Thursday, October 25, 2007

Race for Home

How would you like to live in a neighborhood of 30 homes, where 20 houses were home to white families, 4 to blacks, 4 to Hispanics, and one to Asians?

Sounds good to me. Sound good to you? Or not? The answer might depend on what race you are And it might not break the way you expect.

Reynolds Farley and his students did studies on black and white preferences in the 1990s. Most black and white Americans would like to live in an integrated neighborhood. The most common African-American preference would be for the neighborhood to be 50% black. Most white Americans would prefer their neighborhood to be no more than about 15% black. You can see the problem -- neighborhoods passing the 15% black threshold are more attractive to African Americans, but less attractive to whites; such neighborhoods tend not to stabilize at 50% black, but keep going to nearly all black.

Since the Farley studies were published, the nation has gotten more diverse, so much so that most researchers would not limit their studies to just black/white integration. This is a good development. The more people see that the options are not just black and white, the harder it is to think of a single tipping point that would make a neighborhood head to all one group or another.

[Hat tip]

But it might be more complicated than that. The sociological study reported on here "found that race and class may be more important than the actual levels of disorder in shaping how whites, blacks and Latinos perceive the health of a neighborhood."

As the proportion of black residents in a neighborhood increased, white residents' perception of disorder also soared -- even in neighborhoods that the raters had judged to be no more ramshackle than others with a smaller proportion of black residents. The researchers found the same thing when they looked at the percentage of families living in poverty: In neighborhoods with more poor people, residents perceived more disorder, regardless of the objective condition of the neighborhood.

Much to the researchers' surprise, they saw the same patterns when they looked at the perceptions of black residents. As the percentage of African Americans in the neighborhood increased, the percentage of black residents who judged their neighborhood to be in disarray also rose -- out of proportion to the neighborhood's rating. In fact, the perceptions of blacks were no less likely than those of whites to be negatively affected by an increasing number of black residents.

Among Latinos, the pattern was even starker. They were far more likely than either blacks or whites to be negatively affected by the increased presence of black residents, the researchers found.

What explains these reactions? For Latinos and whites, the answer might seem obvious: racism. Researchers have known for years that new immigrants quickly learn on their arrival to the United States that blacks are a stigmatized group and are to be avoided at all costs. "Latino immigrants therefore may draw too heavily on the presence of blacks as a proxy for disorder," Sampson and Raudenbush wrote.

But racial bias is not the whole answer, claim Sampson and Raudenbush. If it were, why were blacks as likely as whites to see more disorder than was really there?

The answer, they argue, seems to be that blacks had bought into the same negative stereotypes as whites, and have come to associate black neighborhoods -- any black neighborhood -- with decay and dysfunction, regardless of the objective condition of the area.

This stuff can make your head spin.