Separate and unequal mobility

May 17 marks the 60th anniversary of the Supreme Court’s decision to ban racial segregation in schools, Brown v. Board of Education. The decision was a major step toward tearing down racial barriers in the United States. Sadly the progress toward more integrated schools has stalled quite a bit in recent years. Jamelle Bouie, writing at Slate, points out that racial integration of schools hasn’t progressed much recently and that residential segregation is a major factor in this trend. Nikole Hannah-Jones of ProPublica also documented this trend in the Atlantic, finding that resegregation is probably the more apt description in recent years.

This state of affairs is distressing in and of itself, but research shows the major effect of segregation on the mobility prospects of students of color. Earlier this year economists Raj Chetty and Nathaniel Hendren of Harvard University, and Patrick Kline and Emmanuel Saez, of the University of California, Berkeley, released data on the variation in upward mobility in the United States. The researchers looked at the chances a child born in a certain “commuting zone,” or local labor market, had of moving up in the national income distribution. They found massive variation within the country and identified characteristics of commuting zones that were strongly correlated with upward mobility.

What’s particularly interesting is that when the authors first did their data analysis they found commuting zones with larger African American populations experienced lower levels of mobility. But those lower levels of mobility were for all residents of the commuting zones, not just African American residents. When they dug further into the data, they found that residential segregation was a strong driver of this result. They also found that the quality of the local Kindergarten-through-12 grade schools was strongly related with upward mobility.

The interaction of these two variables are gravely concerning for the mobility chances of black Americans. Segregation may be a drag on mobility by itself, but it may also restrict black students from high quality K-12 schools. These children are not only socially isolated and most likely placed in subpar schools due to their zip code. Efforts to improve the quality of K-12 schools would certainly help mobility prospects, but housing policy can also help by alleviating residential segregation.

Sixty years ago our nation’s high court took a major step toward promoting integration and mobility for Americans of color. With our present concerns about mobility, we’d do well to follow their example.

May 16, 2014


Economic Mobility

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