Stuck in Place: Urban Neighborhoods and the End of Progress toward Racial Equality

Stuck in Place: Urban Neighborhoods and the End of Progress toward Racial Equality

by Patrick Sharkey

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In the 1960s, many believed that the civil rights movement’s successes would foster a new era of racial equality in America. Four decades later, the degree of racial inequality has barely changed. To understand what went wrong, Patrick Sharkey argues that we have to understand what has happened to African American communities over the last several decades. In Stuck in Place, Sharkey describes how political decisions and social policies have led to severe disinvestment from black neighborhoods, persistent segregation, declining economic opportunities, and a growing link between African American communities and the criminal justice system.

As a result, neighborhood inequality that existed in the 1970s has been passed down to the current generation of African Americans. Some of the most persistent forms of racial inequality, such as gaps in income and test scores, can only be explained by considering the neighborhoods in which black and white families have lived over multiple generations. This multigenerational nature of neighborhood inequality also means that a new kind of urban policy is necessary for our nation’s cities. Sharkey argues for urban policies that have the potential to create transformative and sustained changes in urban communities and the families that live within them, and he outlines a durable urban policy agenda to move in that direction.

Product Details

ISBN-13: 9780226924267
Publisher: University of Chicago Press
Publication date: 05/15/2013
Sold by: Barnes & Noble
Format: NOOK Book
Pages: 304
File size: 7 MB

About the Author

Patrick Sharkey is assistant professor of sociology at New York University.

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Stuck in Place

Urban Neighborhoods and the End of Progress toward Racial Equality


The University of Chicago Press

Copyright © 2013The University of Chicago
All rights reserved.
ISBN: 978-0-226-92426-7




"A remarkable development has taken place in America over the last dozen years: for the first time in the history of the republic, truly large and growing numbers of American blacks have been moving into the middle class, so that by now these numbers can reasonably be said to add up to a majority of black Americans—a slender majority, but a majority nonetheless.... It is real progress, a massive achievement; and to all appearances it is here to stay."

—Ben J. Wattenberg and Richard M. Scammon, 1973

One common viewpoint during the civil rights era, held among many policy makers, activists, and academics alike, was that advances in civil rights would mark the beginning of a movement toward racial equality. From this perspective, the end of legal discrimination meant the removal of barriers blocking African Americans from accessing the resources and opportunities necessary for economic and social mobility—open and fair housing, equal employment opportunity, political power, access to integrated schools and higher education. The alternative viewpoint, expressed in documents like the Moynihan Report and the Kerner Commission Report, was that racial equality, in economic terms, would be a goal much more difficult to attain than racial equality in legal terms.

The passage with which I begin the book, written at the tail end of the civil rights era and at the cusp of a national economic downturn, reflects a consistent set of empirical findings providing at least partial support for the former, optimistic view. The authors' conclusion that "truly large and growing numbers of American blacks have been moving into the middle class" was based on an analysis of data gathered in 1970, a time when much of the evidence available suggested that black/white inequality was on the decline. The claims made by Wattenberg and Scammon were somewhat exaggerated, as they were based on a definition of middle-class status that included essentially any family living outside of deep poverty. But the progress they described was real, even if it was more nuanced than these authors let on. Specific segments of the black population had, in fact, been able to take advantage of expanded civil rights and affirmative action programs, which resulted in a rapid expansion of the black professional class in both the private and public sectors.

Wattenberg and Scammon were correct in describing the economic advancement among African Americans as "real progress, a massive achievement"—but for the purposes of this book, the key phrase is the one that follows: "and to all appearances it is here to stay." If these authors were correct in describing the tremendous economic advancement made by black Americans in the civil rights era, were they also correct in forecasting the continued decline of racial inequality?

The data reveal a complex answer. By some measures, African Americans have continued to make marginal progress toward economic equality since the beginning of the 1970s. It is common to hear about the continuing expansion of the black middle class, for instance—and while there is a slightly greater presence of African Americans in the middle and the high ends of the income distribution, a close look at the data shows that the overall level of economic advancement among African Americans has been remarkably limited.

Consider the graph shown in figure 1.1, which shows the proportion of African Americans in each fifth of the U.S. income distribution over time. If the distribution of income among African Americans was the same as that for the nation as a whole, we would expect to find about 20 percent of African Americans in the poorest fifth of the income distribution, 20 percent in the richest fifth, and so forth. It is no surprise that this has never been true over the past forty years. What is surprising is how stable the distribution of African Americans has been over time. At the start of the 1970s, roughly 39 percent of African Americans were in the poorest quintile—that is, the bottom 20 percent—of the U.S. income distribution. Now, at the end of the 2000s, about 33 percent of African Americans are among the poorest fifth of the U.S. population. Back at the start of the 1970s, about 65 percent of African Americans were in the bottom 40 percent of the income distribution; now, it's about 58 percent. Over this entire period, the portion of African Americans in the richest part of the income distribution has barely changed—about 8 percent of blacks were in the richest fifth of the income distribution in 1971, and just 9 percent were in the top fifth of the distribution in 2010. All of these figures suggest some positive change, but it is trivial change when compared to the severe racial inequality that was present at the start of the 1970s and that continues to exist today. Further, newly available evidence indicates that the gains in economic status made by African Americans are eroding during the current economic downturn.

