Sunday, January 15, 2012

Classism and Residential Segregation

Whether a city is a metropolitan center or a suburb; whether it is in the North or South; whether the Negro population is large or small—in every case, white and Negro households are highly segregated from each other.  
- from Residential Segregation and Neighborhood Change
Homes in a lower class neighborhood
The neighborhood in which I lived most of my teen years is in a state of...varied development to say the least. I suppose the neighborhood could be described as the “hood” or the "projects" or the “ghetto.” Either way, it is marked by poverty. Slowly but surely the groups of once-inhabited old homes are being torn down and new ones are being built or being replaced by huge apartment communities. It is a wonderful thing to see, but who exactly are these homes and apartment communities being built for? They do not look like anything the people in my neighborhood could afford to buy or rent.

To the east of the neighborhood, the city erected the new $480 million Amway Arena less than 15 minutes away. The only thing separating the arena from the rest of the neighborhood is a two-lane street (literally). I wonder how long it will be before the homes on the other side of the street are vacated and demolished to make way for more attractive venues. A couple of clothing stores, perhaps? Maybe some nice restaurants (Thai please!)?

Luxurious home in an upper class neighborhood
Then there are the more affluent neighborhoods located to north of my neighborhood. I came upon their existence (like Columbus—except I didn’t spread syphilis to the “indigenous” peoples, steal anyone’s land, or call it the “new neighborhood”) a couple of years ago while taking a different route as I was returning home to visit my parents from college. The houses were absolutely gorgeous, not to mention quite spacious from the looks of them. It was a huge difference from the tiny homes I was used to. The ironic part was that these neighborhoods were on or connected to exactly the same street my home was located on (go figure!). I thought to myself, “So, this is what classism has led to: residential segregation.”

The lower class has been pushed into down-trodden neighborhoods where the crime rate can be high at times, nearby schools are less than mediocre, and police are continuously on patrol. These types of neighborhoods are known as the “hood” or as the “ghetto” (at least that’s what they were called years ago) to blacks and their level of poverty, violence, and racial make-up varies from one city to another. Although the term “ghetto” has transitioned into an adjective (“Look at this ghetto-ass nigga”) it was actually a noun that was used to describe certain areas inhabited by minorities. But the term did not begin as a euphemism for black neighborhoods. Ghettos can be traced back to the separate living quarters for Jews in Europe as early as the Middle Ages (Hutchinson & Haynes, 2012). Ghettos were once again established in New York with the migration of Jews beginning in the 19th century (Wirth, 1928). The difference between the Jewish ghettos and the black ghettos is that the Jewish ghettos were only an initial settlement for newly arrived Jewish immigrants. Jews left the ghetto once they were able to prosper economically making way for new immigrants. Most minorities today, on the other hand, cannot seem to leave the ghettos they are living in. They seem destined to remain a member of the lower class.

Classism justifies class divisions by portraying class inequalities as naturally ordained and that those who make it to the top are ridiculously gifted and talented (Perrucci & Wysong, 2008). Not only does this view contribute to the perception that poverty exists because the poor are lazy, but it also spreads the false idea that God chooses who will be wealthy and who will be poor no matter the societal circumstances. This view has been ingrained in American society since the very beginning. “The founders believed a Christian God ordained riches through providence to those who worked hard” (Lui, Hernandez, Mahmood, & Stinson, 2006, p. 66). The true nature of wealth disparities is overlooked (or purposefully ignored), which is the value of whiteness. From the workplace, to schools and even the housing industry, the whiteness of whites still carries power.

View of a "ghetto"
This value of whiteness is clearly evident when looking at African-Americans and minorities and the housing industry. African-Americans are the most segregated minority group (O’Connor, Tilly, & Bobo, 2001; Taeuber & Taeuber, 2009). Stemming from the lack of opportunities afforded to minorities due to racism, they simply cannot afford to own homes in the types of neighborhoods that whites are able to (O’Connor, Tilly, & Bobo, 2001). It may also result from how African-Americans lower property values. If a neighborhood is constituted of more than 10% black residents, then the homes in that area decrease by at least 16% (Shapiro, 2004).

