"My House is Burning Because of Blue Fire Trucks" / Racial Residential Segregation and the Housing Market

{Related Reading: An all-black inner-city school... is what they wanted for their sons}


It makes the fabric of American society sag.

If you are Black and American, you do not have the same experience as one who is White and American.

Matter of fact, if you are American it is presupposed that you are also White -- adjectives are needed only to convey differences.

On the way to a burning house, fire trucks are never noted as red because they are supposed to be -- in other words, it is their nature to be red. How ridiculous would it be to call that passing vehicle a red fire truck! Only in my current hometown of Chapel Hill, have I ever pointed in awe and said "wow, a blue fire truck!"

What if you were led to believe that the red and blue trucks had additional differences beyond their color? What if the blue fire truck was seen as the lesser of the two trucks in its ability to put out fires? What if your house was burning because only blue fire trucks were dispatched to your neighborhood?

If fire trucks were colored, then only blue fire trucks would be sent to segregated Black communities.

I came of age between the boroughs of Brooklyn and the Bronx in NYC. My family migrated to the U.S. from rural Jamaica via London, England in the 1960s. My grandfather immediately bought a house in a then majority White Brooklyn neighborhood, only to find the neighborhood transition to an almost all-Black neighborhood within the decade. West Indians pioneered. Whites fled. Black Americans closed the deal. For my family, this experience of neighborhood racial transition characterized America's racial dynamic and echoed DuBois' assertion that the problem of 20th century America would in fact be the color line.

I. Black Neighborhoods and Ethnic Enclaves
On the surface there should be nothing wrong with the above picture. I mean what is wrong with a majority Black neighborhood anyway? In a 20th century America -- not struggling with the color line -- minority neighborhoods should not represent anything more than ethnic enclaves, vital to the support of the upward mobility of recent migrants through the facilitation of community building, the maintenance of social networks, and the sharing of job opportunities.

Ethnic enclaves exist today mostly to help usher in new immigrants to areas like Chinese communities in Queens, NY or West Indian Communities in Brooklyn, NY. Already established networks in these areas attract other immigrants. These spaces provide immigrants the best opportunity to get their footing in America and to ensure their future success through the attainment of the American dream.

For Black American Great Migrants, urban neighborhoods in the North developed a bit differently. Blacks, using the railroad as their guide, from WWI to the end of the Civil Rights movement in 1965, migrated from Florida and the Carolinas to NY and NJ, from Alabama and Mississippi to Illinois and Michigan, and from Louisiana and Texas to California. These Black Americans were drawn to this Promised Land due to the security of industrial jobs and arguably a more tolerant racial climate.

In the urban North, landlords converted houses to tenements to keep up with the supply of these incoming Black migrants. These migrants ended up in the cheapest housing available, and oftentimes further saturated already overloaded areas as family and friends participated in chain migration. By WWII, with the return of GIs and the baby boom, the issue of housing had become a problem that confronted not only Black Americans, but also all Americans.

The demand was relieved by the combination of several factors, which paved the way for the development of America's suburbs. They include the development of the automobile that Ford's Motor-T spearheaded; greater reliance on the bubble-frame house, which a couple of workers could erect with simple hand tools; and the construction of the interstate highway system that President Eisenhower advanced. Urban cities were soon divided by race as Whites hastened to new and expanding suburbs while Blacks were relegated to older and declining real estate in the central city. Later urban renewal and public housing sealed the fate of many Black Americans as they were displaced to some of the worst areas within the cities of Philadelphia, Detroit, Chicago, New York, and Los Angeles, to name a few. The Land of Promise was left racially segregated.

II. Racial Residential Segregation and the Housing Market
The problem of the Twenty-First Century is the problem of racial residential segregation in America. Racial residential segregation matters because the neighborhood is the most significant determinant of one's life chances. The Civil Rights Movement only won the pursuit of integration among Black Americans. It did not however produce integrated neighborhoods, although programs had been established toward that aim. It is a myth that Blacks fared better under segregation when compared with today's conditions. It is more appropriate to argue that neighborhood conditions have not gotten any better and have arguably become worse for Blacks since the conclusion of the Civil Rights Movement. In fact, integration as concept has never been given a fair chance in America, and thus it would be unfair to say that policy that promoted true neighborhood integration would not work. The types of neighborhoods that the majority of Black Americans presently find themselves in are subjects of concern for the future of Black well being in America. Blacks continue to live in segregated communities, and they continue to live under conditions in America that would outrage those that fought for Civil Rights.

Housing scholars have described racial residential segregation as an American apartheid. Blacks who live in segregated communities are more likely to live in neighborhoods of concentrated poverty. Neighborhoods of concentrated poverty disproportionately face the consequences of its effects such as alcoholism and drug abuse, high teenage pregnancy and high school dropout rates, crime, joblessness, and potentially other social ills.

Since the development of urban America in the Post-World War II era, Blacks have lived under a dual-housing market -- one for Whites and another for Blacks -- despite the success of the Civil Rights Movement. Whites and Blacks literally shop within two different housing markets. Whether it is due to preference or discrimination, Blacks find themselves largely shopping for houses in majority Black areas. Scholars have made strong cases that discriminatory practices like racial steering have been a greater influence on Black housing selection than individual preferences (driven by a desire for the comfort of same-race neighborhoods). An additional argument has emerged asserting that Blacks and Whites lack knowledge of areas outside of their individual purview and social networks, which largely determines where one moves, and ultimately maintains the status quo.

