housing/residential segregation

In the working and middle class neighborhoods of many Southern cities, you fill find rows of “shotgun” houses. These houses are long and narrow, consisting of three or more rooms in a row. Originally, there would have been no indoor plumbing — they date back to the early 1800s in the U.S. — and, so, no bathroom or kitchen.

Here’s a photograph of a shotgun house I took in the 7th ward of New Orleans. It gives you an idea of just how skinny they are.

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In a traditional shotgun house, there are no hallways, just doors that take a person from one room to the next. Here’s my rendition of a shotgun floor plan; doors are usually all in a row:

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At nola.com, Richard Campanella describes the possible origins and sociological significance of this housing form. He follows folklorist John Michael Vlach, who has argued that shotgun houses are indigenous to Western and Central Africa, arriving in the American South via Haiti. Campella writes:

Vlach hypothesizes that the 1809 exodus of Haitians to New Orleans after the St. Domingue slave insurrection of 1791 to 1803 brought this vernacular house type to the banks of the Mississippi.

In New Orleans, shotgun houses are found in the parts of town originally settled by free people of color, people who would have identified as Creole, and a variety of immigrants. Outside of New Orleans, we tend to see shotgun houses in places with large black populations.

The house, though, doesn’t just represent a building technique, it tells a story about how families were expected to interact. Shotgun houses offer essentially zero privacy. Everyone has to tromp through everyone’s room to get around the house. There’s no expectation that a child won’t just walk into their parents’ room at literally any time, or vice versa. There’s no way around it.

“According to some theories,” then, Campanella says:

…cultures that produced shotgun houses… tended to be more gregarious, or at least unwilling to sacrifice valuable living space for the purpose of occasional passage.

Cultures that valued privacy, on the other hand, were willing to make this trade-off.

Sure enough, in the part of New Orleans settled by people of Anglo-Saxon descent, shotgun houses are much less common and, instead, homes are more “privacy-conscious.”

Over time, as even New Orleans became more and more culturally Anglo-Saxon — and as the housing form increasingly became associated with poverty — shotguns fell out of favor.  They’re enjoying a renaissance today but, as Campanella notes, many renovations of these historic buildings include a fancy, new hallway.

Cross-posted at A Nerd’s Guide to New Orleans.

Lisa Wade, PhD is a professor at Occidental College. She is the author of American Hookup, a book about college sexual culture, and a textbook about gender. You can follow her on Twitter, Facebook, and Instagram.

I encourage everyone to go read this very smart and very sad essay from Alex Andreuo at The Guardian. It’s a condemnation of defensive architecture, a euphemism for strategies that make the urban landscape inhospitable to the homeless.

They include benches with dividers that make it impossible to lie down, spikes and protrusions on window ledges and in front of store windows, forests of pointed cement structures under bridges and freeways, emissions of high pitched sounds, and sprinklers that intermittently go off on sidewalks to prevent camping overnight. There is also perpetually sticky anti-climb paint and corner urination guards, plus “viewing gardens” that take up space that might be attractive to homeless people. Here are some examples from a collection at Dismal Garden.

Andreuo writes of the psychological effect of these structures. They tell homeless people quite clearly that they are not wanted and that others not only don’t care, but are actively antagonistic to their comfort and well being. He says:

Defensive architecture is revealing on a number of levels, because it is not the product of accident or thoughtlessness, but a thought process. It is a sort of unkindness that is considered, designed, approved, funded and made real with the explicit motive to exclude and harass. It reveals how corporate hygiene has overridden human considerations…

If the corporations have turned to aggressive tactics, governments seem to simply be in denial. They offer few resources to homeless people and the ones they do offer are insufficient to serve everyone. Andreuo continues:

We curse the destitute for urinating in public spaces with no thought about how far the nearest free public toilet might be. We blame them for their poor hygiene without questioning the lack of public facilities for washing… Free shelters, unless one belongs to a particularly vulnerable group, are actually extremely rare.

He then connects the dots. “Fundamental misunderstanding of destitution,” he argues, “is designed to exonerate the rest from responsibility and insulate them from perceiving risk.” If homeless people are just failing to do right by themselves or take the help available to them, then only they are to blame for their situation. And, if only they are to blame, we don’t have to worry that, given just the right turn of events, it could happen to us.

Cross-posted at Pacific Standard.

Lisa Wade, PhD is a professor at Occidental College. She is the author of American Hookup, a book about college sexual culture, and a textbook about gender. You can follow her on Twitter, Facebook, and Instagram.

