I Understanding Where We Are Today

Segregation, Race, and the Social Worlds of Rich and Poor

Douglas S. Massey and Jonathan Tannen

Abstract Residential segregation has been called the “structural linchpin” of racial stratification in the United States. Recent work has documented the central role it plays in the geographic concentration of poverty among African-Americans as well as the close connection between exposure to concentrated deprivation and limited life chances. Here we review trends in racial segregation and Black poverty to contextualize a broader analysis of trends in the neighborhood circumstances experienced by two groups generally considered to occupy the top and bottom positions in U.S. society: affluent Whites and poor Blacks. The analysis reveals a sharp divergence of social and economic resources available within the social worlds of the two groups. We tie this divergence directly to the residential segregation of AfricanAmericans in the United States, which remains extreme in the nation's largest urban Black communities. In these communities, the neighborhood circumstances of affluent as well as poor African-Americans are systematically compromised.

Keywords Residential segregation • School segregation • Racial segregation • Hypersegregation • Poverty concentration • Poverty • Neighborhood disadvantage • Racial stratification • Geographic mobility


Residential segregation has been called the “structural linchpin” of racial stratification in the United States (Pettigrew 1979; Bobo 1989; Bobo and Zubrinsky 1996), and over time its role in the perpetuation of Black disadvantage (and White advantage) has become increasingly clear to social scientists (for a review, see Massey 2013). William Julius Wilson (1987) was the first to notice the rising concentration of poverty in Black inner city neighborhoods during the 1980s. Massey (1990) subsequently sought to explain this growing concentration of Black poverty using a simulation to demonstrate how rising rates of Black poverty interact with high levels of Black segregation to concentrate poverty in certain areas and neighborhoods. Massey and Denton (1993) went on to argue that by concentrating poverty, racial segregation created a uniquely harsh and disadvantaged social environment for poor African-Americans and residential circumstances with much fewer advantages for affluent African-Americans compared to Whites of similar social status.

In his analysis of the mathematics underlying Massey's simulation exercise, Quillian (2012) demonstrated that concentrated poverty stemmed not simply from an interaction between Black poverty and Black segregation but was also affected by the level of geographic separation between poor and nonpoor Blacks as well as the degree of segregation between poor Blacks and others who were both nonpoor and non-Black. Given conditions that commonly prevail in metropolitan America, however, Quillian (2012, 370) gave his support to Massey's theoretical argument. When African-Americans are highly segregated, increases in Black poverty are absorbed by a relatively small number of compressed, racially homogeneous neighborhoods, increasing the geographic concentration of poverty in ghetto areas.

Subsequent research has confirmed the close connection between Black segregation and geographically concentrated disadvantage and demonstrated the powerful negative influence of concentrated poverty on individual life chances (Sampson 2012; Massey and Brodmann 2014). Owing primarily to the persistence of racial residential segregation, poor African-Americans experience levels of neighborhood poverty, violence, and social disorder that are rarely, if ever, experienced by the poor of other groups (Peterson and Krivo 2010; Sampson 2012). Moreover, the high exposure of African-Americans to geographically concentrated disadvantage not only persists over the individual life cycle but also is maintained across the generations. Indeed, Sharkey (2013) found that half of all African-Americans nationwide had lived in the poorest quartile of urban neighborhoods for at least two generations, compared to just 7 % of Whites. Whereas in 1968 Otis Dudley Duncan argued that Black socioeconomic disadvantage was transmitted along the lines of race, in the twenty-first century, Sharkey shows how Black disadvantage is increasingly transmitted on the basis of place.

Here we review trends in the degree of Black residential segregation along with rates of Black and White poverty from 1970 to 2010 to assess the structural potential for concentrated poverty and how it has changed over time. We then examine trends in neighborhood conditions experienced by poor Whites and Blacks and compare them to those experienced by affluent Whites and Blacks. Our analysis documents the widening gap between the social worlds inhabited by those at the top and bottom of the U.S. socioeconomic hierarchy and underscores the powerful effect that segregation has in undermining the quality of the neighborhoods even of African-Americans.

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