Residential Segregation Research Paper

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Segregation refers to the differential location of social groups across categories of a social structure. It may arise from voluntary forces, whereby members of one group choose positions that are different from those of other groups; it may reflect involuntary processes, whereby systematic barriers prevent certain kinds of people from occupying particular positions within the structure, or it may reflect a combination of voluntary and involuntary forces.

By far the most studied kind of segregation involves the differential location of social groups across neighborhoods of a city, a topic generally known as residential segregation. This field has attracted strong interest over the years because social scientists have recognized the close connection between where people live and the socioeconomic outcomes they experience. This insight originated with the Chicago School of Sociology in the early twentieth century (Park and Burgess 1925). According to Robert Park (1926, p. 8), ‘it is because social relations are so frequently and so inevitably correlated with spatial relations; because physical distances so frequently are … indexes of social distances, that statistics have any significance whatever for sociology.’ In other words, because social and economic resources are distributed unevenly in space, where one lives plays a significant role in determining one’s prospects for attaining education, health, employment, income, and prestige (Massey and Denton 1985).

Ernest Burgess (1928) was the first to measure patterns and levels of residential segregation, but he was unable to establish standard methodology for doing so. As a result, social scientists became bogged down in a prolonged debate about the best segregation index. The issue was settled in 1955 by Duncan and Duncan (1955), who recommended using the index of dissimilarity. This straightforward measure varies between 0 (no segregation) and 100 (complete segregation) and represents the relative percentage of minority members who would have to exchange neighborhoods with majority members to achieve an even, or integrated, residential distribution.

For the next 20 years, social scientists working in the tradition of the Chicago School employed this index to measure levels of segregation in a variety of urban settings. Duncan and Duncan (1957) undertook their classic study of the levels, causes, and consequences of black segregation in Chicago. Lieberson (1963) followed with an analysis of segregation among European-origin groups living in US industrial cities. In their ambitious study, Taeuber and Taeuber (1965) documented patterns of segregation and neighborhood change for African Americans in cities throughout the USA. As the racial and ethnic composition of other nations has been transformed by postwar immigration (Massey et al. 1998), social scientists have applied the index to study the segregation of minority groups in Britain, Germany, France, The Netherlands, Israel, Canada, and Australia (Massey 1985).

In 1976, Cortese et al. ignited a new debate about the measurement of segregation by questioning the applicability of the index of dissimilarity under certain circumstances. In response to their critique, numerous alternative indices were proposed to yield considerable confusion in the literature. Massey and Denton (1988) once again brought order to the field by demonstrating that residential segregation was a multidimensional construct characterized by five distinct axes of spatial variation—evenness, exposure, clustering, concentration, and centralization. They showed that the index of dissimilarity measured the evenness dimension fairly well, thus confirming Duncan and Duncan’s earlier work. After clarifying the conceptual and empirical properties of the remaining dimensions, they went on to recommend a specific index for each one.

Massey and Denton (1989) used this multidimensional conceptualization of segregation to define the concept of hypersegregation, which occurs whenever a group experiences high segregation on at least four of the five dimensions at once. They showed that whereas blacks in 20 metropolitan areas displayed high levels of segregation on four or more dimensions simultaneously, Asian and European ethnic groups in US metropolitan areas never achieved a high level of segregation on more than one dimension at a time. As of 1990, more than one third of all African Americans lived under conditions of hypersegregation (Denton 1994).

Despite the widespread recognition of residential segregation as a multidimensional construct, the most commonly used measure continues to be the index of dissimilarity. The next most common index is the P* isolation index, which Massey and Denton identify as a measure of exposure. It represents the percentage of minority members living in the neighborhood of the average minority person. An index of 80 for African Americans, for example, means that the average black person lives in a neighborhood that is 80 percent black. Unlike the index of dissimilarity, this index is strongly influenced by the relative number of minority members within an urban area, so that intergroup and intercity comparisons are best made using the index of dissimilarity.

A convenient rule of thumb for interpreting the latter index is that values under 30 are ‘low,’ those from 30 to 60 are ‘moderate,’ and those above 60 are ‘high’ (Kantrowitz 1973). In general, voluntary processes of segregation yield index values in the low-to-moderate range. Whenever dissimilarity indices persist at levels above 60 for any length of time, it usually signals the operation of involuntary forces of one sort or another. Studies done in the USA reveal that African Americans continue to experience high levels of discrimination in real estate, banking, and insurance markets, and that they remain objects of considerable prejudice by whites (Massey and Denton 1993). As a result, black–white residential dissimilarities in US urban areas generally range upward from 60, and unlike those of other ethnic minorities, they do not fall as socioeconomic status rises (Demon and Massey 1988).

In the USA, black residential segregation has also displayed little tendency to decline over time, except in places where the number of blacks is so small that complete desegregation would yield little interracial mixing within neighborhoods (Krivo and Kaufman 1998). Other than African Americans in the USA, the only documented case where a racial or ethnic group has experienced a prolonged, high level of segregation is that of black Africans in the Union of South Africa under apartheid (Christopher 1993). Blacks in neither Canada (Fong 1996) nor Brazil (Telles 1992) en- counter the extreme levels of segregation experienced by their US counterparts.

New interest in the consequences of residential segregation was stimulated by William Julius Wilson (1987), who argued that the social isolation of blacks within neighborhoods of concentrated poverty systematically lowered their chance of success in employment, marriage, and education. Although he attributed this growing isolation to structural shifts in the economy and the changing geography of employment, Massey and Denton (1993) showed that these changes necessarily produce high concentrations of poverty when they occur under conditions of high racial segregation. Given rising income inequality and the high degree of residential segregation experienced by African Americans in the USA, the concentration of black poverty is mathematically inevitable.

Studies drawing on longitudinal data files reveal that growing up in a poor neighborhood has negative socioeconomic consequences that are independent of personal characteristics or family circumstances. Coming of age under concentrated poverty under-mines cognitive development in early childhood, reduces academic achievement in later adolescence, and elevates the risk of antisocial behavior throughout the life course (Brooks-Gunn et al. 1997). Males experience a higher likelihood of withdrawing from the labor force and increased risk of criminal involvement, whereas women are less likely to marry and more likely to become single parents (Massey and Shibuya 1995).

The link between racial segregation and stratification prevails no matter what one assumes about the extent of segregation by social class, but when high levels of class segregation occur in addition to racial or ethnic segregation, the concentration of poverty is exacerbated. Although the necessary data are not available for most countries, studies done in US cities reveal a marked rise in the degree of income segregation from 1970 to 1990 (Massey 1996), a trend that occurred across all regions and racial ethnic groups (Jargowsky 1996).

Although rising income inequality and growing class segregation may undermine the socioeconomic welfare of all racial and ethnic groups, the consequences have been particularly severe for African Americans because they are also so highly segregated by race. Under these circumstances, poor blacks experience far higher concentrations of neighborhood poverty than the poor of other groups. Although few studies have explored segregation by class, race, and ethnicity simultaneously, to the extent that rising income inequality, growing class segregation, and persisting racial ethnic segregation coincide in other nations, a similar ecology of inequality is expected to prevail.

In the new century, social scientists are working to disentangle the effects of metropolitan structure, neighborhood composition, and family circumstances on individual socioeconomic outcomes. In this effort, researchers have turned increasingly to multilevel models and longitudinal data sets. Although the questions may be similar to those posed by the Chicago School theorists in the 1920s, the measures, methods, and data are now far more complex and sophisticated. Specifying the theoretical nature and empirical strength of connections between ecological structure, neighborhood conditions and individual outcomes will remain a central preoccupation of social science in the twenty-first century.


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