Discriminatory lending, high-priced housing and other factors are often cited as reasons for racial segregation in Milwaukee and the suburbs.
But a new study is turning the spotlight on another phenomenon that the researchers say should not be overlooked: the tendency among some people to prefer living in segregated neighborhoods.
A study released Tuesday by the Public Policy Forum research group finds that although minorities face many roadblocks to equal housing opportunities, racial isolation often is a matter of individual preference.
“Choice plays an important role in persistent boundaries of segregation,” the study concludes, referring to the phenomenon as “cultural affinity.”
When asked to describe the racial makeup of their ideal setting, a neighborhood dominated by their own race was cited by 51% of blacks, 47% of whites and 18% of Hispanics. In each group, a small percentage said they would like to ban another race entirely.
Those affiliated with the study, which is based on interviews with 800 families, said a lack of funding prevented them from probing deeper into why home-buyers and other residents congregate with people of their own race.
A housing activist said the 32-page study raises an important point that could advance efforts to integrate southeastern Wisconsin, where minorities are concentrated in Milwaukee and the suburbs are overwhelmingly white.
William Tisdale, president of the Metropolitan Milwaukee Fair Housing Council, said people often settle in segregated neighborhoods because they find a higher comfort level surrounded by their own race. As whites abandon a neighborhood or community, Tisdale said, minorities often decide that staying put is less stressful than confronting discrimination and other obstacles to equal opportunity.
“They’re kind of stuck, so cultural affinity develops,” he said. “It just kind of happens.”
Others, however, are questioning the new study’s findings.
Glen Lewinski, director of community development for Waukesha County, said a survey of 800 households does not seem to represent a reliable sample in a region of more than 1.5 million people.
Jeff Browne, executive director of the Public Policy Forum, said the sample was weighted to reflect the racial makeup of the four-county area. The size of the sample assures that the results should vary by no more than 3.5 percentage points for white respondents, but by as much as 9 percentage points for black respondents.
But the survey’s results echoed past research in other cities, which have found that the majority of African-Americans would prefer to live in a neighborhood that is at least 50% black.
Value of study questioned
Waukesha County turned down a request from the Public Policy Forum to help fund the study.
Lewinski, who had not yet read the findings, said Waukesha County officials questioned whether the research would reveal anything new about housing segregation—an issue that Lewinski described as fairly simple.
“If you can afford to live somewhere, you live there,” he said. “It doesn’t take a genius to figure out.”
In addition to the Public Policy Forum, the estimated $20,000 study was funded by Milwaukee County, M&I Bank, the Greater Milwaukee Foundation, the Helen Bader Foundation, the Wisconsin Housing and Economic Development Authority and the Local Initiatives Support Corp.
Others that declined to participate included the City of Milwaukee and the Housing Authority of Racine County.
The Public Policy Forum, a non-profit group based in Milwaukee, originally hoped to raise $50,000.
Researchers spent two weeks in May and June conducting telephone interviews with 800 homeowners and renters in Milwaukee, Waukesha, Ozaukee and Washington counties.
As with past studies on the issue, Tuesday’s report, “Diversity, Choices and Housing,” shows that blacks and Hispanics have more difficulty than whites getting home mortgages, obtaining government assistance and finding helpful real estate brokers.
Study: Whites treated better
The study showed that whites often get more favorable mortgage interest rates than minorities, with a typical $100,000 loan sometimes costing blacks as much as $58,000 more in interest payments and Hispanics as much as $19,000 more.
Browne said such trends represent significant obstacles to housing diversity that could be redressed through changes in public policies or banking industry practices.
But he said that while some people are forced to live in segregation by outside influences, others do so voluntarily.
“There’s no question that it’s a complex issue,” he said.
Of those in the survey who said they would like to relocate, 50% of black respondents said they would prefer to live in Milwaukee, while 29% of Hispanics and 21% of whites said they would choose Milwaukee. The rest expressed preferences for various suburban areas.
How people decide where to live
Crime and housing costs were the biggest factors cited by most respondents in determining where they live, followed by schools, taxes and parks.
But the availability of public transportation was much more important in the location choices of minorities than for whites. Numerous studies have shown that African-Americans are less likely to own a car and more likely to depend on public transportation. This may make it more convenient for black people to rent or own a home in the city, Brown noted.
Leo Ries, director of the Local Initiatives Support Corp., an economic development group, said affinity toward one’s own race—even when voluntary—is a detriment to multicultural tolerance and understanding.
Hoping the new study fosters discussion of the issue, Ries said he disagrees with those who believe segregation in southeastern Wisconsin has been studied enough.
“I don’t think it’s been studied enough,” he said. “I don’t think we’re at the point yet where people are prepared to do something about it.”
The full text of “Diversity, Choices and Housing” is available here.