To Better Understand Segregation, Look at Social Networks

The classic understanding of segregation only tells some of the story.

A New Deal-era map of Chicago illustrates the practice that became known as redlining. Redlining was responsible for much of the segregation that occurred in American cities, but isn't enough to explain its persistence, two sociologists argue. (Image: Mapping Inequality)

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Fifty years after the passage of the Fair Housing Act, residential segregation remains entrenched in U.S. cities — and explanations for segregation’s persistence haven’t changed much either.

The classic understanding of segregation goes something like this: First, the socioeconomic gap between whites and people of color sorts them into different neighborhoods based on what they can afford. Second, people just prefer to live around others who share their race. And third, even if a person of color wants to and can afford to move elsewhere, they may be blocked by overt discriminatory practices.

Social psychologist Maria Krysan and urban demographer Kyle Crowder don’t disagree that all three forces are at play. But over years of studying residential segregation, they grew frustrated with these limits of these explanations. None fully acknowledge the role of the federal government in creating segregation, and in their research, Krysan and Crowder found those explanations don’t seem to reflect people’s lived experience. For one thing, those explanations treat people as totally rational actors, making housing choices based on an unbiased supply of information.

“Honestly… we had privileged white men who kind of laid out the first explanations for residential segregation,” says Crowder, who is based at the University of Washington. “They were really urban economists more than anything and wanted to view everything through that economic lens.”

In their new book Cycle of Segregation: Social Processes and Residential Stratification, Krysan and Crowder argue that the classic model ignores the role of social networks and the vast array of preconceptions people have before they even start their housing search. Decades of segregation have hardened the effects of all three forces, and shaped people’s knowledge of cities, so that Americans of different races start their searches from very different places.

“It’s not just a matter of pulling up the Craigslist ads and finding places that my pocketbook can afford,” says Krysan, a sociologist at the University of Illinois at Chicago. “There’s this whole process, even before you start to search, that’s informed by your social network and the perceptions that you have about your metropolitan area.”

For the book, Krysan and Crowder drew on previous research and conducted interviews with Chicago residents. They created huge, table-sized maps of Chicago and asked participants to identify places they’d lived, worked, gone to school — which parts of the city they knew, and which they didn’t. Some of their impressions of the city were random. Maybe they’d gotten off the freeway at the wrong exit and thought, this is a cute neighborhood. Most were socially inscribed. They knew about parts of the city because a cousin had lived here, a sibling there.

And many were racialized. White respondents associated communities of color with poor schools and crime. Respondents of color assumed they were unwelcome in largely white suburbs. People discounted whole swaths of the city either because they didn’t know anything about them, or because they assumed they knew based on preconceived notions of race and class.

“It’s just stuff that you carry around with you it becomes part of you it becomes baked into your decision making,” says Crowder. “It’s kind of a socialization process.”

As a result, the researchers say, when people look for housing, their imagination of the city is already shaped by segregation. “You’re working in a context that’s cemented segregation,” says Krysan. “So just by virtue of wanting to live near your friends and family, if you’re in a segregated place that’s often going to mean you’re going to move to places that are just as segregated as where you might have been before.”

This matters, say the researchers, because it means that even if you could wave a wand and eliminate those three original factors — economics, preferences, and discrimination — segregation would live on. Most policies to promote integration have taken aim at one of those three. But take discrimination, for example. It leaves a legacy that’s larger than a single act of prejudice. The Fair Housing Act may have made overt discrimination illegal, but one black family denied by one white landlord may tell friends and family, and their experience will ripple out into the community. Krysan spoke to people who wouldn’t consider moving to certain parts of Chicago because of racist actions that had taken place decades ago.

Trying to dismantle preconceived notions, to expand people’s imagined map of the city, may seem like a Sisyphean task. But in their book, Krysan and Crowder point to all kinds of subtle and not-so-subtle programs that try to do just that. Many are already being implemented. The Baltimore Mobility Program, for example, organizes bus tours for housing voucher holders, to show them what kinds of neighborhoods exist beyond their familiar circles, and encourage them to look outside of high-poverty areas.

The Oak Park Regional Housing Center, outside of Chicago, has been even more explicit in their attempt to break down potential residents’ perceptions about race. Recognizing that white home seekers would gravitate to the largely white parts of town, and black home seekers to the largely black parts of town, the OPRHC began offering one-on-one counseling to all potential residents. Krysan and Crowder write that the program has been a success: “Out of approximately 3,500 clients each year, about 1,000 end up moving into Oak Park. Of those, about 70 percent move into an area or apartment building where their own racial group does not predominate.”

If these don’t seem like typical HUD policies, they’re not. But they could have been. Krysan and Crowder say that the Affirmatively Furthering Fair Housing rule was moving cities in the right direction. Before the Trump administration announced it would delay implementation of the rule, which would have required cities to prove they’re working to end segregation, the researchers say cities submitted some pretty innovative ideas, many of them inspired by housing advocates’ work on the ground.

“Being intentional about undermining some of those gaps in people’s knowledge and kind of re-educating folks on what opportunities exist in these neighborhoods, those kinds of things are very different from anything that HUD has ever enforced,” says Crowder. “It would be wonderful if we could actually see what kind of impact they would have.”

Though the federal government will no longer enforce the rule, cities could still take matters into their own hands. “I’m actually quite hopeful about this because of what we’ve seen with things like climate change and immigration,” says Crowder. “Localities will be the leaders in these kinds of things instead of following the federal government.”

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Jen Kinney is a freelance writer and documentary photographer. Her work has also appeared in Philadelphia Magazine, High Country News online, and the Anchorage Press. She is currently a student of radio production at the Salt Institute of Documentary Studies. See her work at

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Tags: chicagopovertyrace

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