As the title suggests, American Apartheid: Segregation and the Making of the Underclass is both sociological (the “underclass”) and a bit polemical (“apartheid”) about the relationship between black urban poverty and the “American institution” of the black ghetto. Their book is clear, easy to read, and incredibly strident in its arguments. They’re also well-supported by the National Institute of Child Health and Human Development, a Guggenheim grant, a Faculty Development Award, and the National Opinion Research Center, which means that they had enough money to hire plenty of researchers and analysts. And it shows: the depth of research in this thing is impressive.
The authors’ argument is pretty straightforward: more than any other factor, race-based residential segregation creates the “urban underclass,” a segment of the urban population so socially and spatially isolated from the labor market that they seem to have no chance of climbing out of poverty. The primary instrument of segregation is the urban ghetto, and the residents are almost exclusively black.
Urban ghettos have been fascinating to me ever since I biked through them in Chicago in the early 2000s – I couldn’t figure out why anyone would live in an intensely poor, dilapidated neighborhood when a much nicer one was sometimes just a few blocks away. The two books that provided the strongest answers for me back then were Alex Kotlowitz’ There Are No Children Here and William Julius Wilson’s When Work Disappears; the first provides an intensely human look at growing up in a Chicago housing project, and the second provides clear, well-supported structural explanations for the development and persistence of the ghetto.
American Apartheid basically builds on Wilson’s argument. Wilson argues that shifts in the economy contributed to urban economic decline and the creation of new jobless ghettos. Discriminatory housing practices combined with discriminatory hiring practices concentrated black urban residents into poor, predominantly black neighborhoods, so when shifts in the economy (like automation in the auto industry, for instance) threw blacks out of work, whole neighborhoods went under. Shops closed, community institutions left, and the ghettos became so thoroughly separated from the rest of society that they formed their own norms, expectations, and speech patterns.Seeing this decline, those families that could leave, did, which left the poorest residents marooned in inner city slums without employment prospects or transportation to jobs in the suburbs or other parts of the city.
Massey & Denton add to this line of logic an emphasis on residential segregation. If these same black people were living in integrated neighborhoods, the authors argue, their white and ethnic neighbors would probably still have jobs in an economic downturn, so their neighborhood institutions, shops, etc would be able to stay open, the neighborhoods would remain relatively stable and connected to the workforce, and those thrown out of work would eventually be able to find jobs again. However, even in the late 1980s (when they were writing), most white people did not want black people in their neighborhoods, violence and intimidation was still rampant, and the Fair Housing Act was still really hard to enforce. Thus, segregation was the key contributing factor to black isolation and poverty. And since the authors see residential integration as the first step toward social integration, their solutions to these problems are stronger, more systematic enforcement of the Fair Housing Act and active dismantling of urban ghettos.
Since this book was written, several major changes have taken place: in an effort to break down the ghetto, cities like Chicago have replaced their massive (and massively deteriorated) public housing projects with mixed-income housing and city-wide HUD vouchers; the rise of a creative class sensibility has brought white middle class people to the ghetto in search of authenticity and cheap rent; and gentrification processes have massively transformed inner city neighborhoods in a kind of forced resegregation (from black to white.)
Given these processes, does the residential segregation aspect of the urban ghetto still stand? Or, more bluntly: have these processes of desegregation/ resegregation done anything positive for the plight of the urban poor?