Urban planning is a partisan issue. The graph below, produced by the Pew Research Center, shows that the American public are evenly split between small, walkable communities (48%) and sprawling suburbs with McMansions (49%), but that split is strongly partisan.

77% of consistent liberals want to live in neighborhoods where “the houses are smaller and closer to each other, but schools, stores, and restaurants are within walking distance.” In contrast, 75% of consistent conservatives prefer it when “houses are larger and farther apart, but schools, stores, and restaurants are several miles away.”

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Relatedly, Americans are about evenly split between those who prefer to live in cities, suburbs, small towns, and rural areas, but there is a clear partisan divide.

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And everyone seems to agree that they want to be near family, good schools, and the outdoors, but liberals are significantly more likely to care if they’re near art museums and theaters.

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I’m familiar with the idea of the urban liberal and the rural conservative, but I’m still surprised by the strength of these correlations. If the preferences hold true in real life, it means that there is significant partisan residential segregation. That would translate into fewer friendships between people on different sides of the political spectrum, fewer conversations that help them see the others’ point of view, and more cross-group animosity.

In fact, that’s exactly what we see: a strongly partisan population that doesn’t talk to each other very much.

H/t Conrad Hackett. Cross-posted at Pacific Standard.

Lisa Wade, PhD is a professor at Occidental College. She is the author of American Hookup, a book about college sexual culture, and a textbook about gender. You can follow her on Twitter, Facebook, and Instagram.

We have become more aware that Americans’ chances of upward economic mobility have for decades been a lot lower than Americans imagined, that being poor or rich can last generations. Efforts to explain that lock-in have pointed to several patterns, from the intergenerational inheritance of assets (or debt, as the case may be) to intergenerational continuity in child-rearing styles (say, how much parents read to their children). In such ways, the past is not really past.

Increasingly, researchers have also identified the places – the communities, neighborhoods, blocks – where people live as a factor in slowing economic mobility. In a post earlier this year, I noted a couple of 2008 studies showing that growing up in poor neighborhoods impaired children’s cognitive skills and reduced their chances to advance beyond their parents. In this post, I report on further research by NYU sociologist Patrick Sharkey (here and here) suggesting that a bad environment can worsen the life chances not only of a child, but that of the child’s child, an unfortunate residential patrimony.

Consider the ways that the immediate environment shapes a child’s development. It does so physically. Air and soil pollution, noise, and traffic, for example, measurably affect children’s health, stress, and cognitive development. Local institutions and resources, such as the policing, quality of the schools, availability of health services, food options, parks, and so on matter, as well. And the social environment may matter most of all. Growing up in a community with gangs, dangerous streets, discouraging role models, confused social expectations, and few connections to outsiders commanding resources is a burden for any child. Just getting by day-to-day can be a struggle. (In a pair of studies, Sharkey found that a violent crime occurring near black children’s homes in the days before they took a standardized test reduced their scores on the test, presumably because of anxiety and distraction.)

In their research on historical effects, Sharkey and co-author Felix Elwert used a survey that has followed thousands of American families since 1968 (the PSID). The researchers know much about the adults in the survey, including where they lived when they were around 16, about the children they had and where those children lived around the age of six. The researchers also have the results from cognitive tests administered to those children in 2002.

Sharkey and Elwert found that living in a neighborhood where 20 percent or more of the residents are poor — many other things being held constant (including the parents’ education, health, and attitudes) — seems to lower the test scores of children. And so does having a parent who grew up in such a neighborhood. The effect on children of living in a poor neighborhood and having parents who had also are substantially greater than the effect of only the second generation living in a poor neighborhood. Moreover, the children of two generations of poor neighborhoods do much worse than those of two generations who managed to stay out of poor neighborhoods (over half a standard deviation worse). For technical reasons, these statistical results probably underestimate the real effect of neighborhood poverty on scores.

What appears to have happened is this: Survey respondents in the first generation who grew up in poor neighborhoods ran higher risks than other respondents, on average getting less education and worse jobs, if any, and bearing more physical, social, and psychological problems. Not surprisingly, they tended to end up in poor neighborhoods as adults. When this first generation became parents, they commonly passed on some of their personal disadvantages, such as weak reading skills, to their own children. And they also passed on their places, raising the second generation in poor neighborhoods, which further hampered their children. In this way, Sharkey and Elwert argue, neighborhood problems dragged down (at least) two generations.

