively white to one that was predominately black. And a lot of people talk about that kind of pattern and call it re-segregation. I think we also see in lots of places across the U.S., communities that were predominately or exclusively white decades ago and they still are today; there may have been a small amount of change, some small opening, but that fundamentally, those communities have not become more dramatically mixed along racial lines.
You said people call it re-segregation; it sounds like that may not be a term that you feel applies?
I think it’s a perfectly reasonable term, the term re-segregation – most of the times I’ve heard it discussed, it’s been where a neighborhood goes through some racial change, it appears to becoming integrated, but in a way it flips over and re-segregates with the other race predominant, that’s the way, what people are usually talking about when they say re-segregation.
So how do changes to neighborhoods like the different kinds we’ve been talking about impact schools?
That’s another question where the answer depends a lot on the specifics of the local school system. So historically, in fact, back when Brown v. Board of Education was decided, most people went to neighborhood schools and most schools had attendance boundaries that were pretty strict, and pretty geographically targeted, so that where you lived determined where you went to school. And that meant that segregated racial patterns translated really directly into segregated school patterns.
So there’s much more variation across the country today than there was 40-50 years ago. In some places, school attendance boundaries are much more flexible now: There are magnet schools, there are special purpose schools; there’s much more opportunity for people to choose which school in the district they want their kid to go to. And in some communities there are charter schools that mix up that process even more. So, for example, in the district of Columbia, you really can’t predict based on where a kid lives what school that child goes to. But there are other jurisdictions where we have more traditional school boundaries and school enrollment policies, and in those kinds of circumstances, there’s again this really close correspondence between the composition of the neighborhood and the composition of the school.
So how does that balance of population work in a school system? For example, does that school system, if it does have those tight boundaries, just reflect its community?
There’s two issues there: What is the school district boundary, and does the boundary of the district as a whole correspond to a community that is predominately one race or another? So if that’s the case, then it doesn’t much matter what the enrollment policies are within that school district; if most of the kids in the school district are one race, then essentially, most of the kids in that district will be one race. It’s a little more complicated when the district as a whole has neighborhoods with different compositions, and it’s a question of how the enrollment boundaries for individual schools align with the composition boundaries of different neighborhoods.
So in that kind of a makeup or scenario, does geography really affect how these schools work?
Yes. I would say in a situation where the whole school district is one race, then the geography of the housing patterns has a huge effect on school attendance. And similarly, in a place where individual school enrollment boundaries are tightly and strictly tied to the neighborhoods, then the housing patterns really shape the school composition. And if we think that children of all races benefit from exposure to one another and exposure to diversity, then a highly-segregated housing pattern with school boundaries that are tightly tied to geography, it’s really gonna lock you into very separate schools.
What I think you see in east Tennessee is a very geographic hindrance of mountains and districts – so whereas it may take you 20 minutes to get to the nearest school here, so your boundaries are kind of set in a certain way, it may take you 5 – 10 minutes in another … in a different area.
That’s a really good point, that it’s not just the social geography but also the physical geography – can play a part in either tightening up that relationship between housing and schools or loosening it up.
Ah. But in metros I think you see sort of that social separation? Can you talk a little bit more about that?
So I would say in metropolitan areas across the country, we see neighborhood separation based both on race and ethinicity and on income and wealth. But they are two related but different patterns.
So in other words, people sometimes argue that really all the racial separation that we see is just the result of income differences and what people can afford. And the evidence indicates that that’s really not the case. If people were spread around neighborhoods in metropolitan areas based entirely on what they can afford, we would see far less racial separation than we do. So we still really have patterns of considerable patterns of racial separation in neighborhoods that are different than our patterns of income and wealth separation.
Can I ask you why that is?
The why is a really hard question to answer. Again, I think there are a bunch of contributing factors. So one important set of factors is still discrimination, in which minorities are discouraged or denied opportunities in white neighborhoods, but there are also barriers of information and knowledge about where housing opportunities are, how affordable they are and how open they are.
So if, for example, you’re a person of color and you don’t actually know anybody who lives on a particular side of town, you might just assume that you’re not welcome there or you can’t afford to live there or you might not know that the schools are great there or that the parks are terrific there, so there’s sort of knowledge barriers that keep us apart that sustain separation.
And then I think there are persistent fears and prejudices on everybody’s part that makes people hesitate to move into a neighborhood where you’ll be the minority group. And I think all of those factors – discrimination, lack of knowledge and prejudice – they all kind of work together to sustain a status quo even though most people of all races tell us that they would prefer living in a mixed neighborhood.
And then again those boundaries for schools help to really reflect those neighborhoods within a school system if that’s the way those are set up.
That’s right, and I think that’s one of the sad things about that is that then another generation of kids grow up not knowing each other, not really having friends and colleagues and schoolmates of different races and we have – in effect we lose an opportunity for some of the fear and prejudice to be overcome.
Unless there’s an artificial way to make that happen.
I think there’s lots of ways to teach kids openness and respect for one another, and the evidence suggests that with each successive generation fear and prejudice is declining. So we’re making headway. I think my own view is that to the extent that neighborhoods and schools are separate, it just makes our progress slower.
Find articles by Margery Turner on similar subjects at the Urban Institute’s Metro Trends blog.