Friday, December 19, 2008

Musings on residential segregation

I was interested to see a discussion on residential racial segregation in Milwaukee on the Political Environment Blog run by former journalist and Norquist aide Jim Rowen.

I was once absorbed in this debate. As a young associate at Foley & Lardner, I was part of the defense team representing 24 suburban school districts who were sued by the Milwaukee Public Schools. MPS sought a metropolitan-wide integration plan. We tried the case for a few months and then it settled on terms largely favorable to the suburbs.

I was in charge of the "housing" case, i.e., our response to the plaintiffs' claim that residential racial segregation (causing school segregation) was caused by discriminatory government practices over a period of 50 years or so. Very heady stuff for a young lawyer still north of 30.

I have kept up with the issue casually since then but I think that there were three important things that we learned then that our still relevant today.

1. Milwaukee is not as unique as we think it is. The claim was made then - and still made today - that Milwaukee has fewer African Americans in the suburbs than other large cities. That was true then and I suspect it still is. But when you mapped racial distribution in the metropolitan area (without regard to municipal boundaries), Milwaukee looked just like other rust belt cities. Over time, the African American community took hold near the city center and moved in a single direction in a pie-shaped movement in a single direction. In Milwaukee, that direction was to the northwest. This movement did not cross into suburban communities largely because of historic annexation of formerly independent areas to the north and west of Milwaukee during the mayorality of Frank Zeidler.

2. Milwaukee exacerbated the problem with an extraordinarily broad residency requirement for municipal and MPS employees. My sister lives in a beautiful neighborhood of nice newer houses on the northwest side. The neighborhood is predominantly African American and overwhelmingly made up of city and MPS employees. We did a computer simulation that randomly distributed people around the area as income would permit. We then adjusted for the residency requirement effect and, while not huge, it was a material factor.

3. Residential segregation is not easily altered by government policy. Surveys traditionally find that both blacks and whites express, in significant numbers, a willingness to move into integrated neighborhoods. But they define them differently. For whites, in general, an integrated neighborhood could be no more that 20 % African Americans. For African Americans, an integrated neighborhood could be no less than 50% African American. More recently, there are studies that minimize the role of choice and others that find it to be the single most important cause of residential racial segregation.

4. This implies that interventions like "affordable housing" outposts in areas that are far removed from minority communities may meet with limited success.

If they can be built. I am sure that a substantial degree of opposition to these development over the years have been racially motivated. although there are substantial nonracial reasons to oppose them. Development with modest property values and potentially large numbers of children will generally consume more tax dollars than they produce.

This is not to suggest that we ought to be indifferent to persistent racial divides. But we should be clear eyed about them.

Cross posted at Marquette University Law School Faculty Blog.


Anonymous said...

I plan to respond to this posting point by point when I have moment to do so, but for now will just make one comment.

While affordable housing in the suburbs IS part of the strategy for attempting to integrate the metro area, I think the most important reason to provide affordable housing is to allow people to be able to move to where employment and other life-improving opportunities like education and health care exist.

Racial integration absent these 'opportunities', would do little to address the horrendous effects of racial segregation and concentration of poverty.

Rick Esenberg said...


Please let me know when you do. I think it's an important conversation to have.

Anonymous said...

Milwaukee's fame is its segregation whilst the whites move up to Ozaukee county. San Francisco's fame is an integrated city in a small space where many peoples live peacefully.

Anonymous said...

This is not to suggest that we ought to be indifferent to persistent racial divides. But we should be clear eyed about them.
.....clear eyed my foot the racism and segregation in Milwaukee is blinding......clear eyed to the whites up in Ozaukee county