Intention vs. Impact

Yesterday, the Supreme Court ruled that an important component of the Fair Housing Act of 1968, which protects against housing discrimination, still stands. They upheld a lower court ruling that allowed disparate impact claims. As Vox explains:

A disparate impact claim means that regardless of intent, a law results in discrimination. This means that appellants only have to prove that a law’s impact results in discrimination, and not the additional claim that the writers of the law intended it to have that impact.

This idea, that impact matters regardless of intent, is critical to dismantling structural racism in the United States. We are not able to rely on an assessment of whether an individual or institution intends to be racist, because “agencies and businesses seldom announce that they are engaging in purposeful discrimination,” Adam Liptak explained in the New York Times. “’Disparate impact,’ on the other hand, can be proved using statistics.” Intention is particularly hard to measure because most people carry around unconscious or implicit bias. You may not know that your decisions and actions are often tainted by prejudice, but not consciously intending that prejudice does not mean there is no impact. Impact is compounded when bias goes beyond the individual level and drives the practices and policies of organizations and systems, leading to, for example, high levels of residential segregation even though housing and real estate discrimination is illegal.

This ruling is important because residential segregation is a huge barrier to an equitable infrastructure of opportunity in the US. As we said in a recent post about the high costs of transit and housing, where you live has a major impact on your access to a quality education and good jobs:

In the South, the typical metro resident can only access 26 percent of that metro’s jobs within 90 minutes via transit—lower than any other region. For suburban metro residents in the South, it’s less than 20 percent. And jobs near high-poverty neighborhoods have declined substantially since 2000 in most US and Southern metros, especially for many high-poverty suburban Southern neighborhoods.

Earlier this week, a study by Sean Reardon at Stanford Graduate School of Education showed that regardless of income, black and Hispanic families live in neighborhoods with lower median income levels than white and Asian families. This NYT graphic shows how a moderate-income black family is likely to live in a lower-income neighborhood than a low-income white family is:


Source: New York Times

The study confirms that low-income young people often have very different experiences depending on the neighborhood and the metro that they live in:

Low-income households in the Washington, DC, or Minneapolis, MN, metropolitan areas, for example, are typically located in neighborhoods similar to those of middle- or higher-income households in Atlanta, GA, Los Angeles, CA, and other metropolitan areas. As a result, children growing up in poor households in metropolitan areas such as Washington and Minneapolis may have, on average, more access to high-quality schools and other forms of opportunity than equally poor (or middleclass) children in metropolitan areas such as Atlanta or Los Angeles.

This week’s Supreme Court decision is an important step toward providing equal housing opportunity, but as this 2012 ProPublica investigation showed, we haven’t always made use of the tools at our disposal to push for less housing discrimination. The nation’s highest court has reaffirmed this important legal route for challenging segregation, but there is still a tremendous amount of work needed to ensure all Americans have access to a high-quality infrastructure of opportunity.

Housing, Racial Segregation, and Opportunity

The city and neighborhood you live in have real consequences for your quality of life and your chances of educational and economic success. Race Forward’s Jay Smooth summarized the importance of place in a recent video series on systemic racism, explaining “where you live can help decide what food you eat, what sort of jobs you can get, how safe you are, what sort of healthcare you can get, and the quality of your children’s education.” That may seem obvious, but what’s less obvious to many people is how those dramatic disparities in outcomes by city and neighborhood came to be. We said recently that it’s no accident that communities of color, and particularly black communities, are often the ones lacking opportunity; governmental policies and market practices, supported by discrimination and individual bias, have created those conditions over time.

Last week, Richard Rothstein gave Fresh Air an overview of racist real estate and urban development practices and public policies that created segregation in American cities, including:

  • the Public Works Administration built segregated public housing in previously integrated neighborhoods
  • the Federal Housing Administration guaranteed loans for mass production builders of new subdivisions as long as they didn’t sell homes to African-Americans
  • state licensing boards allowed real estate agents and speculators to frighten white families (by convincing them that their neighborhood was becoming a black slum) into selling their homes for below market-value. These homes were resold to black families, who had access to a restricted housing supply, for much more than they were worth.

