The Dream Revisited

Why Haven’t We Made More Progress in Reducing Segregation?

by Margery Austin Turner | April 2014

Recent surveys strongly suggest that Americans would prefer to live in more racially and ethnically diverse neighborhoods than they do. So why does residential segregation remain so stubbornly high?

The historical record clearly demonstrates that our nation’s stark patterns of racial segregation 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. But the dynamics that sustain segregation today are far more complex and subtle.

Here’s my take on the tangle of factors that perpetuate segregation and undermine the stability of mixed neighborhoods. (It’s important to note that most of the available evidence focuses on black-white segregation, despite our nation’s growing ethnic diversity and significant challenges facing Latinos, Asians, and Native Americans.)

Discrimination constrains minorities’ housing search.  The most recent national paired-testing study of housing market discrimination finds that minority homeseekers (blacks, Latinios, and Asians) are still told about and shown fewer homes and apartments than equally qualified whites. These subtle forms of discrimination limit minorities’ information about available housing options and raise their costs of search. But discrimination today rarely takes the form of outright denial of access to housing in predominantly white neighborhoods. So although discrimination remains a serious problem, it cannot account for the high levels of segregation in most metropolitan housing markets.

Advertising and information sources may limit housing choices. A small number of studies (all conducted over a decade ago) suggest that homes in majority-black neighborhoods are advertised quite differently than similarly priced homes in predominantly white neighborhoods and that blacks and whites rely on different sources of information and employ different search strategies. But all these studies were completed before the widespread use of the internet in real estate marketing and information gathering. So we don’t know whether disparities in information sources and search strategies between minorities and whites play any significant role in the perpetuation of segregation today. This is an area where we really need to learn more (and Maria Krysan is currently leading a HUD-funded study that will do just that).

Affordability barriers contribute to racial and ethnic segregation. Whites on average have higher incomes and wealth (due in part to past patterns of discrimination and segregation) and can therefore afford to live in neighborhoods that are out of reach for many minorities. But these economic differences can only account for a modest share of the segregation that remains today, particularly between blacks and whites. If households were distributed across neighborhoods entirely on the basis of income (regardless of race or ethnicity), levels of black-white segregation would be dramatically lower.  So affordability plays a role but it’s definitely not the whole story.

Most minority homeseekers prefer mixed neighborhoods.  Some people argue that neighborhood segregation today is largely a matter of choice – that minorities prefer to live in neighborhoods where their own race or ethnicity predominates and choose not to move to white neighborhoods.  And indeed, the evidence confirms that the average black person’s ideal neighborhood has more blacks living in it than the average white person’s ideal neighborhood, that few blacks want to be the first to move into a white neighborhood, and that most blacks prefer neighborhoods where their own race accounts for about half the population. 

But few blacks actually express a preference for living in predominantly black neighborhoods and it’s difficult to disentangle a positive preference for living among other black families from fear of hostility from white neighbors. Surveys suggest that many blacks are hesitant to move to predominantly white neighborhoods primarily because of concerns about hostility – concerns that have been painfully reinforced by the shooting of Trayvon Martin.

Many whites avoid neighborhoods with large or growing minority populations.Considerable evidence suggests that the choices of white people play a major role in perpetuating neighborhood segregation. First, very few whites express any interest in moving into neighborhoods that are predominantly minority, probably in large part because predominantly minority neighborhoods have been deprived of the public and private investments that comparable white neighborhoods enjoy. In other words, the legacy of past discrimination and disinvestment puts most minority neighborhoods at a significant disadvantage from the perspective of white homeseekers for whom alternative choices abound.

But many whites are also unwilling to move to (or remain in) neighborhoods with smaller, but significant or rising, minority shares. To some extent, this reflects old-fashioned prejudice – an aversion to minority neighbors. And for some whites, living in an area with neighbors of color may be seen as an indicator of lower social status. But survey evidence suggests that these attitudes have declined over recent decades and today very few neighborhoods (at least in metro areas) remain exclusively white, suggesting that most white households have accepted having at least some minority neighbors.

Nonetheless, many white people fear that a substantial minority presence will inevitably lead to the neighborhood becoming predominantly minority, with a subsequent downward spiral of declining property values, disinvestment, and crime. These fears cause them to avoid moving into mixed neighborhoods and, in some cases, to flee as minorities move into neighborhoods where they live. This avoidance by whites of neighborhoods that probably look especially welcoming to minority homeseekers leads to resegregation and reinforces everybody’s expectations about racial tipping. 

Given the complexity – and subtlety – of the processes sustaining residential segregation in urban America today, how should public policy respond?  In my view, there can be no question that public intervention is essential. But the solutions have to be both nuanced and multi-faceted, addressing the interacting barriers of discrimination, information gaps, affordability constraints, prejudice, and fear.


Cashin, Sheryll. 2004. The Failures of Integration: How Race and Class Undermine America’s Dream. New York: PublicAffairs.

Charles, Camille Zubrinksy. 2005. “Can We Live Together? Racial Preferences and Neighborhood Outcomes,” in Xavier de Souza Briggs, ed., The Geography of Opportunity: Race and Housing Choice in Metropolitan America. Washington, D.C.: Brookings Institution Press.

Ellen, Ingrid Gould. 2008. “Continuing Isolation: Segregation in America Today.”  In Segregation: The Rising Costs for America, edited by James H. Carr and Nandinee K. Kutty (261-277). New York: Routledge.

Krysan, Maria. 2002. “Community Undesirability in Black and White: Examining Racial Residential Preferences through Community Perceptions.” Social Problems. 49(4):521-543.

Krysan, Maria. 2002. “Whites Who Say They’d Flee: Who Are They, and Why Would They Leave?” Demography. 39(4):675-696.

Krysan, Maria and Reynolds Farley. 2002. “The Residential Preferences of Blacks: Do They Explain Persistent Segregation?” Social Forces 80(3):937-980.

Margery Austin Turner is Senior Vice President for Program Planning and Management at the Urban Institute. Her areas of expertise include urban policy and neighborhood issues.

More in Discussion 3: Ending Segregation: Our Progress Today