On Coates and neighborhood disadvantage

I have a new article over at The Week commenting on Ta-Nehisi Coates’s monumental essay “The Case for Reparations.” The idea behind my article is that by making such a compelling case for black reparations, Coates has the indirect effect of also shifting the Overton Window on other, tamer sorts of race-conscious policies. That is, by laying out the historical weight of disadvantage that might warrant reparation payments, Coates also strengthens the legitimacy of considering racial inequality when we craft new housing policy or education reform.

I just wanted to highlight one statistic that I reference in the piece. It comes from Coates’s essay, and is something that I’ve been trying to fully grasp because of how alarming it is. Coates cites research by the sociologist Patrick Sharkey that solidly black middle class families earning $100,000 per year live in the same kinds of neighborhoods as white families earning only $30,000.

Sharkey presented this research at an April conference hosted by the Economic Policy Institute on “Neighborhoods with Concentrated Poverty” (which Coates moderated). He first published it in a journal article called “Spatial Segmentation and the Black Middle Class.” The key insight lies in this graph (click to expand):

Screen Shot 2014-05-28 at 1.36.58 PM

This graph compares the average neighborhood and spatial disadvantage experienced by different racial income groups. Sharkey measures disadvantage based on certain neighborhood characteristics, such as welfare receipt, poverty, unemployment, number of female-headed households, and number of children under 18. (“Spatial disadvantage” is a measure of these same characteristics in surrounding neighborhoods.) A bar that lies above 0 means that that racial income group tends to live in neighborhoods that are more disadvantaged than the national average, while a bar that lies below 0 means that group tends to live in neighborhoods that are less disadvantaged than average.

Sharkey’s findings show that minority families at every income level tend to live in more disadvantaged neighborhoods than their white peers. Particularly noteworthy is the comparison between the highest earning black group (those earning above $100,000) and the lowest earning whites (those earning below $30,000). Whites earning below $30,000 nonetheless tend to live in neighborhoods with less disadvantage than average. Yet despite solidly middle class incomes, blacks earning at least $100,000 tend to live in neighborhoods with higher than average disadvantage. That is: on average, whites earning only $30,000 live in better neighborhoods than blacks earning $100,000.

The reasons for this troubling finding are unclear, but are certainly bound up in our history of discriminatory housing policy that Coates recalls. Regardless, Sharkey’s findings have important policy implications.

For instance, some propose shifting away from school admissions policies that consider students’ race to a policies that look at socioeconomic indicators like household income. I myself have written favorably of K-12 school desegregation plans like Berkeley’s that do something similar, by using other proxies beside an individual student’s race.

But if we look solely at household income, such policies would not capture the full extent of the disadvantage experienced by even high-earning black families. “Children in black middle-class neighborhoods often are raised in close proximity to areas where violence is concentrated, where schools are of poor quality, where gang activity is common, and where economic opportunities are sparse,” Sharkey explains (at 908-09). Because of this, “advances in economic status made by middle-class black parents are precarious, and the risk for downward social or economic mobility is high.”

It’s essential, therefore, that we also keep in mind the broader characteristics of our neighborhoods — the context that children are raised in and the disadvantage they experience therein. After all, redlining wasn’t mapped out one house at a time; it was crudely grafted around certain neighborhoods. That’s the perverse housing legacy that remains with us today.

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