In 1968, President Lyndon B. Johnson signed the Fair Housing Act to end racist policies designed to keep housing opportunities away from African Americans and other people of color. But nearly 50 years later, residential racial segregation remains almost unchanged in many cities around the United States, where race and class still determine social mobility.

Although many cities are more diverse than they were half a century ago, White Americans are still more likely to segregate themselves from Black Americans than from Asian and Latinx Americans, according to a report from the Brookings Institution. And many invisible forces—including unfair mortgage lending, racial steering from real estate agents and the underappreciation of homes owned by people of color—stand in the way of true integration.

In their new book, “Cycle of Segregation,” sociologists Maria Krysan and Kyle Crowder scrutinize these systems, examining how people’s perceptions, social networks and everyday experiences perpetuate residential segregation. Through in-depth interviews with Black, Latinx and White residents in Chicago, and the analysis of large data sets from the American Housing Survey and the Panel Study of Inome Dynamics, Krysan and Crowder reveal how hidden bias informs the ways people search for homes, and the impact that can have on residential segregation.

Krysan and Crowder spoke to Colorlines about the hidden social dynamics that shape racial divisions.

What are some of the self-reinforcing processes that keep cities segregated?

Kyle Crowder: Social networks—the connections to other people that we have that provide us with information about residential opportunities—and the experiences of people in our social networks living in or interacting in other neighborhoods. Our own residential histories, so the kinds of places we’ve lived during the course of our lifetime, our daily interactions, and the kinds of neighborhoods that we access for work, school, church and shopping. Because all of those social interactions are racially circumscribed, we’ve developed knowledge and perception about different sets of neighborhoods. In that sense, residential segregation becomes self-reinforcing because it creates these separate social worlds that we are operating in on a daily basis that then informs our residential search process and reinforces segregation.

Maria Krysan: Typically people focus on three things to explain segregation. First, that it’s an economic argument. There’s racial inequality, income and wealth, and that translates into segregation. There’s also the idea of segregation barring people from certain neighborhoods. And then there is the idea of preferences; people just live in segregated neighborhoods because that’s what they want. Part of the argument of our book is that those processes that are self-perpetuating link to those big three as well. 

How do race and class intersect in the decision-making process of finding a place to live?

KC: The typical conception of the search process is, “Well it’s time for me to move, I’m going to look at all the neighborhoods in my metropolitan area and choose the one that best matches my set of preferences and what I can afford.” What we’re trying to do is say, okay, let’s step back and think of all the things that precede that stage of the search process. Let’s think about how our daily lives shape our knowledge about those residential options. We’re not viewing all of the neighborhoods within our metropolitan area. Instead, we’re choosing within a limited set of neighborhoods, and the set of neighborhoods we actually examine and consider within that residential mobility process is a function of all of those preceding social processes that we talked about—our daily lives, our social networks and our residential experiences. 

MK: In the book, we talk about how [people filter places out]. People do it through the use of heuristics, through shortcuts of ways to make quick decisions about places they would or wouldn’t move to. The way race and class can become intertwined in that process is that, in the United States in particular, there’s a tight correlation in people’s minds between social class characteristics of a community and its racial composition. Race and class become intertwined in people’s imaginations about what neighborhoods are like—and they eliminate them. White people eliminate neighborhoods based on one little piece of information they know because they bloom that one piece of information into being able to characterize everything about that place, probably. There’s kind of this social-psychological intertwining of race and class.

In some of the interviews in your book, Black, Latinx and White subjects provide accounts of the resources that exist within their social networks. For example, one White subject heard about a job opportunity from a neighbor, and another White subject inherited property from a deceased family member. What do social networks reveal about wealth accumulation and segregation across generations?

KC: Where our parents lived and where we grew up has a really big impact on where we end up living. We might not end up living in the same neighborhood, but we end up living in the same type of neighborhood. All of this has implications for intergenerational transmission of segregation. If our families are segregated, we are going to be more likely segregated. As we know, the value of homes and the appreciation of homes varies dramatically across neighborhoods with different racial compositions. One of the biggest sources of racial differences in wealth is related to the fact that there is a lower appreciation of the homes that are owned by Black families than is true for White families. Maintenance of that intergenerational segregation has huge implications for intergenerational transmission of wealth. And then of course, there’s the whole inheritance part. If you’re [White and] passing down more valuable homes, that advantages your children in ways that African Americans and other minorities might not experience.

How could looking at perceptions and the housing selection process inform policy decisions? Especially right now, when there are a lot of issues going on with housing discrimination, like Housing and Urban Development Secretary Ben Carson saying he wants to reinterpret Obama-era rules on fair housing. 

MK: If we go back to the big three we talked about—economics, discrimination and preferences—and basically say, if we equalize the economic situation, or if we eliminate all discrimination, or just make people all want to live together, then we solve the problem. It feels very uncomplicated, but really impossible to accomplish. By looking at it through the housing search process, and seeing different drivers of segregation that extend beyond those three and intersect with those three, it opens up more avenues to move the needle on segregation. This means that it’s very important what the federal government does, but we’ve opened up ways in which local and state entities can also try to intervene in this process. 

KC: You mention Ben Carson’s reinterpretation of the affirmative furthering of integration. Since the federal government did so much to create segregation, we often think about the government as being primarily responsible for integrating our metropolitan areas. There are lots of different levers that we can pull if we take this more holistic view of the drivers of residential segregation. Ironically though, one of the things the federal government could do is require neighborhoods and communities to have an eye on these efforts to be intentional about integrating. If communities become intentional about advertising opportunities for affordable housing and receptivity in their areas, it helps to broaden that knowledge across the population of the fuller-swath of residential opportunities. If the federal government eases off on the requirement to do those kinds of things, then the racially-circumscribed social networks and racial experiences will continue to drive people into racially homogenous places. 

This interview has been edited for space and clarity.