Authors’ Blog: Connecting Across the Divides of Race/Ethnicity: How Does Segregation Matter? – An Overview

This is an author-produced blog posts introduce upcoming Urban Affairs Review articles. The Online First abstract can be found here

Connecting Across the Divides of Race/Ethnicity: How Does Segregation Matter? – An Overview

Authors: Joseph Gibbons and Tse-Chuan Yang

         Joseph Gibbons                                              Tse-Chuan Yang

Community Connection and the problem of diversity?
            The recent wave of urban conflicts, like that seen in Baltimore, makes clear the need for continued discussion on urban racial disadvantage.  To this end, the connections one has with their neighbors and a neighborhood itself, community connection, is a key venue with which to focus.  Research has shown that poor community connection leads to variety of social ills, such as higher crime and poorer health.  There exists an active discussion in city research as the effects racial/ethnic composition of one’s neighborhood have onto their community connection. A long enduring belief is that racially diverse communities lack strong community connection due to inability of different community members to establish common ground.  As Robert Putnam once put it, people in these communities ‘hunker down’, avoiding close connections with those nearby.  However, there are raising doubts as to whether this dour assessment captures the full scope of how race impacts community connection.

Is segregation the real culprit?
            In this paper, we essentially turned the diversity argument on its head, looking at racial segregation, the separation of populations between neighborhoods based on race, instead of the racial diversity which takes place within neighborhoods.  We put forward that the contentious, parochial character of segregation essentially inhibits residents from forming connections.  This is an important issue to pursue as the existing research is divided as to the impact of racial segregation on ones social connection.  While there is strong evidence to suggest that segregated communities lack connections due to the social disadvantage found within, others argue that residents in segregated communities may actually have stronger connection due to the racial homogeneity found within, as put forward by Putnam.  In addition, a major gap in the existing discussion is how one’s individual race relates to the racial composition of their neighborhood.  If one is black, do they have stronger community connection in a mostly black neighborhood than they would elsewhere?

Research strategy and data used
            To better understand this dynamic, we investigated how one’s community connection – a composite of one’s level of trust for neighbors, likelihood of working collaboratively with others, and sense of belongingness to a community – is impacted by neighborhood segregation, as well as socio-economic status.  In particular, we examined how individual race played a role in community connection in relation to the racial composition of their neighborhood. To determine this, we used data on individuals from the 2008 and 2010 Southeastern Pennsylvania Household Health Survey, administered by the Public Health Management Corporation (PHMC), as well as American Community Survey data collected between 2006 to 2010 for information on neighborhoods. The PHMC surveyed a total of 19,950 people across the Philadelphia metropolitan area between 2008 and 2010.  This area includes the city of Philadelphia, as well as the surrounding counties considered to be its’ suburbs. The Philadelphia metropolitan area was a useful site to explore as it is very similar to other north eastern cities, like nearby Baltimore, due to its long history of high residential segregation. 

Preliminary results: is poor community connection more a matter of socio-economic status?
            Our findings revealed much as to how people experience race at both a personal level as well as where they live.  Starting with the impact of one’s race individually, we found that the  minorities surveyed tended to have pooper community connection compared to white respondents, even when accounting for relevant background socio-economic characteristics like income, marital status, and education.  This shows that race is playing an important role in social connections in ways not seen by other life factors.  The characteristics of one’s residential neighborhood impact community connection in subtle and sophisticated ways.  For one, neighborhood-level socio-economic characteristics appear to explain away much of the individual-level racial differences on community connection.  In other words, while looking just at individuals suggests that one’s race is affecting their community connection, we find that the differences in connection that people experience has much more to do with how disadvantaged their neighbors are.  What’s more, it would appear that that the racial composition of a neighborhood itself plays little role in affecting community connection when accounting for socio-economic status.  In other words, poverty of neighborhoods would appear to matter more than individual race. However, this is not to say that segregation plays no role in neighborhood connection, as a closer look at the data suggests.

More results: the underlying influence of segregation on poor community connection
            Looking directly at the relation of individual to neighborhood racial composition demonstrates the underlying importance of segregation.  We found for example that a person who is black will likely have stronger community connection if they reside in a mostly black or nonwhite neighborhood than they would when living in a white community.  This would seem to support Putman’s view that racial difference in neighborhoods leads people to ‘hunker down’.  However, the story does not stop there.  We also found evidence to suggest that nonwhite communities have weaker community connection overall than white communities.
            What this difference between black and white communities suggests is that segregation indeed plays an important role in community connection, albeit in subtle ways.  In many ways, the nonwhite residents of the Philadelphia metropolitan area, especially those who are black, find themselves in a lose-lose situation.  Not only does segregation concentrate them into communities which tend to have lower community connection, it also inhibits their ability to connect with others when they do live elsewhere. This would explain the significance that individual race had in stratifying community connection, as nonwhites are getting sequestered to inferior neighborhoods due to segregation. In this way, diversity is not to blame for poor community connection.  Instead it is the divisive effect of segregation which splinters residents.

Moving forward

            As for what is to be done, the most sweeping, yet presently unattainable, solution would be a reduction of segregation.  However, while we have witness moderate reductions in segregation in recent decades, it remains obstinately stuck in place.  This is made abundantly clear by both this research and the turmoil seen in places like Baltimore.  However, our research does point to other more intermediate solutions.  We found that membership in community organizations improves community connection.  This in on itself is not a new observation.  Scholars like Putnam have long argued for the importance of community organizations to form social ties.  However, we also find that the benefits of organizations on community connection transcend neighborhood segregation.  Organizations themselves will likely not provide an end all solution to the disparities in community connection.  But, it offers a promising start to bring residents together on the road to progress.


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