Fifty years after the Fair Housing Act was signed into law, a recently published article by a University of Indianapolis professor highlighted how family structures can have an impact on residential segregation. Assistant Professor of Sociology Colleen Wynn co-wrote the article “Assessing the Role of Family Structure in Racial/Ethnic Residential Isolation” with University at Albany, State University at New York Associate Professor of Sociology Samantha Friedman.
The article was published in a special issue of the journal, “Social Inequality and Residential Segregation in Urban Neighborhoods and Communities.”
The co-author of the article was Wynn’s dissertation chair at University at Albany, State University at New York, which is where Wynn received her doctorate from.
Wynn said that sociology researchers have been studying racial and ethnic segregation in the United States for decades. The researchers, according to Wynn, have seen declines in segregation over time, however, segregation still persists in many areas despite the legislation forbidding it.
“I found that race is still the primary factor that segregates us, but within that, that family structure plays some really important roles,” Wynn said. “People [other researchers] have started finding that it’s actually more affluent families who are the most segregated. People who have the money to be able to move and to live in a suburban area, and to keep other people out of that area.”
Their research found that predominantly white married families tend to be more residentially isolated. Wynn said this isolation means that white married families are more likely to live in neighborhoods with others who are like them.
“White married couple families are [the] most likely to live with other white married couple families,” Wynn said. “We [researchers] argue that maybe it’s that they are using their relative power in the housing market to move to the best areas and then, either directly or indirectly, keeping other people from being able to move to those areas.”
According to Friedman and Wynn, there have been many studies that have looked at the different structures of households and that those studies have only focused on comparing family households to non-family households, such as people who are married compared to people who live alone.
“If you look at the research on residential segregation, nothing has been done or very little attention has been given to looking at the role of family structure in shaping segregation by race and ethnicity,” Friedman said.
Although it is illegal to legally segregate, people still do and sometimes even get away with it, according to Wynn. This has even been done on much larger scales in neighborhoods and even cities.
“Neighborhoods and cities can do it through zoning policies,” Wynn said. “We know that, for instance, black female-headed families are more likely to rent then own their home. So, you might say no rental housing in this neighborhood and then you have effectively kept out anyone who is not able to buy a home in your expensive neighborhood.”
There are three main areas where researchers believe the explanations for residential segregation could be found, according to Wynn.
“There’s the socioeconomic explanations that people have different amounts of money and so they’re able to live somewhere and not live somewhere,” Wynn said. “There are residential preferences, that people live where they want to live and probably some of that is going on, but it can’t explain everything. Then there’s this idea that it’s discrimination.”
Wynn said that in most of the studies that have been conducted, researchers primarily put the cause for this as discrimination. This is because they do not believe that it is completely socio-economic or residential. More researchers are, however, looking in to discrimination by itself when it comes to housing segregation, according to Wynn.
“People are starting to get in there and look around and track discrimination more,” Wynn said. “We know that there’s very real evidence of discrimination, but we don’t always know how exactly that might play out or what the specific mechanisms are. In our study, we’re arguing that maybe by considering family structure, that maybe we are uncovering another aspect of discrimination. Maybe people aren’t just discriminating on race, they’re also discriminating on family structure.”
Wynn said although the conclusions of her study may not apply to college students now, it has the potential to apply to them once they leave school.
“The ideas of what kinds of neighborhoods you want to live in, they may not directly be tied to race, ethnicity or family structure, but our perceptions of ‘This is a good area to live’ or ‘This is a bad area to live,’ often are tied to some of those things indirectly,” Wynn said. “We don’t necessarily assume that it’s because of race or ethnicity, but maybe neighborhoods that have a higher minority population might be construed as a negative place to live.”
Wynn said that her paper achieved her goal of teaching her readers that segregation is still an issue, one that many people do not realize.