How Racial and Ethnic Residential Segregation Works in Post-Racial America

05/26/2011 06:02 pm ET | Updated Jul 26, 2011
  • Jonathan Weiler Director of Undergraduate Studies in Global Studies, UNC Chapel Hill

The Independent Weekly of North Carolina (for which I am a contributor) has been running a series of articles about the forced sterilization movement in America. That movement is a reminder of a time in the not-so-distant past when prominent public figures in the United States could rally around a public policy campaign that had overt racism at its core and evokes, more broadly, a racist past of segregated schools, segregated neighborhoods and intentional public policy efforts to sustain the racial divide in America. Since the civil rights era, most Americans, or at least, most white Americans, would like to believe that public policy is no longer directed at perpetuating racism and, on the contrary, works to ameliorate it where it still exists.

But policy instruments remain that deepen ethnic and racial differences, even if that isn't the overt intent of these policies. Neighborhood schools could be, under some circumstances, one such policy instrument. Another set of policies, all but ignored in most media, is called "under-bounding." Under-bounding occurs when a local government draws its boundaries in such a way as to selectively include certain neighborhoods while excluding others. The excluded neighborhoods may be, as Ben Marsh, a professor at Bucknell University, and Allan Parnell, of the Cedar Grove Institute for Sustainable Communities in North Carolina, have pointed out, "ecologically indistinguishable from the dominant municipality in terms of density. They are part of the same employment, commuting and retail structure. In some cases, they are entirely surrounded by the municipality, but politically they remain on the outside looking in."

These typically minority enclaves are denied the infrastructure and services that the included neighborhoods receive: sanitary and storm sewers, sidewalks, water supply, streetlights, police and fire protection, trash pickup, street sweeping and code enforcement. Residents in unannexed communities often have lowered property values, assume obviously increased health risks and, to add insult to injury, because they are excluded from the town boundaries, have no political say in decisions that directly affect them.

Historically, such exclusions were carried out in egregious ways that had obvious racial intent. One famous case involved Tuskegee, Ala., a square-shaped municipality that was redrawn in 1957 as a 28-sided figure. This change allowed Tuskegee to exclude all but a handful of previously included black residents; it was struck down by the Supreme Court in 1960.

Tuskegee was subject to judicial review and repeal because the municipality engaged in an act of commission: It essentially threw out residents who had previously lived there, and for obviously racially motivated reasons. But in cases of under-bounding, acts of omission are the norm, wherein municipalities decide not to include particular neighborhoods within their ambit.

For example, Mebane has annexed suburban neighborhoods that include more affluent housing (and a golf course/ residency) while not annexing adjoining neighborhoods. And Mebane can reasonably argue that incorporating wealthy areas increases its tax base, while poor neighborhoods would only be a drain on services, a perfectly sensible rationale, on its face, for selective incorporation.

But one disturbing aspect of selective annexation is political disenfranchisement. In many cases, like Mebane, the municipality still retains control over the adjoining but unincorporated neighborhoods through a process called extraterritorial jurisdiction (ETJ). ETJ allows cities and towns control over outlying areas for land use and other zoning purposes. Local governments might decide, for example, to site a sewage treatment plant in an adjoining but unincorporated neighborhood even when, as is often the case, no sewage service is available to the affected area. The plant and the trunk lines might run through a particular unincorporated neighborhood, but the end-use lines don't. This has been the case in Mebane. Although political push-back has brought sewage treatment to the immediate neighborhood where the plant itself is located, other un-annexed black neighborhoods do not receive the service while more distant, non-contiguous annexed areas do. The lack of sewage treatment in the unincorporated areas has resulted in the contamination of surface water and groundwater with fecal bacteria due to old and decaying septic systems.

And whatever the intent, these annexation patterns have pronounced racial effects. The unincorporated neighborhoods in Mebane are, in some cases, between 50-90 percent black. The annexed neighborhoods tend to be more upscale and white. For example, Mebane annexed The Club at Mill Creek. The Club is a mostly white golf-course community with about 750 residences and received fast-track incorporation from the Mebane town council, giving it access to all town services. Adjoining the golf course community is a neighborhood called White Level, a historically black community that lacks such access.

Under-bounding, selective code enforcement and other policies that tend to disproportionately affect minority populations are by no means confined to North Carolina specifically or the south in general.

One striking case of the effects of racial residential segregation played out a few years ago in Ohio. In that case, the town of Zanesville had built sewage pipes to run water to its residents beginning in 1956. The problem: Clusters of mostly black residential areas just outside the town limits, in a neighborhood called Coal Run, were denied access to the municipal water lines. Their only recourse was either to capture rainwater or to ferry water from the water treatment plant two miles away. Digging wells was out of the question because Zanesville sits in coal territory and the groundwater is heavily contaminated.

Some of the houses that were denied water were a few hundred feet from the water lines, which made the town's claim that it was too expensive to build the piping out to these areas ring hollow, particularly since the town did extend the lines out to other surrounding areas that were more remote from the town limits.

Coal Run's racial pattern was too obvious to ignore. Longtime residents found that their requests for water service were repeatedly denied and then watched as whites moved in nearby and received water service. Under the threat of litigation, the town did extend the lines to the predominantly black outskirts, in 2004. The lawsuit continued, resulting in an $11 million judgment for the plaintiffs, mostly longtime residents of the town, in 2008.

Under-bounding doesn't affect only African-Americans. In Modesto, Calif., thousands of predominantly Latino residents, living in the interior of Modesto, are nevertheless drawn out of the town limits. The consequence: The Hispanic "islands" in Modesto lack streetlights or sidewalks -- resulting in high traffic and pedestrian-related fatalities -- treated water or other services, relegating them to some of the worst squalor in America (litigation has been pending there). And white residents living these areas are adversely affected as well though, overall, selective annexation clearly disproportionately affects non-whites.

Particularly in recent years, and partly, though by no means exclusively as a by-product of the election of a black president, discussions of race and ethnicity in America have tended to focus on symbolic and identity politics, like the widely publicized kerfuffle following Henry Louis Gates' run-in with a police officer in Cambridge, Mass or, more recently, the controversy over Cornel West's comments about President Obama. But the political news cycle has largely ignored ongoing racial and ethnic disparities in areas like educational opportunity, unemployment rates and our massive prison population. And under-bounding is even less "sexy" than those issues, a nearly invisible phenomenon that nevertheless has had an adverse impact on perhaps millions of our compatriots in the most fundamental aspects of their lives.