The narrative of the expansion of the black middle class gets even more complicated when one considers how the U.S. population has changed over time and who is counted as "black" in America. The nation has seen an explosion of immigration since the passage of the Hart-Cellar Act in 1965, which overrode the previous national origins quota system and rapidly changed the flow of immigrants coming to the United States. Whereas in the early part of the century most immigrants came from Europe, a majority of immigrants now arrive from Latin America, the Caribbean, Africa, Asia, and the Middle East. There are two consequences of these changes that affect how we interpret trends in racial inequality. First, it is important to recognize that most of the growth in the immigrant population has occurred in the lower segments of the income distribution. This means that one of the reasons why blacks appear to be moving slightly upward in the income distribution is that an influx of immigrants has moved into the lower portion of the distribution, providing an artificial "bump" upward. If we consider African Americans' absolute income, rather than their relative position within the income distribution, new research shows virtually no improvement over time. African American men have experienced no growth in income whatsoever, and the gains in income made by African American women, due to steadily increasing labor force participation, have been smaller than those of white women.

A second consequence of this shift is that the population of black Americans now includes African American families that have been in the United States for several generations along with newcomers who have recently arrived from the West Indies, Africa, or elsewhere. These "new" black Americans have fared well relative to African Americans who have been here for several generations, and they have provided another slight boost to the figures on the overall economic status of black Americans. When one considers only Americans who have been in the United States since at least 1970, there is even less change in racial inequality than shown in figure 1.1. At the start of the 1970s, about 40 percent of African Americans were in the poorest fifth of the "non-immigrant" U.S. income distribution, compared to about 35 percent at the end of the 2000s. About 82 percent of African Americans were in the bottom three-fifths of the non-immigrant income distribution at the start of the 1970s, compared to 78 percent at the end of the 2000s. What these figures tell us is that when we consider only families that have been in the country for the last several decades, we see virtually no progress toward racial equality.

An alternative way to track patterns of change among the population of African Americans who have been in the United States since the 1960s (and much earlier) is to track families over multiple generations and examine how the current generation of African American adults is doing, in economic terms, relative to how their parents did. The good news that emerges from this comparison is that the average African American has moved upward in the income distribution to a position that is very slightly higher than her parents occupied a generation ago. But a closer look reveals a less optimistic picture. The proportion of African Americans who have made substantial advancement—defined as those who move into a higher quintile of the income distribution than their parents—is extremely low, particularly when compared with whites. By contrast, there has been an extraordinary amount of downward economic mobility among African American families that were doing fairly well a generation ago. A majority of African Americans whose parents were in the middle class have fallen downward into a lower segment of today's income distribution. Whereas white children raised in middle-and upper-income families have much higher income than their parents when they reach adulthood, black children raised in similar families have substantially lower income than their parents. For instance, if we focus only on the middle of the income distribution, a recent study shows that white children raised in families in the middle of the income distribution earned, on average, about $74,000 annual income as adults, almost $20,000 per year more than their parents (in adjusted dollars). Black children raised in families in the same segment of the income distribution earned about $45,000 income per year, $9,000 less than their parents. Much of the progress that was the source of such optimism a generation ago has been lost in the current generation.

These figures reveal a portrait of severe, and persistent, racial inequality. It is a picture that is particularly troubling when one considers that this is the generation of African American children raised in the civil rights era, the first cohort of children able to take advantage of expanded civil rights as they completed their schooling and entered the labor market. If one had assumed in 1968 that freedom from legalized discrimination was the crucial step in the path toward racial equality, then one might have also assumed that the children who were raised in this period should have benefited most from the expansion of civil rights in the 1960s. Yet this is a generation of African American children who have made virtually no economic progress relative to their parents. How is it that the first generation of children able to take advantage of expanded civil rights has made so little progress toward economic equality?

* * *

When researchers analyze economic inequality or economic mobility across racial or ethnic groups, they often focus on characteristics of individuals and families within these groups, things like human capital, family structure, or culture. In other words, they focus on factors that lie within the home or within the individual as explanations for the divergent economic outcomes of different racial and ethnic groups in America. This research offers valuable insights into the sources of inequality—but it often overlooks or minimizes the role of forces that lie outside the individual, or outside the home environment, that influence the fortunes of different racial and ethnic groups.

