The Dream Revisited

How Do We Reconcile Americans’ Increasing Interest in Residential Diversity with Persistent Racial S

by Camille Zubrinsky Charles | April 2014

There is mounting evidence that where we live is critically important for our overall life chances—the education of our children, our access to employment, our exposure to crime and environmental toxins, and our physical and mental health.  Thus, racial residential segregation has been referred to as “the structural linchpin” in persistent racial inequality in the United States.  It is worthy of our continued attention precisely because of its implications for overall well-being and upward socioeconomic mobility. Given our sordid racial history, it comes as no surprise that, on average, blacks in the US continue to reside in racially isolated neighborhoods over the course of their lives, irrespective of their individual socioeconomic characteristics. Thus, while it is true that racially segregated neighborhoods were “established through public policy, including the enforcement of restrictive covenants, local land use regulations, underwriting requirements for federally insured mortgage loans, and siting and occupancy regulations for public housing,” we should not ignore the critical role of earlier and even more dehumanizing racial policies in our history that are key to understanding how we got here and why the path to change has been so slow.  To the extent that households' preferences for particular neighborhoods play an important role in perpetuating racial residential segregation, those preferences are not benign. Present-day neighborhood racial composition preferences are infected by the history of racial oppression in the United States.

Blacks in the US are the only group to have been legally codified as less than full human beings. Later, despite being granted legal recognition as fully human, blacks continued to occupy second-class citizenship status through a series of legally sanctioned policies best-known as Jim Crow. Indeed, in terms of our understandings of full citizenship in the US, blacks only obtained the full rights and protections afforded to United States citizens in 1964, 1965, and 1968, with the passage of Civil Rights legislation. These victories were not won easily, nor did they immediately change what was in “the hearts and minds” of white Americans. Similarly, having finally achieved rights that whites had taken for granted for centuries, blacks were not immediately confident that our nation had solved “the problem of the century,” and that they were suddenly free to move about the proverbial cabin.

Trends in racial attitudes confirm both decreasing white expressions of racist attitudes but also stubbornly persistent discriminatory attitudes and resistance to anti-discrimination laws. Since the early 1950s, whites’ racial attitudes show clear and steady movement away from support for segregationist or Jim Crow principles in the areas of schools, housing, and racial intermarriage. For example, by 1972, fewer than 15% of whites believed that black and white children should attend separate schools, and that fell below 10% by the early 1980s. Similar trends are evident with respect to support for laws against intermarriage and the belief that whites have a right to keep blacks out of their neighborhoods; in both cases, support declined from roughly 40% in 1972 to about 15% in the mid-1990s. Despite these improvements, however, as recently as 2008 nearly one-third of whites opposed laws prohibiting individual home owners from racial discrimination in the selling of their homes. While this is still a significant decline from the two-thirds of whites who held this belief in 1973, it is still a significant minority of whites nationwide.  And, before we point to education as the panacea, it should be noted that among highly-educated, Northern whites, 1 in 4 held this position in 2008.

At the same time, whites have all but abandoned beliefs that blacks are biologically inferior to whites; however, they have replaced anti-black stereotypes based on biology for anti-black stereotypes steeped in culture. Thus, the tendency is for whites to believe that blacks are lazy and/or unintelligent not because they are biologically inferior, but because they simply don’t value hard work or education. Thus, whites also tend to believe that blacks have only themselves to blame for persistent racial inequality. Thus, while it is true that persistent racial residential segregation is the result of a “tangle of factors,” we cannot forget that the housing market discrimination that constrains minorities’ housing searches, the affordability barriers that contribute to racial/ethnic segregation, and the neighborhood racial composition preferences of all groups are all inextricably linked to racial ideology and racial attitudes.

I point to all of this simply as a reminder of the long-term consequences of racial ideology and racial oppression.  A significant minority of whites still adheres to negative racial stereotypes: slightly more than 40% of whites believe that blacks tend to be lazy compared to whites, and about one quarter of whites believe that blacks are “less intelligent” than whites are. Astonishingly, nearly 40% of whites believe that individual whites should be able to discriminate against blacks (and likely anyone else) when selling their homes.  Most minorities prefer mixed neighborhoods; however, they do not want to be “the only” or one of a very few. Similarly, minority (particularly black) preferences for white neighbors decline to the extent that they perceive whites as “tending to discriminate.” These attitudes are the sources of neighborhood racial composition preferences. These attitudes have their roots in a history that still haunts us. 

Recent research in political science offers compelling support that present-day racial attitudes are linked to the number of slaves held in Southern counties in the pre-Emancipation South. The larger the slave population, the more negative current residents’ attitudes toward blacks. A recent analysis of black-white gaps in earnings and wealth suggests that the “initial conditions at Emancipation and nearly 100 years of segregated schools,” and public policy interventions tied to human capital accumulation and school expenditures are critical to understanding the persistence of an enormous racial wealth gap. And, economists have recently found evidence that, among Africans, “individuals whose ancestors were heavily raided during the slave trade today exhibit less trust in neighbors, relatives, and their local government.”

This seemingly unrelated research helps us to understand the endurance of negative racial attitudes and continued opposition to public policies that are viewed as racially redistributive. Moreover, as Mary Pattillo aptly stated here on this site it underscores the necessity of understanding racial integration as a societal benefit for all Americans, rather than something that only benefits blacks and other disadvantaged groups but is of little or no value for whites. And, understanding the lasting impact of slavery and its aftermath for all Americans helps us make sense of emerging research in the area of implicit or unconscious bias, which suggests that individuals can hold (and be sincere in their expression of) egalitarian racial attitudes, while simultaneously exhibiting unconscious racial bias that shapes behaviors in predictable ways. 

These realities complicate efforts at reducing racial residential segregation and furthering efforts at creating and maintaining stably integrated neighborhoods. Ignoring them all but guarantees more of the same.



Acharya, Avidit, Matthew Blackwell, and Maya Sen. 2013. “The Political Legacy of American Slavery.” Working paper (

Bobo, Lawrence D., Camille Z. Charles, Maria Krysan and Alicia Simmons. 2012.  “The Real Record on Racial Attitudes,” pgs. 38-93 in, Social Trends in American Life: Findings from the General Social Survey Since 1972, edited by Peter V. Marsden. Princeton, NJ: Princeton University Press.

Charles, Camille Zubrinsky. 2006.  Won’t You Be My Neighbor? Race, Class and Residence in Los Angeles.   New York: Russell Sage.

Nunn, Nathan and Leonard Wantchekon. 2009. “The Slave Trade and the Origins of Mistrust in Africa.” NBER Working Paper 14783. (

Sharkey, Patrick. 2013. Stuck in Place: Urban Neighborhoods and the End of Progress Toward Racial Equality. University of Chicago Press.

White, T. Kirk. 2007. “Initial Conditions at Emancipation: The Long-Run Effect on Black-White Wealth and Earnings Inequality.” Journal of Economic Dynamics and Control 31, 3370-3395.

Camille Zubrinsky Charles is the Edmund J. and Louis W. Kahn Term Professor in the Social Sciences, Department of Sociology, Graduate School of Education and the Center for Africana Studies at the University of Pennsylvania. She tweets at @CamilleZCharles.

More in Discussion 3: Ending Segregation: Our Progress Today