Neighborhood integration sways racial attitudes

September 05, 2002

For Blacks and Whites, living together in racially integrated neighborhoods helps to improve attitudes about one another and behavior toward other races, according to researchers in the recent book, "Race & Place," published by Cambridge University Press. However, the scholars show that both groups still differ in how they view race-related issues.

In the book, researchers present their analysis of data from 1992 surveys of 1,200 Blacks and Whites in Detroit and its suburbs, comparing their findings to data from earlier surveys conducted since the 1960s. They strove to determine the impact of neighborhood integration on individual attitudes toward those of a different race, compared with the attitudes of those who reside in neighborhoods, which are predominantly White or Black.

Dr. Susan Welch, Penn State professor of political science and book co-author, says, "The 1990s saw a reversal in the decades-long trend of increasing residential segregation. Slowly, more areas of American cities are beginning to have both Black and White residents. Most neighborhoods are still segregated, of course, and these patterns influence almost everything else about race relations. Neighborhoods influence individuals' choice of friends, casual contacts, views about public policies, and many other attributes relevant to interracial relationships. Thus, changes in these patterns are very important.

"In our analysis, having neighborhoods with some representation of other races seemed to lessen perceived racial tensions. Over time, we found that Whites in Detroit became more likely to approve of Blacks as neighbors and were less likely to express racist attitudes," she says. "Compared with a quarter of a century earlier, Blacks and Whites in Detroit in the 1990s saw more of one another by living and working in the city and in mixed-race suburbs."

Other signs of the state of interracial relations, the book shows, are findings which show casual interracial contact has increased considerably, as has the incidence of interracial marriage and mixed-race children. Racial attitudes, however, were the main interest of the authors.

Researchers compared attitudes of residents living in both the city and its suburbs; attitudes of those living in nearly all-White or all-Black neighborhoods; and those in mixed-race neighborhoods.

For both races, living in integrated neighborhoods resulted in higher percentages of residents who perceived a decline in racism. In largely White neighborhoods, 47 percent of Blacks perceived less racism in 1992 than five years earlier, while only 26 percent of Whites perceived less racism. In largely Black neighborhoods, 33 percent of Blacks perceived less racism in 1992 than five years earlier, while 40 percent of Whites perceived less racism. However, in mixed-race neighborhoods, 44 percent of Blacks and 36 percent of Whites perceived less racism in 1992 than five years earlier. As well, both Blacks and Whites living in mixed-race neighborhoods were more aware of discrimination than were their counterparts in segregated neighborhoods.

"Most Blacks and Whites in the Detroit area still lived in neighborhoods with minimal representation of the other race," Welch notes. The authors note that, in the overall picture, Black and White views of discrimination and its effect on everyday life still varied considerably.

"Black residents still see evidence of racism in their own day-to-day experiences and encounters with Whites and institutions," Welch says. "Many Blacks focus on the limitations of civil rights laws and Supreme Court cases in their experiences. While they did not dismiss the importance of changes in public policy and laws, they still perceived evidence of racism in their own day-to-day experiences.

"On the other hand, most White interviewees believed that much progress has been made in race relations, pointing to changes in the legal and legislative arenas and a drop in open discrimination and in symbols of discrimination and racism," she adds. "They cite a decline in incidences of violence against Blacks, the disappearance of racially targeted zoning laws and restrictive covenants, laws and court decisions against discrimination in housing and lending, and African Americans who are successful in sports, entertainment, politics, education, and business. Whites are less likely to see the all-too-frequent daily examples of racism that their Black counterparts see."

The 2001 book's co-authors are Lee Sigelman of George Washington University, Michael Combs of the University of Nebraska and Timothy Bledsoe of Wayne State University, in addition to Welch, who is dean of Penn State's College of the Liberal Arts.

Researchers also surveyed all residents' perceptions of the services they receive from their local government, including Black and White suburbanites and their city counterparts. The analysis found that Blacks and Whites in the city are united in their dissatisfaction with local services, particularly those affecting schools and crime. In comparison, Blacks and Whites in the suburbs are more satisfied with public services.

The attitudes of Blacks and Whites toward the services their cities provide are related more to where individuals live than their race. Black and White suburbanites share generally positive attitudes toward their city governments, and Black and White city residents share negative views. Ironically, in Detroit, the replacement of a White-led city government with a Black-led one led to similar attitudes among Blacks and Whites toward the police, not by increasing the satisfaction of Blacks but by decreasing the satisfaction of Whites.

"The similar beliefs suggest that inadequate or unfair police and education services are not only a matter of race and discrimination by prejudiced or unsympathetic officials. Like their White counterparts, Black elected officials do not control the resources necessary to improve quality of service or boost quality-of-life indicators such as school retention ratios or in-wedlock births." Welch says.

The researchers selected Detroit for analysis because of its history as one of the most segregated cities in America and a city not yet dramatically changed by immigration in 1992. As well, Detroit has been regularly surveyed since the 1960s, allowing for comparisons spanning a quarter century. But as many American cities continue to change more rapidly with growing numbers of Asians and Hispanics, the researchers suggest that "neighborhood integration can have a positive, though modest, effect on race relations, giving hope to a real difference in America's race relations in the near future."

Penn State

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