Understanding Modern Segregation: Suburbanization and the Black Middle Class

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2008-06-12

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A new sociological phenomenon exists: middle class African Americans are moving to suburban areas and many are moving to majority black neighborhoods and developing majority black communities. This challenges common thinking among social scientists and policymakers who make broad assumptions that concentrations of African Americans are inherently problematic.

This project distinguishes the involuntary segregation and concentration of the black poor from those who choose to live in racially concentrated communities. Those in the middle class who choose to live in majority black neighborhoods may do so for several reasons, including social institutions, political incorporation, ethnically responsive commercial development, and their individual preferences for integration. It focuses on majority-black Prince George's County, Maryland, a prominent example of this phenomenon, and compares those homeowners there with those in predominately white neighborhoods in neighboring Montgomery County.

The research hypothesizes that those who choose predominately black neighborhoods do so because these neighborhoods give them access to cultural or physical amenities associated with African American culture and the comfort of living with other African Americans, and also that those who live in predominately black neighborhoods differ from those that live in predominately white neighborhoods in their preferences for those amenities specific to a majority African American neighborhood and those amenities that often exist in majority white neighborhoods.

These questions are addressed through several methods: the analysis of national housing data to describe the extent of African American middle class suburbanization, site visits and historical analysis of both counties, and semi-structured interviews of middle-class African American residents to provide reasons why they live in the neighborhoods that they have chosen. The study includes 50 respondents: 38 in Prince George's and 12 in Montgomery.

The findings that some prefer African American neighborhoods have several potential policy implications, including a shift in housing policy from a focus on racial integration to one of economic integration and community development. More specifically, it argues for a particular focus on education reform, economic development and the promotion of responsible commercial development in predominately black neighborhoods, and it points toward considering the benefit of racial/cultural amenities in existing poverty deconcentration efforts.

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