To Better Understand Segregation, Look at Social Networks

Published in Next City, February 9 2018


Fifty years after the passage of the Fair Housing Act, residential segregation remains entrenched in U.S. cities — and explanations for segregation’s persistence haven’t changed much either.

The classic understanding of segregation goes something like this: First, the socioeconomic gap between whites and people of color sorts them into different neighborhoods based on what they can afford. Second, people just prefer to live around others who share their race. And third, even if a person of color wants to and can afford to move elsewhere, they may be blocked by overt discriminatory practices.

Social psychologist Maria Krysan and urban demographer Kyle Crowder don’t disagree that all three forces are at play. But over years of studying residential segregation, they grew frustrated with these limits of these explanations. None fully acknowledge the role of the federal government in creating segregation, and in their research, Krysan and Crowder found those explanations don’t seem to reflect people’s lived experience. For one thing, those explanations treat people as totally rational actors, making housing choices based on an unbiased supply of information.

“Honestly… we had privileged white men who kind of laid out the first explanations for residential segregation,” says Crowder, who is based at the University of Washington. “They were really urban economists more than anything and wanted to view everything through that economic lens.”

In their new book Cycle of Segregation: Social Processes and Residential Stratification, Krysan and Crowder argue that the classic model ignores the role of social networks and the vast array of preconceptions people have before they even start their housing search. Decades of segregation have hardened the effects of all three forces, and shaped people’s knowledge of cities, so that Americans of different races start their searches from very different places.

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Image by Mapping Inequality