This book looks beyond the individual and the family to understand inequality and mobility. I focus on the importance of places—communities and cities—as crucial sites for the transmission of racial inequality in the post civil rights era. I argue that to understand why the children of the civil rights era have made such minimal progress toward racial equality, we need to consider what has happened to the communities and cities in which they have lived over the past four decades. African Americans have been attached to places where discrimination has remained prevalent despite the advances in civil rights made in the 1960s; where political decisions and social policies have led to severe disinvestment and persistent, rigid segregation; where the employment base that supported a middle-class urban population has migrated away, contracted, or collapsed; and where the impact of punitive criminal justice policies has been concentrated.

But understanding the forces that have affected urban communities, and the consequences of these forces, is not sufficient for understanding the transmission of racial inequality to the current generation. In addition, it is essential to consider how places are passed on from parents to children, how changes in urban communities have been experienced by families, and how these changes have affected the trajectories of families, over time and across generations. To understand racial inequality today, it is crucial to approach racial inequality from a multigenerational perspective.

This is the core idea that distinguishes this book from the set of recent studies that have examined the relationship between places and inequality. 13 In this book I analyze the trajectories of individual families in combination with the trajectories of the places they occupy. The logic underlying this approach is intuitive—if we want to understand how neighborhoods and cities alter the trajectories of families, it is essential to consider the types of environments in which families live over long periods of time and over an extended period of a family's history. If growing up in a poor or violent neighborhood alters the schooling opportunities of a child, affects who serves as his role models, exposes him to pollutants in the air and soil, leads to consistently high levels of stress, and limits his economic opportunities, then it is logical to assume that the impact of the environment would be more pronounced for a child who spends the duration of his childhood years in the disadvantaged setting, relative to a child who spends only a few years in this setting before moving out. If a child is raised by a parent who grew up in a similarly disadvantaged neighborhood—a parent who was taught in similarly deficient learning environments, who witnessed the same violence, who also had few employment opportunities—it is reasonable to think that the effects of the environment would be amplified, reinforced by the consistency of disadvantage as experienced over generations of a family.

These assumptions lie at the heart of the analysis presented throughout the book, which examines the trajectories of a national sample of children who were raised during the civil rights era—the generation of children who inherited racial inequality from a previous era and reproduced this inequality in their own lifetimes. What I find is that it is impossible to understand racial inequality in the current generation without looking back to the neighborhoods and cities occupied by the previous generation. There are three reasons why this is so. First, neighborhood disadvantage and advantage are remarkably stable—families that currently live in an impoverished neighborhood are overwhelmingly likely to have lived in a similarly poor neighborhood for multiple generations. Second, the effects of neighborhood disadvantage experienced during childhood continue to have strong impacts as individuals move into adulthood—as a consequence, racial inequality that is present today is, in large part, a product of the extreme disadvantage in the neighborhoods of African Americans a generation ago. Third, the effect of living within severely disadvantaged communities accumulates over generations. The consequences of living within deprived residential environments over multiple generations are much more severe than the consequences of living in a poor neighborhood at a single point in time, or even in a single generation. In short, the story of racial inequality in the current generation must be thought of as a continuation of a story that extends well back in time.

Urban Neighborhoods and Racial Inequality from 1968 Forward

There is no clear marker indicating how far back one must go in order to understand current patterns of racial inequality in America's neighborhoods—but I begin in the late 1960s, for two reasons. The first is that the end of the 1960s can be seen as the dawn of a new era for African Americans in the United States. This period marked the tail end of the civil rights era and the beginning of a new period in American history, one in which racial inequality was no longer imposed and maintained by law. It was a time of social unrest, but also a period when the formal barriers upholding racial inequality in our legal system were slowly being torn down. The second reason is practical—one of the most remarkable surveys of American families ever conducted began in 1968, providing data that allow one to track the fortunes of black and white families over time in close detail and thus to generate evidence on the destinations, both geographic and economic, of black and white children who were raised in the civil rights era.


Excerpted from Stuck in Place by PATRICK SHARKEY. Copyright © 2013 by The University of Chicago. Excerpted by permission of The University of Chicago Press.
All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
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Table of Contents


1 Introduction
2 The Inheritance of the Ghetto
3 A Forty-Year Detour on the Path toward Racial Equality
4 Neighborhoods and the Transmission of Racial Inequality
5 The Cross-Generational Legacy of Urban Disadvantage
6 Confronting the Inherited Ghetto: An Empirical Perspective
7 Toward a Durable Urban Policy Agenda


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