Research

American Apartheid: Segregation and the Making of the American Underclass

The Missing Link

Sociologists Douglas S. Massey and Nancy A. Denton chronicled the impact of years of residential segregation in their book American Apartheid. According to the authors:

The effect of segregation on black well-being is structural, not individual. Residential segregation lies beyond the ability of any individual to change it constrains black life chances irrespective of personal traits, individual motivations, or private achievement.1

Massey and Denton define residential segregation an institutional apparatus for institutional racism. Before Massey and Denton, numerous scholars and federal officials attempted to document this relationship. In 1944 Gunnar Myrdal published An American Dilemma. Over twenty years later, Kenneth B. Clark published a book titled  Dark Ghetto. In 1968, the federal government released the Kerner Commission Report and passed the Fair Housing Act.

In the 70s some scholars attempted to argue that residential segregation created an “urban underclass.” Several scholars generated ideas that revolved around this thesis. For instance, Oscar Lewis proposed urban dwellers suffered from a culture of poverty. Daniel Patrick Moynihan proposed a tangle of pathology affected the Black community.

These arguments got challenged, however, by scholars like Douglas Glasgow and Alphonso Pinkney, who blamed structural racism. Others, like William Julius Wilson, proposed that oppression went deeper than just race, leaving poorer Blacks to be “the truly disadvantaged.”

Massey and Denton wrote American Apartheid “to redirect the focus of public debate back to issues of race and racial segregation” in an effort “to suggest that they should be fundamental to thinking about the status of Black Americans and the origins of the urban underclass.”2

Massey and Denton steer the argument on race from a culture of poverty to a “culture of segregation.” They also do not blame the departure of the Black middle class from urban neighborhoods on creating concentrated poverty in cities. Instead, they argue that the Fair Housing Act should be applied systematically because residential segregation is the key structural factor responsible for Black poverty in the U.S.

The Construction of the Ghetto

Black and White people lived together before 1900, though not usually in cities, as they were not predominantly Black before the twentieth century. In 1870 Black people generally lived in the rural South and worked as sharecroppers. By 1970 they lived in urban areas, working in the manufacturing sector.

The Great Migration saw an increased movement of Black people from the South to the North and West. Further, European immigration came from Southern and Eastern Europe. Then in the 1920s, the population of immigrants started to skew Mexican. During this time period, the ghetto got created through a series of federal, state and local policies:

… Our use of the term “ghetto” refers only to the racial make-up of a neighborhood, it is not intended to describe anything about a black neighborhood, it is not intended to describe anything about a black neighborhood’s class composition. For our purposes, a ghetto is a set of neighborhoods that are exclusively inhabited by members of one group within which virtually all members of that group live.3

Before the Ghetto

Before the Civil War most cities had not industrialized. During the late nineteenth century, Black people did not live separate from White people though they did reside in the poorest areas. The population of Black people immediately near cities did not exceed 30% of residences. No urban ghettos existed, mostly due to racial prejudice and discrimination due to employment excluding Black people from all but manual and domestic labor.

Massey and Denton created an index of dissimilarity to measure the degree to which Black and White people evenly spread among neighborhoods in a city. Evenness refers to the racial composition of a cities as a whole. According to their research, Black and White segregation did not differ in kind from the spatial relationship to European immigrants.

At the time, there existed an interracial, mixed race elite, ranging from cities like Detroit and Milwaukee, many of them advocated for racial integration. For example, John Jones, a mixed race abolitionist and business owner from Chicago, got elected to the Cook County Board of Commissioners. Members of this elite supported integration and rejected Black separatism popularized by people like Marcus Garvey. Charles W. Chestnutt of North Carolina advocated for Black peole to adopt White middle class values.

Massey and Denton state that the typical Black resident of a Northern city in the 19th century would’ve lived in a predominately Black neighborhood, though some spaces in the South were becoming ghettoized. The South had no interracial elite due to Jim Crow laws:

Neighborhoods in many Southern cities evolved a residential structure characterized by broad avenues interspersed with small streets and alleys.”4

This spatial structure reveals the coloniality of space in that the avenues got built so that White families could live on them while their Black laborers and servants resided on the smaller streets.


  1. Massey and Denton 1998: 2 – 3 
  2. Massey and Denton 1998: 7 
  3. Massey and Denton 1990: 18 – 19 
  4. Massey and Denton 1998 

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