Integrated neighborhoods produce more mixing, but don’t automatically generate universal social interaction. What should we make of that?

Our recent report, America’s Most Diverse, Mixed Income Neighborhoods identifies those places where people from different racial and ethnic backgrounds and from different income strata all live in close proximity to one another. We’ve counted more than 1,300 neighborhoods with nearly 7 million residents that have high levels of racial/ethnic and income integration. In these places, at least, people from different backgrounds share a common neighborhood.  But is that enough? Some critics complain that while people may live close to one another in such places, there may be little meaningful interaction. Today we consider this issue.

In one idealized view of the world, economically integrated neighborhoods would have widespread and deep social interactions among people from different backgrounds. We’d tend to be color-blind and class-blind, and no more (or less) likely to interact with people from different groups than with people similar to ourselves. In practice, even in neighborhoods with a high degree of racial or income diversity, it still tends to be the case that people primarily associate with people like themselves. Even in the most integrated neighborhoods, there’s a “kumbaya” gap. Should we we regard that as a sign of failure?

That’s the argument that Derek Hyra makes about gentrifying neighborhoods, like U Street, in Washington DC. Blacks and whites, rich and poor live in close proximity to one another, but primarily associate only with people like themselves in daily live. Last week’s CityLab article interviewing Hyra is entitled: “Gentrification doesn’t mean diversity.” The article’s URL is “gentrifying neighborhoods aren’t really diverse.”

The point Hyra actually makes isn’t that the neighborhoods aren’t diverse, per se, but that within the neighborhoods, people still associate primarily with people with similar demographic characteristics. We may have alleviated segregation at one level, but in personal interactions, there’s still “micro-segregation.”

CityLab’s Tanvi Misri interviews Hyra about his new book, —Race, Class and Politics in the Cappuccino City.  Hyra observes that Washington, DC’s U Street neighborhood is now more racially and economically diverse, but notes that its still the case that people mostly associate with others of similar backgrounds in places like churches, stores and coffee shops. His argument seems to be, sure, its great that so-called gentrifying neighborhoods are more integrated, but since people of different races/classes, aren’t socializing directly, its basically a failure.  From the interview:

Elaborate on what’s positive and what’s problematic about this change, and with this perception of the neighborhood.

We have been so segregated in the United States and that now that whites are attracted and willing to move into what was formerly a low-income African-American neighborhood does symbolize some progress, in terms of race relations in the United States. That we have mixed-income, mixed-race neighborhoods, I think, is a very positive thing.

But that diversity not necessarily benefiting the former residents. Most of the mechanisms by which low-income people would benefit from this change are related to social interaction—that low-, middle-, and upper-income people would start to talk to one another. They would problem solve with one another. They would all get involved civically together to bolster their political power. But what we’re really seeing is a micro-level segregation. You see diversity along race, class, sexual orientation overall, but when you get into the civic institutions—the churches, the recreation centers, the restaurants, the clubs, the coffee shops—most of them are segregated. So you’re not getting a meaningful interaction across race, class, and difference. If we think that mixed-income, mixed-race communities are the panacea for poverty, they’re not.

Is the failure to reach maximum kumbaya really an indication that more socioeconomic mixing isn’t a good thing?  We don’t think so, for several reasons  First, unless you first get mixed income, mixed race neighborhoods, you have almost no chance having the opportunity for regular  social interactions. When we live in neighborhoods widely segregated by race and/or income its even more difficult to establish these boundary-crossing personal relationships. Socioeconomic mixing is necessary, even if it alone isn’t sufficient–especially immediately–to produce deeper interactions.

Second, “kumbaya” integration is probably an unrealistic goal: even within our neighborhoods (and socioeconomic groups) we do spend our personal time disproportionately with people who share our own peculiar interests. That’s true even within economically homogenous neighborhoods: people tend to spend much more time and develop stronger relationships with people most like them.

Third:  The evidence of overwhelming that mixed income neighborhoods (kumbaya or not) have big benefits, especially for lower income kids.  They get more resources, can access stronger networks, find better partners and career paths, etc.  The evidence from the Equality of Opportunity project, led by Raj Chetty, the research of Patrick Sharkey, and Eric Chyn’s study of Chicago Housing Authority residents all confirm that simply moving to a more mixed income neighborhood materially improves the life outcomes of poor kids. In addition, an important aspect of the socioeconomic mixing in the civic commons is promoting the kind of interactions that help us develop an awareness–imperfect and incomplete as it may be–that there are real people who have very different lives and expectations than we do.

Fourth, we know what happens when people don’t have this kind of first hand familiarity with a more diverse population. It shows up plainly in the results of the last election.  People who lived in communities with limited exposure to immigrants, or in neighborhoods that were predominantly white, segregated enclaves were much more likely to vote for Donald Trump than Hillary Clinton, even after controlling for other characteristics (party affiliation, age, and income) than others.  After sifting through national polling and demographic data Gallup’s  Jonathan Rothwell concludes:

“The analysis provides clear evidence that those who view Trump favorably are disproportionately living in racially and culturally isolated zip codes and commuting zones. Holding other factors, constant support for Trump is highly elevated in areas with few college graduates and in neighborhoods that standout within the larger commuting zone for being white, segregated enclaves, with little exposure to blacks, Asians, and Hispanics.”

The more separated we are from one another, the more likely we are to not support broad-based policies that promote equality and opportunity.  In the absence of more U Streets, we get policies that produce more and more segregated suburbs and neighborhoods of concentrated poverty.  We shouldn’t fixate on the failure of U Street to achieve some imaginary ideal; instead we should recognize that its essential to do many more “U Streets”  just to offset the scale of the segregation everywhere else. Fighting segregation comes first; Kumbaya will come, if it comes at all, later.

If we set impossibly high expectations about the nature of integration, and when we’re provided with anecdotes that recent and long-time residents in a community don’t associate much with one another, it’s tempting–but wrong–to conclude the whole thing was an epic fail.  As with so much in this field, that makes the perfect the enemy of the good, or at least the somewhat better.