A twenty-two year old article from the American Journal of Sociology entitled “American Apartheid” written by Douglas Massey sheds some interesting light on the topic of racial segregation in cities and the economic impacts of segregation.
The recent Puget Sound Sage study of the effects of light rail in the Rainier Valley posits the notion that the change in the racial composition of the Valley is attributable to light rail. That gentrification or displacement has been bad for people of color in the valley economically, and, the study suggests, keeping the neighborhood “majority minority,” essentially a kind of segregation, would be better for the economic condition of poor people of color in the Valley.
That’s a complicated and hard to prove argument, and one that seems counter to the one made in Massey’s article. In fact, Massey constructs an extensive study based on models that shows that segregation makes poverty worse.
Massey found that recessions and economic downturns are worse in segregated neighborhoods. “In the absence of racial segregation, poor whites and blacks experience these disruptions equally.” In poor but racially integrated neighborhoods, “retail profits fall, services are cut back, and businesses inevitably close,” but “blacks and whites still experience those losses equally.”
Massey found that “the imposition of racial segregation changes the situation entirely,” making poverty for blacks worse.
Under conditions of complete racial segregation but no class segregation, the median income in black neighborhoods falls from $14,721 before the rise in black poverty to $10,960 afterward, a drop of $3,761, or 25.5 percent, substantially greater than the drop when class segregation is imposed alone. A drop of this magnitude implies a very dramatic loss of potential demand, with some $11.1 million in income disappearing from black neighborhoods because of the shift. In these areas, stores will inevitably close, services will be withdrawn, and neighborhood investments will drop.
Not only does Massey make a compelling argument that concentrating population by race promotes poverty, but even segregated neighborhoods with a mix of incomes, the median income for all families—even ones doing better—is worse than in integrated neighborhoods.
The Sage study’s suggestion that light rail is the main cause of the changing racial composition of the Rainier Valley is dubious. There are many factors causing these changes including the booming housing market of the past decade that raised all property values in Seattle. The study also runs counter to decades of study of segregation by race which usually finds that segregation ends up making poverty worse.
The point of the Sage study is to argue for better distribution of the benefits of light rail, which is a laudable goal. But the idea of keeping the Valley “majority minority” doesn’t make sense as a strategy to improve the lives of poor people of color. Instead, according to Massey’s work, it would do just the opposite.