Tallahassee: A City Divided

The Fair Housing Act was adopted 42 years ago to combat racial segregation.

However, analysis of new five-year data from the American Community Survey, an entity within the U.S. Census Bureau, suggests that residential segregation is alive and well, especially in Tallahassee neighborhoods.

On Jan. 18, Remapping Debate, a public policy journal at Columbia University, released an interactive map on its website displaying America’s most racially segregated Census Block Groups.

It revealed that of the 12.1 percent of America’s black population, 30 percent live in Census Block Groups that are 75 percent black or more.

The map also shows that 75 percent of blacks live in only 16 percent of the country’s Census Block Groups and that 50 percent live in neighborhoods that have a combined black and Latino population of 66.85 percent or more.

In Tallahassee, residential segregation is largely geographic, with most of the city’s black residents appearing to live in areas near Florida A&M, around the city’s southside, the historically black Frenchtown neighborhood, a few enclaves in the city’s northwest extremes.

The city has six Census Block Groups in which no blacks reside, these groups include: the Betton Hills neighborhood on Thomasville Road and the Old Town neighborhood near Leon High School.

Juanita Gaston, director of the FAMU Census Information Center and associate professor of Geography, said she is not surprised by the data.

“If we examined the distribution of the black population in the decennial censuses from 1930 onward, this [map] would probably mirror those censuses,” Gaston said.

Historically, blacks have not always lived in near-exclusive neighborhoods. According to George Metcalf’s, “Fair Housing Comes of Age,” a book analyzing the implications of the Fair Housing Act of 1968, blacks were “scattered” throughout predominantly white neighborhoods in the South prior to the Great Depression.

This changed however with the emergence of cheap public housing projects targeted toward non-whites, along with a large exodus of blacks from the South from 1916-30; and with the “White Flight” from urban cores to then-developing suburbs following World War II.

Although a large number of blacks left the South during the “Great Migration,” Gaston said that many stayed in the region, which mirrors what current data tells about where large Black populations are concentrated.

“True, blacks started leaving the South in the early 20th century moving to ghettos in the north, Detroit, Chicago, New York. etc., but the majority stayed in the south in or near areas in which that they are presently concentrated,” said Gaston.

After close analysis, despite the map’s apparent accuracy depicting residential segregation, Gaston said the map has limitations.

“The range of 3 to 50 percent black is too wide and may conceal some changes in the concentrations of blacks in the block groups,” said Gaston.

“For example, if the 3 – 50 percent category were broken into three groups, one may note some changes in the concentration (residential segregation) of blacks since the last Census.”

And as expected by Remapping Debate, the map raises some questions according to Gaston.

“Considering the limitation of the map, an appropriate question may be : What changes have occurred in residential segregated over the past decades? Has it lessened or become more intense? If we look at the data, we would probably find that residential segregation has decreased for blacks, but is still relatively high,” said Gaston.

One of the key goals of the Fair Housing Act, championed by former president Lyndon Johnson, was “to provide opportunities for all persons to reside in any given housing development, regardless of race, color, religion, sex, disability, familial status, or national origin.”

Title VIII of the Civil Rights Act of 1968, which is commonly known as the Fair Housing Act was signed into law just one week after Martin Luther King Jr.’s assassination.

But Craig Gurian, editor of Remapping Debate, believes civil rights policies like the Fair Housing Act include language that, in the end, benefits a specific group and hurts others.

“Indeed, the treatment of a single policy direction as something akin to a natural phenomenon conceals the fundamental fact that each policy put or kept in place does reflect a decision that serves some interests more than others,” said Gurian.

Cynthia Cook, assistant professor of sociology in FAMU’s Sociology and Criminal Justice Department agrees with Gaston and Gurian, and said other explanations exist for residential segregation.

“The segregation depicted on the map is a monument of the ‘Old South,’ where people may be living in houses they’ve inherited in segregated neighborhoods,” Cook said.

Cook believes income may play also a crucial role in residential segregation.

“You also must consider income distribution among blacks in Tallahassee. People generally live in neighborhoods they can afford.”

Blacks have a medium income of $39,879; and approximately 35.4 percent live below the federal poverty line, according to the most recent numbers released by the Census Bureau in 2008.

“Research shows that blacks of all economic levels are highly segregated from whites. I believe that numerous factors play a role from preferences to differences in purchasing power,” Gaston referring to a non-technical review compiled by Mark Fossett, a sociologist in Texas A&M University’s Racial and Ethnic Studies Institute.

Cook, who like Gaston was not shocked by the data, said she believes segregation would diminish as time progresses.

“I think [segregation] will change with the years. As more people move in, the social climate of the city will change,” said Cook, who added that she lives in diverse neighborhood.

So too, did Tallahassee resident Sheryl Hamm, who according to the map, lives in a mixed neighborhood off of Kerry Forest Parkway.

“I grew up in Houston and I think this [segregation] is something you see everywhere. I do think it will change though,” Hamm said.

However, Gaston said residential segregation is a major barrier in the economic progression of blacks and said the map’s data speaks to the general social attitude of America.

“In King’s speech in August 1963, he stated ‘One hundred years later, the life of the Negro is still sadly crippled by the manacles of segregation and the chains of discrimination,'” Gaston said.

“Today, we find that blacks are still crippled by residential segregation, for their educational and employment opportunities are restricted by their place of residence.”