No discussion of neighborhood effects can ignore the racial dimension, because the residential segregation of blacks has been and, though reduced, continues to be extreme: 41 percent of the African-American parent-child pairs in the study grew up in poor neighborhoods in both generations; only 2 percent of white families did. Poor whites were less likely to live in concentrated areas of poverty and are more likely to get out of them if they did. The weight of the past is much heavier for some than others.

Claude Fischer is a sociologist at UC Berkeley, is the author of Made in America: A Social History of American Culture and Character. This post originally appeared at Made in America and was re-posted on the Boston Review BR Blog.

2This photograph is of a Creole home right off the Mississippi river in Louisiana.  It served as the home of two families who ran a sugar cane plantation, starting in 1805. CIMG0260 I visited the home as a part of a tour of Laura Plantation and I found one architectural detail particularly interesting.  The tour guide described the two sets of double doors immediately behind the staircase as the “brise” (French for breeze, as the Creole would have spoken French). 20140428_143523 These doors were not for use by people.  They were only to let the breeze in.  They were essentially air ducts, said the tour guide and, to Creole folks, using those doors would have been as odd as entering the house through a window. Instead, according to Creole tradition, visitors were to enter through one of the doors on the far right or left of the house.  These delivered guests to the men’s and women’s quarters: one room with a bedroom, a dresser, and a desk.

All this, of course, was very bizarre to the new Americans of British descent who came to Louisiana to do business.  The front doors of their homes were in the middle of the house and they led to an entryway or reception area.  To them, it would have been very odd indeed to enter the house at one end and even more strange to enter someone’s bedroom.  Moreover, since Laura Plantation was run by women for many years, this meant doing business in a woman boudoir. How scandalous.

This is a great example of the social construction of space. Where is the proper place for a front door? What kind of activities take place in the same room? What rooms/furniture are appropriate for strangers to see? Non-Creoles had to learn how to do business in a new way — perhaps accidentally bungling their entry by knocking at the window — and, ultimately, Laura and the other female presidents of the plantation would have to negotiate their expectations, by separating the bed and office for example. Something as simple as a front door, then, turns out to be a really neat example of social construction and social change.

Cross-posted at Pacific Standard and A Nerd’s Guide to New Orleans.

Lisa Wade, PhD is a professor at Occidental College. She is the author of American Hookup, a book about college sexual culture, and a textbook about gender. You can follow her on Twitter, Facebook, and Instagram.

American divisions over the state of our country’s race relations were brought to the forefront in the aftermath of Mike Brown’s shooting by a Ferguson, MO police officer named Darren Wilson. Black Americans are more than twice as likely as whites or Hispanics to say that the killing was part of a broader pattern (source).  And blacks are twice as likely as whites to say that race played an important role in Wilson’s decision to shoot (source).

At The Atlantic, Robert Jones argues that these disparate opinions may be caused, in part, by the different life experiences of the typical white and black American. He shows data, from the American Values Survey, indicating that black people are much more likely than whites to report living in communities rife with problems, from a lack of jobs and inadequate school funding to crime and racial tension.

In the meantime, whites may be genuinely naive about what it’s like to be black in America because many of them don’t know any black people.  According to the survey, the average white American’s social network is only 1% black.  Three-quarters of white Americans haven’t had a meaningful conversation with a single non-white person in the last six months.

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In contrast, the social network of the average black American is 65% black and, among Hispanic Americans, 46% Hispanic.

The average white person’s failure to engage meaningfully with people of color isn’t solely a matter of personal choice, though that is certainly part of it.  Nor is it simply a function of the country being majority white, non-Hispanic (but not for long).  White insularity is caused, too, by occupational and residential segregation which, in turn, is the result of both individual choices and institutionalized mechanisms that keep black people in poverty and prison.

If we want the people of America to embrace justice, we must make our institutions just.

Cross-posted at Pacific Standard.

Lisa Wade, PhD is a professor at Occidental College. She is the author of American Hookup, a book about college sexual culture, and a textbook about gender. You can follow her on Twitter, Facebook, and Instagram.

Here’s solid data on how some white Americans see black Americans:

1H/t New York Times.

Lisa Wade, PhD is a professor at Occidental College. She is the author of American Hookup, a book about college sexual culture, and a textbook about gender. You can follow her on Twitter, Facebook, and Instagram.