Jamelle Bouie explains how the Federal Housing Authority used a racial hierarchy to determine the riskiness of home loans in certain neighborhoods—on their color coded maps, black neighborhoods were red, indicating the highest level of risk. This process of “redlining” meant “loans were either expensive or nonexistent, forcing families to rely on speculators and private sales by unscrupulous homeowners.” Bouie sums up the interaction between institutional and individual bias that enables segregation and the devaluing of black neighborhoods:

These institutions, private and public, didn’t cause racism in housing markets, but they gave it official sanction, which—over time—influenced how individuals understood the value of their homes and neighborhoods. A white neighborhood was a good one; a black neighborhood, a bad one.

We may want to believe that these disturbing policies are a thing of the past, but perceptions of race and class still permeate individual and institutional decisions about who can and should live where. Regardless of economic class, all-white neighborhoods were seen by white people as more desirable. As Brentin Mock explained last week for CityLab, this association that people make between the whiteness of a neighborhood and its safety and value drives continued segregation—and the continued depression of some neighborhoods.

This residential segregation persists in many rural and metro areas, especially in the South, the region of the country with both high levels of diversity and the most recent history of legal segregation. FiveThirtyEight developed an integration-segregation index that takes into account a city’s overall level of diversity as well as its neighborhood level diversity, finding that “cities with substantial black populations tend to be highly segregated.” Of the 100 most populated US cities (they’re looking at metro data next), ten Southern cities—Atlanta, Baton Rouge, New Orleans, Memphis, Miami, Dallas, Birmingham, St. Petersburg, Houston, and Louisville—are in the top 25 most segregated cities. Only five Southern cities, Virginia Beach plus Irving, Arlington, Plano, and Garland TX, are in the 25 least segregated cities. (Check out the Institute for Southern Studies coverage for more).

Segregated neighborhoods mean people have access to systems of opportunity with different levels of quality and different likelihoods of educational and economic success. In many of the South’s sprawling metros, low-income people don’t live near good jobs and they don’t have access to robust public transportation. Preparation for many of those far-away good jobs requires a good education, but according to a recent Urban Institute study, many of the South’s low-income students are concentrated in high-poverty schools that aren’t well-resourced. In Mecklenburg County (Charlotte), NC, one of the places with the lowest economic mobility in the nation, 49 percent of black children are in high-poverty schools, compared to only 6 percent of white children.

UI map

Source: Urban Institute

Continued residential segregation and the economic inequality that segregation exacerbates aren’t just a problem for people of color—although it unquestionably impacts them the most. PolicyLink’s Equity Atlas projects that the South’s economy would be $915 billion larger, an almost 20 percent increase, if there were no racial gaps in income. And as we learned from the most recent Equality of Opportunity Project study, communities that have better outcomes for low-income young people also have better outcomes for high-income young people. As Southerners seek to build a stronger infrastructure of opportunity, one which has reliable options for all young people, regardless of race, class, or neighborhood, we have to dismantle these systems of economic exploitation and stratification, which have relied on racism to justify their continuation for far too long.

Where You Live Matters: Concentrated Wealth Affects Mobility

Where you start in life affects where you get—educationally and economically—in a big way. In sprawling metros of the South, residential segregation influences school quality, housing options, and transportation, and a disconnect often exists between low- and moderate-income neighborhoods and the location of good jobs. Economic segregation is deeply intertwined with racial segregation in the South, so the impact of this geographic divide disproportionately affects people of color.

An Equality of Opportunity Project study on the geography of economic mobility found that areas with low mobility tend to have high levels of residential economic segregation, and last week, the Martin Prosperity Institute released a report on residential economic segregation in U.S. metros. They found that economic segregation is generally higher in big, dense cities, and it’s also higher in knowledge economies. In these cities, there are rarely pathways for workers to move into high-wage jobs, and residential segregation by educational level and occupation worsens social isolation. Physical and geographic distance makes it harder for people to identify job openings and training opportunities; with this information gap, it’s even hard to figure out what skills are required for those jobs. Job requirements change rapidly, especially in high-tech and knowledge economies, making it especially important for young people to be connected to social networks with information about emerging skill requirements—and opportunities to develop them.