A New Lens on Segregation: Understanding How People End Up Living Where They Do

February 13, 2018

In Cycle of Segregation, a recent book from the Russell Sage Foundation, authors Maria Krysan and Kyle Crowder examine how everyday social processes shape residential stratification today. Past neighborhood experiences, social networks, and daily activities all affect the mobility patterns of different racial groups in ways that have cemented segregation as a self-perpetuating cycle in the twenty-first century.

In their chapter “A New Lens on Segregation,” Krysan and Crowder discuss how analyses of segregation that focus solely on large-scale factors such as economic inequality and racial discrimination can often overlook some of “the more subtle factors that affect how people end up living where they do.” Krysan and Crowder draw from interviews with home-seekers to understand the decision-making processes that shape people’s searches for housing, and show how these processes inadvertently help perpetuate residential segregation. As they point out, “searchers are not robots”—that is, people rarely decide where to live based on complete information and rational choice. The authors argue that people’s searches for housing are instead guided by what they call “social structural sorting.”

According to this framework, people’s housing searches unfold across a multi-step process. As the figure below shows, each stage of an individual’s housing search is informed by social dynamics that tend to go unrecognized in popular explanations of segregation. Before people even begin actively looking for housing, their options are already filtered by the pre-search phase, which Krysan and Crowder describe as the combination of experiences that provide individuals with direct exposure to certain neighborhoods. Someone who grew up on the Upper East Side in Manhattan and works in the Financial District, for example, may not think or even know about many neighborhoods in outer boroughs when considering places to live in the New York City area. Similarly, someone who has primarily lived and worked in Brownsville, Brooklyn may perceive that certain Manhattan neighborhoods are unaffordable or discriminatory, and will filter them out of their search.

Because historical segregation has shaped peoples’ past experiences, even seemingly race-neutral decisions in choosing where to live help reinforce the cycle of residential stratification. As Crowder explained in a recent interview with Colorlines, when we look for housing, “we’re not viewing all of the neighborhoods within our metropolitan area. Instead, we’re choosing within a limited set of neighborhoods, and the set of neighborhoods we actually examine and consider within that residential mobility process is a function of our daily lives, our social networks, and our residential experiences.”

Read more about Cycle of Segregation or purchase a copy of the book.

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