Black youth aren’t isolated in segregated neighborhoods

A surprising new study has found that urban Black youth living in segregated neighborhoods spent a substantial amount of time in areas with mostly white residents.

The study – the first of its kind to follow youth using GPS on smartphones – found that Black teens living in segregated areas of Columbus spent about 40% of their nonhome time in neighborhoods where Black people were the minority.

This finding goes against a long-held view that a major reason for the social disparities experienced by urban Black people is that they are isolated in segregated neighborhoods, said Christopher Browning, lead author of the study and professor of sociology at The Ohio State University.

“Our results go against this picture of geographic isolation for urban Black youth that has been dominant among researchers for decades,” Browning said.

“Instead, we find evidence of what we called ‘compelled mobility’ – the fact that Black youth had to leave their neighborhoods and go to predominantly white neighborhoods to find better-resourced schools, stores and other organizations that often weren’t available where they lived.”

The findings were published online recently in the American Journal of Sociology.

Data for the study came from the Adolescent Health and Development in Context study, which Browning leads. The AHDC study examines the lives of 1,405 representative youths ages 11-17 living in 184 neighborhoods in Franklin County, Ohio. This includes Columbus and its suburbs. This study includes data from 2014 to 2016.

Columbus was a good site for the study because it is about average among U.S. cities on key indicators of racial composition and segregation, Browning said.

Participating youth carried a smartphone provided by the researchers for one week that reported their location about once every 30 seconds.  They also completed short surveys up to five times a day reporting where they had been and what they were doing.

Using census data, the researchers were able to determine the racial composition of all the neighborhoods the youths visited during the study.  They could tell if they were in neighborhoods where whites were the residential majority, Blacks were the majority, or in areas that were mixed race.

This study is the first to investigate how a large, representative sample of urban teenagers move through neighborhoods using near-continuous GPS data from smartphones, Browning said.

Results showed that it was white youth living in mostly white neighborhoods who experienced the most racial isolation – they spent about 89% of their nonhome time in white-dominated neighborhoods and only about 2% of their time in Black-dominated areas.

In contrast, Black youth from segregated neighborhoods spent about 40% of their nonhome time in white-dominated neighborhoods, and about one-quarter of their time in neighborhoods with racial compositions like their own.

Overall, the results suggested that Black youth living in segregated neighborhoods spent about 2.5 hours a day in mostly white neighborhoods, 2.4 hours a day in racially mixed neighborhoods and 1.5 hours in mostly Black neighborhoods.

That means the amount of time Black-segregated youth spend in mostly white neighborhoods is over 2.5 times the amount of nonhome time that youth on average in the study spent in their own neighborhoods, which was about 55 minutes a day, Browning said.

“It wasn’t Black youth who were geographically isolated in our study – it was much more likely to be white youth,” he said.

But why did Black youths spend so much time in white-dominated neighborhoods?  That’s where the term “compelled mobility” comes in, Browning said. The mobility data showed that the teens most often were in white neighborhoods when seeking organizational resources which may not have been available in their home neighborhoods.

Results showed that when they were at schools, segregated Black youth were in white-dominated neighborhoods 47% of the time; when they were at commercial locations such as stores, they were in white neighborhoods 42% of the time.

“For many Black youth, their neighborhoods either lack schools or don’t have well-resourced schools, they lack grocery stores, banks, etc.,” Browning said.

“That results in them having to go elsewhere to find these resources and they are disproportionately located in white neighborhoods.”

The results call into question the explanation that the disadvantages that Black youth living in segregated areas experience are because they have limited exposure to economically advantaged – and often whiter – communities, Browning said.

“Black youth living in segregated, economically disadvantaged neighborhoods are regularly navigating white neighborhood environments,” he said.

“The claim that there are differences across neighborhoods in norms and expectations and that Black youth aren’t familiar with expectations outside of Black-segregated areas is a less convincing explanation for why they face disadvantages.”

In fact, compelled mobility may add to the burden faced by young Black people, Browning said.

While going to white neighborhoods may allow Black youth to access resources, it can come at a cost. This study doesn’t address this issue, but Black youth may face more scrutiny, monitoring, harassment and discrimination when they go to white-dominated areas of the city.

“These are issues that white youth don’t have to face when they go to school or stores or other places that are largely in their own neighborhoods, or ones very similar to theirs,” he said.

The research was supported by the National Institute on Drug Abuse, the Eunice Kennedy Shriver National Institute on Child Health and Human Development and the William T. Grant Foundation.

Co-authors on the study were Jake Tarrence and Catherine Calder at the University of Texas at Austin and Nicolo Pinchak and Bethany Boettner at Ohio State.


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