Note: an earlier draft had accidentally been published over the final version. This is the correct version.
There’s been a long discussion about whether new subsidized housing projects should focus in existing minority communities or whether they should be placed in white and affluent neighborhoods. A lot of the anti-gentrification nonprofit organizations seem to have quietly endorsed the former as an anti-gentrification strategy, while the technocrats and researchers still praise the idea of integration through mixing housing projects in exclusionary neighborhoods.
Every single piece of data we have suggests that racial integration is not happening in the United States. So the debate about integration remains largely academic and theoretical. The Bay Area today is more racially segregated than it was in 1970. Most neighborhoods in the United States more segregated than they were in 1990. And schools today are more segregated than they were during the 1960s Civil Rights Movement.
These are the conditions in which the Obama Administration decided to pursue affirmatively furthering fair housing, in which areas identified as exclusionary would be encouraged to adopt upzonings and low income housing development to integrate them. This rule was suspended by Donald Trump who effectively ran on an explicit NIMBY campaign as his number 2 issue, but was restored under Biden, who incidentally, got his start in politics in the 1970s pushing for a public housing project in the suburbs.
Integration, to white and liberal readers, may surprise you as a contentious issue but indeed it was and is. I grew up in Berkeley, California which was the first city to integrate its public schools (Vice President Kamala Harris was among them), and having interviewed longtime Black residents on the matter, many were surprisingly not-positive about integration in hindsight. Old folks viewed it as a let down from what was promised, felt it largely ineffective at stemming inequalities and felt the Black community had ceded educational power to largely white teachers and administrators.
This is partially why “de-segregation” has eclipsed “integration” as the common policy objective since forcibly mixing people’s is no longer desired but instead giving people the opportunity to mix if they so desire.
Among anti-gentrification activists and organizations, I’ve noticed this idea that de-segregating white areas by inserting low income housing projects isn’t very important, and that focusing low income housing in historically ethnic enclaves preserves those communities. I don’t have an issue with this, I think preserving these communities with rent stabilized housing is perfectly logical and these organizations are usually based in neighborhoods that need said housing.
However, I’ve come across strands of self-described leftists who go further and appear to think de-segregation and the goals of fair housing is bad and neoliberal altogether. I actually first heard this argument from an anti-development white leftist — who ironically moved to a Black neighborhood (very common) — about why de-segregating white areas is actually anti-Black. He argued that initiatives to allow Black people to live outside of redlined zones is tantamount to saying that Black culture and Black neighborhoods are bad for Black people. That spreading Black people out reduces Black power and Black organizing capacity (this is a white guy).
And if I’m reading through the lines correctly, this is also what this viral tweet is implying as well. It’s benign enough when read charitably (ethnic communities good, but who disputes this?). It may also be implying that people (read: YIMBYs) who support fair housing initiatives are trying to disperse ethnic enclaves. I’ve seen this take more and more among left-wing academics who are particularly critical of historic integration efforts, and this is a good chance to address it.
Firstly, and this is key, neighborhoods and communities are not the same things, and it’s why people who make the aforementioned argument, and even the liberal pro-integration proponents as we’ll get to later, tend to be wrong. People don’t really know their neighbors like that in today’s day and age. According to Pew, a plethora of Americans don’t even know their immediate neighbors and that dwindles considerably among urban dwellers.
A community’s ethnic or racial ecosystem is not confined to a district or a block. Ethnic communities are held together through schools, community centers, religious organizations and political groups. These institutions are not inherently located within a neighborhood. For example, I went to a Black church far away from my neighborhood but it also the primary formation of my community network.
Housing abundance and fair housing does not destroy ethnic enclaves, they’re almost always created in the absence of government regulation. But the difference between legal constraint versus natural aggregations of people is the difference between a redlined ghetto and a safe ethnic enclave.
