Poverty and Discrimination: Notes on 'American Apartheid.' (by Douglas Massey and Nancy Denton)

By Farber, Daniel A. | Constitutional Commentary, Winter 1994 | Go to article overview

Poverty and Discrimination: Notes on 'American Apartheid.' (by Douglas Massey and Nancy Denton)


Farber, Daniel A., Constitutional Commentary


Issues involving race, poverty, and discrimination are the

daily fare of constitutional scholars, yet few of us have time to

keep up with the social science research on these topics. At

erratic intervals, Constitutional Commentary has published

brief updates on this research in the But Cf section. What follows

is a contribution to this irregular series of communiques

from the research front.

American Apartheid: Segregation and the Making of the Underclass, by Douglas Massey and Nancy Denton, is a significant recent contribution to the literature on race and poverty. It offers an interesting synthesis of conservative and liberal ideas about the underclass, though the final product has a distinctly liberal slant.(1)

Briefly, Massey and Denton view residential segregation as the key to understanding the current status of American blacks in general and of the black underclass in particular. They view segregation as primarily attributable to white avoidance of (and discrimination against) blacks, rather than black solidarity. The result of residential segregation is that blacks are disproportionately concentrated in closed urban communities. Even without this concentration, blacks would still be at an economic disadvantage due to a comparative lack of skills and education. But residential segregation concentrates disadvantaged blacks in clusters where problems like unemployment, lack of education, crime, and illegitimacy become not merely individual problems but self-reinforcing community characteristics.

Even readers who are unpersuaded by this argument will find the book an invaluable source of empirical information. Some of the most interesting evidence in the book consists of a comparison of blacks with other minority groups.(2) Nationally, "[d]espite their immigrant origins, Spanish language, and high poverty rates, Hispanics are considerably more integrated in U.S. society than are blacks." Unlike blacks, "within most metropolitan areas, Hispanics and Asians are more likely to share a neighborhood with whites than with another member of their own group." For example, in San Francisco, where the three groups are about the same size, an index of racial isolation--where a score of 100% means that every black lives in an entirely black neighborhood for example--placed blacks at 51%, compared with 19% and 23% for Hispanics and Asians(3) respectively. In general, Massey and Denton report, "[n]o other group in the contemporary United States comes close to this level of isolation within urban society."

Most notably, for blacks as opposed to Hispanics or Asians, higher income does not translate into residential integration. Hispanics and Asians become progressively more integrated as their income and education rises. Not so for blacks. Social class plays a relatively minor role in explaining black segregation. In Los Angeles, for example, the largest barrio in the country, "the poorest Hispanics were less segregated than the most affluent blacks." Even affluent blacks are more likely than members of other groups to live in neighborhoods and attend schools with substantial numbers of the poor. "For blacks, in other words, high incomes do not buy entree to residential circumstances that can serve as springboards for future socioeconomic mobility; in particular, blacks are unable to achieve a school environment conducive to later academic success."(4)

Massey and Denton argue that the differences in segregation can affect the entire character of the community. A telling example comes from a study of the North Lawndale neighborhood on the West Side of Chicago. This neighborhood, we are told, contains 48 state lottery agents, 50 currency exchanges, and 99 licensed bars and liquor stores, but only one bank and one supermarket for a population of some 50,000." The comparison with a Hispanic neighborhood is worth quoting:

In contrast, Mexican Americans in Chicago are considerably

less segregated, and their core neighborhood of Little Village,

immediately adjacent to North Lawndale, remained a

beehive of commercial activity through the 1970s and 1980s

despite the economic recession. …

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