When Blacks avoid moving into White neighborhoods -- as a result of desire for comfort, discriminatory practice, or lack of knowledge of the housing market -- they help Whites to maintain affluent self-segregated areas at a low cost. Since Blacks avoid shopping (intentionally or not) in majority White areas, Whites avoid having to pay a premium to keep their neighborhoods all-White. Thus, Whites actually benefit when Blacks (or other minority groups) do not shop in their neighborhoods. Adding insult to injury, Blacks pay a premium to live in Black ghettoes and neighboring Black suburbs. Since the Black housing market is smaller (less supply), the price to find the best housing in a constrained market is consequently higher.

Historically, even when Blacks choose integration by moving into a majority White neighborhood, over time White residents move out of that neighborhood and potential White residents avoid moving into the integrating area. Blacks are stuck between a rock and a hard place because they cannot avoid the formation of segregated ghettoes nor can they access integrated suburbs even if they desired it. The problem comes down to choice. Without real choice in housing selection Blacks will continue to find themselves -- on average -- in the worst neighborhoods in America.

The notion of segregation is not necessarily the raisin in the sun that it appears to be. Racial residential segregation married with American racism bears conditions of structural inequality among the races. Whites benefit from the structure of the dual housing market while Blacks are systematically penalized. As well, immigrant populations find stability in ethnic enclaves. Majority Black neighborhoods are a subject of concern because racism undermines one’s individual and community well being. In the 21st century, residence matters.

III. Living in Your Desired Neighborhood: 7 Things to Consider
In order to combat racial residential segregation and to enrich your level of choice in the housing market, I have created a brief but far from exhaustive list of things that you should consider when moving.

1. Be mobile
You should think of purchasing a home as a series of steps toward attaining your desire neighborhood. You might not reach your desired neighborhood in your first attempt. It may take a series of moves over a prolonged time period to meet your goal. For example, you might purchase a house before marriage or with your partner. The next step might be to sell your house when you have your first child. The last purchase might to be move into a new house when your child reaches school age. Residential mobility represents a vital part of upward mobility in America.

2. Shop for a home = Shop for a neighborhood
When you shop for a home, you shop for a neighborhood. It is more important to find a neighborhood that meets your desires when home shopping. A small apartment in a resource-rich neighborhood is better than a large house in a declining community. I recommend viewing at least one home in a majority White or unfamiliar neighborhood for every two homes you view in a majority Black or familiar one. Just the act of looking in majority White neighborhoods will help to unify the dual-housing market, although it would be better to rent or buy a home in that neighborhood. When it comes to the age-old question of whether you should stay or leave the Black neighborhood, the answer is: you should exercise choice in your decision. Regardless of which you choose, it is important to know that all of your options were presented.

3. Be creative to meet desires
When it involves moving into your desired neighborhood, be creative. Figure out ways to pool resources or generate additional income -- turn a single-family home into a multi-generational family home; renovate and rent out your basement; adopt a foster child. Do the things that Black working class families have been doing (and what many immigrant families currently do) to increase their ability to choose where they want to live.

4. Live outside of black neighborhood
Also, if you are young and have never lived outside of a Black neighborhood, move out and try it. If you have the flexibility to find a place in a majority-White neighborhood or even an ethnic enclave (Chinese, Indian, Polish, etc.), make a conscious decision to do so. As a result, a couple of things should happen: the first, you will learn how difficult it is to rent outside of the Black neighborhoods that you are familiar with. Secondly, after living in this new environment, you will have something to compare with your former neighborhood. You will leave with real experiences that will inform your knowledge of the types of neighborhoods to seek out in the future and it will also raise your expectations or your level of appreciation for your former neighborhood. I do not recommend this to say that one neighborhood is better than the other, but I do argue that the experience in and of itself would make you a better homebuyer and neighbor in the future.

5. Be an active citizen
I will have to warn you that moving is not enough. If you decide to undertake a temporary move, you will have to become an active citizen-participant in your new neighborhood. I suggest you join the local community organization, meet your neighbors, do local grocery shopping, etc. The key is to participate in the local community. Regardless of where you live, active community citizenship is essential to improving your immediate environment. Blacks that choose to stay are more likely to be more engaged citizen-participants than those who are forced to stay, and this fact alone would change the nature of majority Black areas.

6. Avoid barriers to living in desired neighborhood
The two barriers that will prevent you from making such a move are cost and finding a suitable location. For the first, if you can't afford it on your own, lobby a friend and get a roommate or two. Do it together. As for the second, there are currently online resources, albeit limited, to help you locate a suitable place. The problem here is dealing with those factors, (discrimination and lack of knowledge of suitable locations), outside of cost that keep individuals and families out of the better neighborhoods in America.

7. Exercise choice
When it comes to race and housing, regardless of where you end up moving, it is important to exercise choice. Whether it is overt or covert, conscious or unconscious, structural discrimination exists in the housing market. And when Blacks do not make a conscious effort to challenge the status quo, they on average will end up in neighborhoods that do not match their White counterparts of the same social and economic status. Regardless of what you choose to do, make sure it is you that is doing the choosing.

Footnote: This article acknowledges but does not make an argument for the social or cultural advantage that may be associated with a segregated existence. This is a real value that should not be ignored. Yet, historically, migrants have been more concerned with living in spaces that met resources in quality locations over spaces that maintained a sense of racial or ethnic comfort, especially when there was a glaring disparity between a current neighborhood and a potential one. As long as the resource advantage between Black and White neighborhoods is heavily skewed toward the majority group as a consequence of structural conditions, in the short-term minority groups should act accordingly.

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by D. Augustus Anderson {Chapel Hill, NC: USA}

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