By Greg Varner
There is affluence and political power in Washington, D.C., but there is also a high degree of isolation by race and class, which surely has something to do with the persistence of segregation in the United States.
This was the suggestion of sociologist Douglas Massey, co-author (with Nancy Denton) of American Apartheid, which charts systematic discrimination against Black Americans in housing, at a virtual event held Friday to mark the retirement of Gregory Squires, GW professor of sociology and public policy and public administration.
Mr. Massey was one of four guest panelists for the event sponsored by the George Washington University Columbian College of Arts and Sciences, along with Lisa Rice, president and CEO of the National Fair Housing Alliance; Stefanie DeLuca, a professor of sociology and social policy at Johns Hopkins University; and Richard Rothstein, author of the bestselling book The Color of Law, which reveals how American political leaders have intentionally created racially homogenous neighborhoods.
Dr. Squires, a prolific writer with many publications to his credit, edited The Fight for Fair Housing, a collection bringing together various activists and scholars to examine the history of the struggle against segregation and to strategize for the future. The book has been hailed for its importance to the field.
Each of the panelists offered testimonials to the guest of honor. Event moderator Ivy Ken, an associate professor in the GW Department of Sociology, set the tone saying, “It’s been very intimidating to work with Greg,” citing his record of publications. “And it all seems like it’s been done in his spare time.”
Mary Tschirhart, director of the Trachtenberg School of Public Policy and Public Administration, also offered words of praise for Mr. Squires in her introduction. “I hope that he continues to contribute to the debate,” she said. “We need his persistence and his wisdom.”
Ms. Rice noted that Dr. Squires’ work clearly shows that “Place—where you live—is inextricably linked to opportunity.”
Much more money, she noted, is allocated to white school districts than districts serving mainly people of color. Black people are more likely to live in “food deserts,” where healthy foods are not conveniently available, adversely affecting their health. Residents in segregated neighborhoods also have less access to credit, since banks are concentrated in white neighborhoods.
The latter fact, Ms. Rice noted, is sometimes explained as a matter of economics. But banks are far more likely to close branches in high-income Black neighborhoods than in low-income white neighborhoods.
“It’s an issue of race, not an issue of economics,” Ms. Rice concluded.
She advocates a race-neutral plan to help first-generation homeowners make a down payment. For this kind of assistance, she added, 5 million borrowers would be eligible, including roughly 2 million aspiring Black homeowners and smaller proportions of LatinX and Asian American borrowers.
“Neighborhoods,” agreed Dr. Massey, are “a key nexus for the transmission of advantages and disadvantages.” He credited Dr. Squires for increasing awareness of the harm inflicted by segregation on any group, but on African Americans in particular.
The notion that all Americans exercise an equal amount of choice when it comes to finding their neighborhood, Dr. DeLuca said, is false. To begin with, time to search for housing is difficult to come by for parents juggling jobs and child care. “People end up in neighborhoods, they don’t choose them,” she said.
Additionally, Dr. DeLuca noted, African Americans are faced with fewer financial choices and become vulnerable to various shady practices. Credit histories are used by landlords to decline applications from prospective tenants.
There are two primary systems for determining the value of African American homes in low-income neighborhoods, Mr. Rothstein noted. The first is a system of property assessments, used to determine property tax, and the second is a system of appraisals commissioned by banks for the purpose of lending money.
A large city like Chicago may have only one assessor, and thousands of appraisers. With such large numbers, Mr. Rothstein noted, it’s harder to develop data showing that appraisals in African American neighborhoods are too low.
One solution to this difficulty, he said, involves establishing a trained corps of certified appraisers and requiring banks to cooperate by commission appraisals from this body.
“Maybe you can enlist banks to commission a second appraisal from this corps of certified appraisers,” Mr. Rothstein said.
With so many Americans physically separated by race, Mr. Rothstein asked, how can we hope to develop a common national identity? Given today’s political climate, this is a matter of increasing urgency.
“We are today experiencing the most frightening and extreme dangerous political polarization in this country that we ever had since the 1850s,” Mr. Rothstein said. “And that polarization led to the Civil War.”
Before turning to questions from the audience, Dr. Squires thanked the panelists.
“The four of you, in my mind, constitute the Mount Rushmore of segregation research and advocacy,” he said. “Had I known we could do an event like this, I would have retired years ago.”