Landlords will often rent out to their own groups and realtors will often encourage their own people to buy in areas. Not because of prejudice, but because their community is the first to get access to information about housing through language or shared spaces. This is why you can’t hop onto Craigslist and find vacant apartments in Chinatown, because the owners will often advertise in Chinese languages and areas in which a community member will probably get their first. All communities, including whites, will usually find out housing availability from fellow community members first.
There’s a strong Jewish community in many Bay Area cities but there isn’t a Jewish district. There’s many South Asians who live around Silicon Valley, in neighborhoods often inter-dispersed with whites and Chinese, but the community is still so prominent and tight in political, educational and religious assembly.
The Black community in Oakland spreads out over much of the city, and crosses city boundaries into San Leandro and south Berkeley. Primarily because after the Civil Rights Act, Black people were allowed to move into wide swaths of the city. Many middle class and upper middle class Blacks live in the Oakland Hills with white neighbors, while others live in the flatlands with Asian and Latino neighbors.
The Black community exists quite prominently and cohesively, and is not confined to just specific neighborhoods and boundaries. As the co-founder of Black Wall Street San Francisco stated recently about the Black community in San Francisco: “Black San Francisco is not a geographical space.” They’re right.
This argument that de-segregating is destroying ethnic enclaves is something I’ve found particularly patronizing from some leftist critics. The idea that a person suddenly stops being their racial or ethnic identity because their residency is outside an ethnic enclave, is not only offensive, but that’s not how it plays out in practice. It also fundamentally misunderstands why redlining happened to begin with.
Look at contemporary documentaries on integration or read carefully HOLC redlining maps. White people weren’t scared of Black people moving into their community because they thought they’d perfectly assimilate. If anything, that’s the selling point for integration by liberals trying to appease racists. In actuality, they were worried that the inclusion of one Black or non-white person would lead to many more coming, creating non-white communities inside white spaces.
That was the fundamental racism motivating blockbusting, deed-restrictions and state-sponsored redlining. Prohibiting people of color from owning land and expanding throughout cities and regions, is what confined the strength, political and economic resources of numerous ethnic enclaves to few areas.
Look at communities like Vancouver, B.C. where an influx of Chinese immigrants has led to pervasive xenophobia by whites. They didn’t just remain confined to Chinatown — they moved all over Vancouver and it’s suburbs. They didn’t lose their culture because it wasn’t confined to a district. They brought it all over the city, and the arrival of a different culture and language so scared incumbents that they passed laws to prohibit signs exclusively in Chinese in 2014! And continue to push for it and other thinly-veiled xenophobic measures that attempts to contain the Chinese Canadian community to this day.
Ethnic enclaves, especially when housing is affordable and abundant, always form in cities. That’s as old as cities themselves. Anti-gentrification organizations are right to prioritize building lots of subsidized housing in an area as an anti-displacement measure. But don’t be mistaken in thinking that allowing people of color and minorities to have housing options outside of a touchdown site or ethnic enclaves is saying that enclaves should not be invested in or that it’ll destroy a community. That’s not how communities work. If anything, that’s usually how ethnic enclaves and communities expand.
On the flip side, not understanding communities is why liberal faith in integration programs that put minorities in white and affluent communities don’t necessarily work. There are many great benefits of exposures to different people, such as building tolerance, but again, neighbors don’t talk that much nowadays. It’s a lot more effective in schools, but even integrated schools are segregated by friend groups and academic tracking.
So I live in a bit of a racial experiment. Leftist leadership in Berkeley in the 1980s decided to put public housing in white neighborhoods as well as Black ones — to appease Black opposition focusing public housing in Black areas. Read about it here.
I live in a white district in Berkeley, alongside several of the public housing residents whose homes were built here as an integration plan. They’re my neighbors and we’ve all lived together for a while here. As a result I’ve started to reject liberal narratives about integration and it’s outcomes.