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Happy Graduation, Seniors! Congratulations! What’s next?  Below is some sociologically-inspired, out-of-the-box advice on work, love, family, friendship, and the meaning of life.  For new grads from the two of us!

1. Don’t Worry About Making Your Dreams Come True

College graduates are often told: “follow your passion,” do “what you love,” what you were “meant to do,” or “make your dreams come true.”  Two-thirds think they’re going find a job that allows them to change the world, half within five years.  Yikes.

This sets young people up to fail. The truth is that the vast majority of us will not be employed in a job that is both our lifelong passion and a world-changer; that’s just not the way our global economy is. So it’s ok to set your sights just a tad below occupational ecstasy.  Just find a job that you like.  Use that job to help you have a full life with lots of good things and pleasure and helping others and stuff.  A great life is pretty good, even if it’s not perfect.

2. Make Friends

Americans put a lot of emphasis on finding Mr. or Ms. Right and getting married. We think this will bring us happiness.  In fact, however, both psychological well-being and health are more strongly related to friendship.  If you have good friends, you’ll be less likely to get the common cold, less likely to die from cancer, recover better from the loss of a spouse, and keep your mental acuity as you age.  You’ll also feel more capable of facing life’s challenges, be less likely to feed depressed or commit suicide, and be happier in old age.  Having happy friends increases your chance of being happy as much as an extra $145,500 a year does.  So, make friends!

3. Don’t Worry  about Being Single

Single people, especially women, are stigmatized in our society: we’re all familiar with the image of a sad, lonely woman eating ice cream with her cats in her pajamas on Saturday night. But about 45% of U.S. adults aren’t married and around 1 in 7 lives alone.

This might be you.  Research shows that young people’s expectations about their marital status (e.g., the desire to be married by 30 and have kids by 32) have little or no relationship to what actually happens to people.  So, go with the flow.

And, if you’re single, you’re in good company.  Single people spend more time with friends, volunteer more, and are more involved in their communities than married people. Never-married and divorced women are happier, on average, than married women. So, don’t buy into the myth of the miserable singleton.

4. Don’t Take Your Ideas about Gender and Marriage Too Seriously

If you do get married, be both principled and flexible.  Relationship satisfaction, financial security, and happy kids are more strongly related to the ability to adapt in the face of life’s challenges than any particular way of organizing families.  The most functional families are ones that can bend.  So partnering with someone who thinks that one partner should support their families and the other should take responsibility for the house and children is a recipe for disaster.  So is being equally rigid about non-traditional divisions of labor.  It’s okay to have ideas about how to organize your family – and, for the love of god, please talk about both your ideals and fallback positions on this – but your best bet for happiness is to be flexible.

5. Think Hard About Whether to Buy a House

Our current image of the American Dream revolves around homeownership, and buying a home is often taken for granted as a stage on the path to full-fledge adulthood. But the ideal of universal home ownership was born in the 1950s.  It’s a rather new idea.

With such a short history, it’s funny that people often insist that buying a house is a fool-proof investment and the best way to secure retirement.  In fact, buying a house may not be the best choice for you. The mortgage may be less than rent, but there are also taxes, insurance, and the increasingly common Home Owners Association (HOA) fees. You may someday sell the house for more than you bought it but, if you paid interest on a mortgage, you also paid far more than the sale price.  You have freedom from a landlord, but may discover your HOA is just as controlling, or worse.  And then there’s the headache: renting relieves you from the stress of being responsible for repairs. It also offers a freedom of movement that you might cherish.

So, think carefully about whether buying or renting is a better fit for your finances, lifestyle, and future goals. This New York Times rent vs. buy calculator is a good start.

6. Think Even Harder about Having Kids

One father had this to say about children: “They’re a huge source of joy, but they turn every other source of joy to shit.” In fact, having children correlates with both an increased sense of purpose in life and a long-lasting decrease in individual and marital happiness.  Having kids means spending a lot of your short life and limited income on one source of joy. It’s not a bad decision. But it’s also not the only good decision you can make. We want to think we can “have it all” but, in fact, it’s a zero sum game. You have only so much time and money and there are lots of ways to find satisfaction, pleasure, and meaning in this life.  Consider all your options.

Lisa Wade is a professor of sociology at Occidental College. You can follow her on Twitter and Facebook.  Gwen Sharp is a professor of sociology at Nevada State College. You can follow her on Twitter.

Originally posted in 2013 and cross-posted at The Huffington Post and PolicyMic (with gifs!).