What are the common causes of distressed neighborhoods and what can be done to reverse these dynamics without creating gentrification?

Lesson Learned

Just about every distressed urban neighborhood in America was once a healthy, thriving place; many the center of African American commerce and society. And almost every one of them had a highway built through the middle of it. It is just one of a series of mal-intended public policies that combined to engineer the distressed urban neighborhoods we now confront.

Distressed, segregated neighborhoods on which we now are focused were engineered into existence. It raises the core question: can that engineering be reversed?

In his book, The Color of Law, Richard Rothstein documents the public policies and private actions that have combined to perpetuate segregation in our cities and concentrate poverty in certain neighborhoods. He inventories these policies and actions and recounts how they were consistently applied across the country.

The consistency with which the policies and actions Rothstein documents were applied nationally is astonishing. It didn’t matter whether you were in San Francisco, Dallas, Atlanta or Boston, a concerted and deliberate effort was underway during the post-war period to isolate and ultimately impoverish African Americans.

"We are living with the legacies of a deliberately segregated past.”
U-C Berkeley Professor john a. powell

It is estimated that there are just over 800 urban neighborhoods in this country that are highly distressed. In 1970, 28 percent of the urban poor lived in distressed neighborhoods and today nearly 40 percent do. So, in that sense, the problem appears to be getting worse.

“Racially explicit government policy was such a powerful force in creating residential segregation in this country … Because it was so powerful, we don’t have de facto segregation. De facto segregation is a myth. What we have is a system of racial boundaries that are unconstitutional. It requires a remedy. Civil rights violation require remedies.”

– Richard Rothstein
Author of The Color of Law: A Forgotten History of How our Government Segregated America


In this episode of our “This is Community” podcast, Richard Rothstein and Shirley Franklin discuss the history and myth of de facto segregation in America – and what it will take to reverse the toxic effects of that history.

Segregation is not “de facto”

If we learn nothing else from Richard Rothstein’s book, it’s that we can dispense with the myth that the causes of residential racial segregation in this country are impossible to identify, or that it was somehow the product of individual choices made by generations of Americans, or even that it was largely a phenomenon of the Jim Crow South. Rothstein puts to rest such notions with this compelling list of true causes of residential racial segregation:

  • Federally funded public housing that was explicitly racially segregated, both by federal and local governments. Projects Federally funded public housing that was explicitly racially segregated, both by federal and local governments. Projects were officially and publicly designated either for whites or for blacks.
  • The federal government subsidized relocation of whites to suburbs and prohibited similar relocation of blacks.
  • The Federal Housing (FHA) and Veterans Administrations provided federal loan guarantees on the explicit condition that no sales be made to blacks and that each individual deed include a prohibition on re-sales to blacks, or to what the FHA described as an “incompatible racial element.”
  • The FHA refused to insure individual mortgages for African Americans in white neighborhoods, or even to whites in neighborhoods that the FHA considered subject to possible integration in the future.
  • Although a 1948 Supreme Court ruling barred courts from enforcing racial deed restrictions, the restrictions themselves were deemed lawful for another 30 years, and the FHA knowingly continued—until the Fair Housing Act was passed in 1968—to finance developers who constructed suburban developments that were closed to African Americans.
  • Bank regulators knowingly approved “redlining” policies by which banks refused loans to black families in white suburbs and even, in most cases, to black families in black neighborhoods—leading to the deterioration and ghettoization of those neighborhoods.
  • Although zoning rules assigning blacks to some neighborhoods and whites to others were banned by the Supreme Court in 1917, racial zoning in some cities was enforced until the 1960s.
  • Some cities, Miami being the most conspicuous example, continued to include racial zones in their master plans and issued development permits accordingly.
  • Urban renewal programs forced low-income black residents away from universities, hospital complexes, or business districts and into new ghettos. Relocation to stable and integrated neighborhoods was not provided; in most cases, housing quality for those whose homes were razed was diminished by making public housing high rises or overcrowded ghettos the only relocation option.
  • Some cities took the lead in organizing homeowner associations for the purpose of enacting racial deed restrictions.
  • Where integrated or mostly black neighborhoods were too close to white communities or central business districts, interstate highways were routed by federal and local officials to raze those neighborhoods for the explicit purpose of relocating black populations to more distant ghettos or of creating barriers between white and black neighborhoods. State policy contributed to segregation in other ways.
  • Real estate agents openly enforced segregation through “racial steering,” directing clients to neighborhoods of similar racial composition. A recent study in the Sociological Forum shows that this is still ongoing.

Healthy outcomes do not emerge because high-performing non-profits and government agencies are delivering targeted solutions. Healthy neighborhoods produce healthy outcomes because they contain the conditions out of which those outcomes can emerge independently.

Examples Abound:

  • When residents of healthy neighborhoods are asked about what makes your neighborhood a good place to live, it is doubtful the “quality of the non-profit providers” makes the top of the list.
  • You might say “because it’s safe.” But is it safe because you have police officers on every corner? Surveillance cameras on every light pole?
  • You might say it’s a great neighborhood because there are plenty of restaurants and grocery stores around. Is that because someone you can point to is focused on ensuring that those services are in place?
  • You might say the school is great. Is that because the school district is doing something unique and special in your neighborhood school that they are neglecting to do in the failing schools on the other side of town?

The information for this Lesson Learned is included in POVERTY AND PLACE: A Review of the Science and Research That Have Impacted Our Work, a white paper that offers an overview of selected research that has informed our thinking as we continue to fight against intergenerational urban poverty.