Tuesday, October 3, 2023

The Impact of Residential Segregation and Poverty on Black Immigrants in the United States

Guest blogger: Abigail Tesfaye, law student, University of San Francisco

In the United States of America, there is a history of policies and practices that have marginalized and oppressed Black people since the early history of this country. Residential segregation between Black and White Americans continues to be a critical source for areas of inopportunity. Residential segregation contributes to a vast amount of socioeconomic problems, such as poverty, access to education, healthcare and overall quality of life. In the United States, where one out of ten immigrants are Black1, we see the disproportionate impact on segregation and its consequences on Black immigrants.

To begin, we look to the history of racist zoning ordinances in the United States. After the Great Migration from the South, there was an influx of Black Americans to the Midwest and the North. There was an increase in population in industrial cities, and simply the non-Southern states were not quite happy with it. Racially motivated laws were enacted that prohibited African Americans from owning or renting homes in certain neighborhoods that were predominantly white. This laid out the framework for racial segregation as we see it today. Although later outlawed, the structures themselves have remained prevalent2.  Later in the 19th century, the Federal Housing Administration refused mortgages in African American neighborhoods3. This branch of racial segregation saw the beginnings of the socioeconomic disparities caused by zoning segregation.

So, why does this matter?  Residential segregation is so imperative to understand Black disparities today, because the areas in which people live directly correlate with their quality of life. It can be traced back to their access to transportation, education, employment and health care4. Racial segregation forced Black Americans into neighborhoods that they were permitted to take space in, and to no coincidence, these neighborhoods were ones with much higher poverty rates than their white counterparts. Higher poverty-stricken neighborhoods were, and continue to be, predominately made up of Black and Brown individuals and families. With this, Black Americans have had less access to equal education, jobs, and resources than other neighborhoods. Without this generational advantage, it allows for a painful cycle of disadvantaged Black Americans in these communities with less access to resources needed not only for survival, but to thrive.

How does this affect immigration, specifically that of Black immigrants? It goes without saying that one of the most important aspects of the future success of an immigrant is where they start their new life. The socioeconomic conditions of a country, state, neighborhood is imperative to the future quality of life of an immigrant and their family. As of 2022, 95% of Black immigrants in the United States are living in a metropolitan area.5 This means that when Black immigrants first come to this country, an overwhelming majority of them are moving to bigger, more dense cities. Within these cities, we see that among all cultures, birds of the same flock fly together. This means that certain diverse groups are more likely to reside in communities that reflect themselves, which is why we see hubs in larger cities with pockets of different ethnic groups. Therefore, when we look at the historic racial segregation and the structure it has left behind in our current day, it is no doubt that Black immigrants moving into these historically Black American neighborhoods have poorer outcomes than their counterparts.

Black immigrants have socioeconomic outcomes that follow a pattern similar to Black Americans born in the United States. They are more likely to be poor while still working, less likely to have health insurance, and more likely to be of low income.6  Statistically, Black immigrants have higher labor force participation than their counterparts, but still experience lower wages. It is also more likely for Black immigrants to work in lower skilled jobs when they have higher education than their counterparts7.  This is all relative to the concentration of Black individuals in lower economic neighborhoods through the historic impact of residential segregation and poverty. When immigrants reside in lower economic neighborhoods, the opportunities offered to them are not the same, nor as accessible, to other immigrant groups. If higher paid, higher skilled opportunities and employment are not present within their communities, they must travel further to seek such opportunities. This is not always feasible, as transportation may not be as readily accessible within their neighborhoods or not affordable to those experiencing poverty.

 Residential segregation not only limits the economic opportunities and holistic welfare of Black Americans, but we have seen how it negatively impacts Black immigrants as well. In order to address this, there needs to be a systemic uphaul of the system in order to implement and change the access to social services in an equitable manner. This must be done through a policy intervention collaboration with immigrant services as well as departments regulating social welfare, to address the root cause of the discrimination United States born Black Americans and Black immigrants face.


  1. https://www.pewresearch.org/short-reads/2022/01/27/key-findings-about-black-immigrants-in-the-u-s/
  2. https://www.urban.org/racial-equity-analytics-lab/structural-racism-explainer-collection/causes-and-consequences-separate-and-unequal-neighborhoods
  3. https://www.urban.org/racial-equity-analytics-lab/structural-racism-explainer-collection/causes-and-consequences-separate-and-unequal-neighborhoods
  4. https://tcf.org/content/report/attacking-black-white-opportunity-gap-comes-residential-segregation/
  5. https://www.migrationpolicy.org/article/black-immigrants-united-states-hurdles-outcomes-top-cities
  6.  https://www.migrationpolicy.org/article/black-immigrants-united-states-hurdles-outcomes-top-cities
  7. https://www.migrationpolicy.org/pubs/AfricanMigrationUS.pdf



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