America's Apartheid and
the Urban Underclass
DOUGLAS S. MASSEY
Although the Kerner Commission of 1968 singled out the ghetto as a fundamental structural factor promoting black poverty in the United States, residential segregation has been overlooked in recent academic debates and policy discussions on the urban underclass. Despite the fact that a large share of African Americans continue to be segregated involuntarily on the basis of race, thinking within the policy establishment has drifted toward the view that race is declining in significance and that black poverty is largely a class-based phenomenon.
Given this emphasis, research into the causes of urban black poverty has focused largely on race-neutral factors such as economic restructuring, family dissolution, education, culture, and welfare. Although researchers often use the terms "ghetto," "ghetto poor," and "ghetto poverty," few see the ghetto itself as something problematic, and few have called for dismantling it as part of a broader attack on urban poverty. Despite its absence from policy discussions, however, residential segregation is not a thing of the past or some neutral fact that can be safely ignored. A large share of black America remains involuntarily segregated, and because life chances are so decisively influenced by where one lives, segregation is deeply implicated in the perpetuation of black poverty.
As a result of their residential segregation, African Americans endure a harsh and extremely disadvantaged environment where poverty, crime, single parenthood, welfare dependency, and educational failure are not only common but all too frequently the norm. Because of the persistence of white prejudice against black neighbors and the continuation of pervasive discrimination in the real estate and banking industries, a series of barriers is placed in the path of black social and geographic mobility. The federal government has not just tolerated this state of affairs; at key junctures over the past several decades it has intervened actively to sustain it. Residential segregation by race is an embedded feature of American life that is deeply institutionalized at all levels of U.S. society, and as long as high levels of racial segregation persist, black poverty will be endemic, and racial divisions will grow.