negative space
white spatial perceptions and the evolution of racial segregation in the 21st century

This project focuses on the social forces that shape residential segregation in the 21st century. I concentrate on the process that households use to search for homes because I argue that process provides key insights into segregation. White households influence the segregated housing market more than others because they enter the process of searching for homes being unfamiliar with and averse to moving to neighborhoods with more than a token number of non-white neighbors.

Negro children standing in front of half mile concrete wall, Detroit, Michigan. This wall was built in August 1941, to separate the Negro section from a white housing development going up on the other side; segregation happens now by much less blatant means (John Vachon, Library of Congress)

I find the concept of negative space, adapted from art composition, helpful in describing how whites perpetuate segregation by imputing unfavorable characteristics on integrated neighborhoods. Negative space, in an artistic sense, is the space that artists leave unadorned that often fades to the background but that nevertheless shapes how one interprets the active space on which viewers focus. The dark space of buildings that surrounds the diners of Edward Hopper's Nighthawks, for example, provides a powerful sense of isolation. I argue that whites' perceptions of integrated neighborhoods lead them to not consider integrated neighborhoods and that this inaction shapes contemporary segregation.

I work across three scales in this research. At the largest scale, I worked with Siri Warkentien to develop an innovative approach to study how neighborhood racial and ethnic segregation has changed since Congress passed Civil Rights legislation in the 1960s. We studied change over four decades, (two decades longer than most other studies) and found found that about a third of neighborhoods in and around America's largest cities were in the process of "gradual succession" in which the rate of black, Latino, or Asian growth was far exceeding that of other groups and that would lead to the segregation of the neighborhood. This estimate was much higher than other studies have estimated. But, previous studies also missed a more hopeful tale as well: the degree to which the suburbs of all four metropolitan areas contain stably integrated neighborhoods based on maps of neighborhoods that followed each trajectory.

Households undertaking a housing search face an arduous process of finding a home that requires distilling tens of thousands of options to a single choice. With an overabundance of options, information often defines the parameters of where households search. With Maria Krysan, I have explored the factors that influence the actual neighborhoods that people in Detroit and Chicago would consider when searching for a home. We find that whites would reject living in neighborhoods with larger proportions of black and Latino residents and that whites even knew less about neighborhoods with more black and Latino residents, making integrated neighborhoods unlikely search destinations for white households. These influences persist after controlling for housing costs and school test scores, as well as violent and property crime rates in the different neighborhoods. We also controlled for the distance to the community, a control that measures the legacy of past discrimination.

At the smallest geographic scale, I am studying how people acquire the information and perceptions that they use in the housing market. Working with Annette Lareau and Shani Evans, I have shown that white, middle-class parents in gentrifying neighborhoods accumulated social capital by interacting with other parents at playgrounds, birthday parties, and other routine gatherings in neighborhoods. The interactions in exclusive neighborhood spaces resulted in parents considering a limited set of options that funneled families with children either to enroll in a small number of schools in the central city school district or to move to a small number of suburban neighborhoods, thereby perpetuating school and neighborhood inequality.

I am studying the contribution of births and deaths to patterns of neighborhood segregation. As whites age in places that integrate around them, and as blacks, Latinos, and Asians increasingly move to neighborhoods where those older whites live, natural decrease (among whites) and increase (among non-whites) could play a substantial role in the gradual racial succession of neighborhoods. This pattern of racial cohort change can help explain suburbs like Ferguson where, in 2010, a third of black residents were 18 or younger (compared to 14% of whites) and twenty percent of whites were 65 and older (compared to 6% of blacks).

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