The white community here is not successful because they live in a white and well-kept area. The beautiful parks, clean streets and nearby grocery stores are not why this community is low of crime, poverty and high in educational attainment and income. Rather those amenities are byproducts of it. Whites are successful here because they have access to higher incomes and financial stability that the Black residents, including us in this district, do not have.
For a long time I’ve studied why the white, Asian and Jewish kids in this neighborhood do so much better than their Black counterparts in the very same neighborhood, let alone in the Black-majority areas. I realized that these kids spend all their after school time in recreational programs, tutoring centers, or at home often reading with a work-from home parent, hired tutor or a maid supervising them.
In contrast the Black kids, within the same integrated school, did not have access to these advantages. These white children are getting educated in and out of school, and being cultivated to become good students, solely because of their parent’s access to capital. The Black children are going to public after school programs largely playing around doing nothing if they’re lucky. Their parents are working and can’t afford these extracurricular programs and services.
Moreover the Black community does not have access to the capital to fund community centers and tutoring places to the extent that even more financially well-off, non-white communities do. So within the integrated school, the Black students aren’t in the honors classes, don’t have the advantages to come to class over-prepared but rather study behind or at-pace, and often are in entirely different academic trajectories.
School is key here because it’s the K - 12 performance that informs future income earnings, educational attainment, crime and incarceration for the vast majority of students. Most people’s futures can be predicted by grade school. And it is household wealth, not the neighborhood, or the neighbors, that gives the white kids better life outcomes over Black children.
Sure, there’s less exposure to environmental racism and access to food which give you major life advantages especially in the pre-K years. All things Black neighborhoods should already have, but yet again, this is not how communities work. You just have public housing beside million dollar homes. You have people dependent on public assistance besides millionaires and 401ks. But there is no sharing of resources, access to opportunities or upward mobility, that a lower-income Black family has a foot away from a wealthy white family, than one does miles away.
Being beside rich people doesn’t make one rich. The Black community here in this white neighborhood is merely a part of the broader, regional Black community in terms of who we exist with, socialize with and work with. Most of the Black residents don’t even know their white neighbor’s names.
Affirmatively Furthering Fair Housing is good, but you cannot condition or vary transformational reforms in the Black community’s economic well-being, based where Black homes are located. Not to be a broken record but that’s not how communities work. That’s the genuine critique of liberal integration efforts.
Liberals and pro-integration academics mistake the symptoms of segregation — living in better places — with the cause: access to capital. This is also explains gentrification and why it disproportionately harms Black people, Latinos and groups with low median incomes in-spite of neighborhood improvements that should enrich them. The reason the wealthier residents in the same neighborhoods are not being displaced en-masse like Black residents are by gentrification — and this is also the case for people of color with higher incomes — is because their communities are far more economically empowered.
In conclusion, where should subsidized housing be located? Everywhere. Where should minorities be allowed to live? Everywhere. How do you help ethnic enclaves maintain safe spaces? By letting them live where they want. We’ve seen recent examples of refugee enclaves in California being shrunk by explicit low housing availability. Does integration or even de-segregation, inherently solve the bulk of racial inequality? In my limited observation, the answer is no, at least not for housing.
Maybe, I don't know. I appreciate your lived experiences but would like to see some hard data on this. I suspect that poor Blacks living in diverse neighborhoods do better than those in extremely segregated neighborhoods but I don't really know.
I do know that poor Black and Latino students do better in integrated schools than they do in very segregated schools. One of the really impressive things that Berkeley has done is create a pretty integrated K-12 school district where poor (SES in the lingo) Black and Latino children do much better than the state average. In SF it's a disaster as it is in most of the state.
We desperately need something like Cory Booker's Baby Bond's program. "Universal Basic Wealth."
The proposal would do as much to redistribute wealth to descendants of slaves as any serious proposal that's been made for "reparations" -- while being facially neutral regarding race, and also helping out plenty of poor Whites (which IMHO should be regarded as a feature, not a bug).