Minority groups tend to be of the lower class while more whites constitute middle to upper class societies. That is not to say blacks are incapable of climbing the socioeconomic ladder or that poor whites do not exist. But even middle to upper class blacks are more than likely to live in neighborhoods with other black of the same economic backgrounds (O’Connor, Tilly, & Bobo, 2001). Lower class minorities tend to be quartered off in neighborhoods where they do not have to be acknowledged by the rest of society. Many of the current “hoods” or “ghettos” were once occupied by whites several decades prior (Taeuber & Taeuber, 2009). As whites took advantage of their upward mobility, they left behind their former houses and neighborhoods for better ones. Blacks picked up these “hand-me-down homes” although many of them are not owned but rented out.

Blacks and other minorities are likely to rent their homes or an apartment in a less affluent neighborhood not only because many cannot afford to own, but they are also discriminated against in the housing industry (what else is new?). Discrimination plays a big role in residential segregation in two ways. The first is in minorities’ knowledge of how their ethnic/race group will be perceived by whites. Blacks and Hispanics are more likely to stay away from predominantly white neighborhoods because they are aware they will be met with hostility (O’Connor, Tilly, & Bobo, 2001). If you allow one Black and/or Hispanic family to enter the community then more will surely follow and then there goes the neighborhood. Second, are the discriminating policies against minority groups in the mortgage lending industry. “Black and Hispanic applicants were 80% more likely to be turned down for mortgages than white applicants with the same personal and property characteristics” (Moran, 2008, p. 34). (What happened to the Fair Housing Act of 1968?). This substantially reduces minority individuals’ ability to purchase a home even if they can afford one. It prevents individuals from gaining access to one of the most recognizable wealth-building assets: ownership of property.

Homes in a middle class neighborhood
I should acknowledge here that residential segregation not only occurs on a black-white basis or minority-white basis, but occurs within ethnic/racial groups as well. Middle-to-upper class blacks/minorities are residentially segregated from lower-class blacks/minorities. Middle-to-upper class whites are also residentially segregated from lower-class whites. No one wants to deal with the poor...unless of course one of them is coming in to perform housekeeping duties or coming in to raise the children of an affluent couple.

Additionally, there are groups within each class who are residentially segregated from one another due to race or culture. For instance, although both a black and white family may be of the lower class, they are unlikely to live next to each other. The same goes for Haitians who, if living in a black neighborhood, are likely to live in homes that are next to eachother. Blacks and Hispanics of the lower class are more comfortable living next to each other because of their minority status than they would be living next to whites. Even though certain ethnic and racial groups may share the same economic class, they still hold preconceived notions about each other (with blacks always being the underdogs) adopted from a society heavily influenced by white thoughts and values.

Americans can try as much as they can to deny that this country is not classist, but the truth is apparent. Classism has helped to spur racial segregation, but now it also contributes to residential segregation by “hiding away” the poor. Residential segregation has even caused disunity within ethnic/racial groups. The only time that class was not obvious was during the years of segregation. And even then only blacks could say that class did not exist as they were all placed together no matter how much money they earned. But after the Civil Rights Movement, more opportunities were granted to blacks and they fled their one skin-tone neighborhoods in exchange for white suburban neighborhoods. But those living in the “hood” (or “ghetto” if you prefer) should not fret. It is God’s will for certain people to live in poverty. Take comfort in that...


Hutchinson, R. & Haynes, B. D. (2012). The ghetto: Contemporary global issues and controversies. Boulder, CO: Westview Press.

Liu, W. M., Hernandez, J., Mahmood, A., &Stinson, R. (2006). Linking poverty, classism, and racism in mental health: Overcoming barriers to multicultural competency. In M. G. Constantine & D. V. Sue (Eds.), Addressing racism: Facilitating cultural competence in mental health and education settings (pp. 65-86). Hoboken, NJ: John Wiley & Sons.

Moran, N. (Ed.). (2008). Race and wealth disparities: A multidisciplinary discourse. Lanham, MD: University Press of America. O’Connor, A., Tilly, C., & Bobo, L. (Eds.). (2001). Urban equality: Evidence from four cities. New York, NY: Russell Sage Foundation.

Perrucci, R. & Wysong, E. (2008). New class society: Goodbye American dream? (3 ed.). Lanham, MD: Rowman & Littlefield.

Shapiro, T. M. (2004). The hidden cost of being African-American: How wealth perpetuates inequality. New York, NY: Oxford University Press.

Taeuber, K. E. & Taeuber, A. F. (2009). Residential segregation and neighborhood change. Chicago, IL: Aldine Publishing Co.

Wirth, L. (1998). The ghetto. Chicago, IL: University of Chicago Press.


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