Wednesday, March 18, 2009

A history of the making of the ghetto …

   What causes racial segregation and “ghettos”?  Behavioral economists point out that if most people prefer not to be a racial minority in their neighborhood, rather extreme segregation may occur by private sorting.  Sociologists point to the isolation that ghettos engender, which almost ensures their persistence.  But legal scholars also point to the role that government land use laws play in segregating by race.  Indeed, the original “ghetto” in Venice was so-called because of laws that confined Jews to the area near the foundry (the word “ghetto” supposedly derives from the Venetian dialect’s word for foundry).   Although American governments have been prevented for nearly a century from zoning by race of residents, for decades the policies of various government agencies (including mortgage insurers) was to discourage racial integration, through the practice of “redlining.”
   A new book that is getting a lot of publicity is “Family Properties” by Beryl Satter (see this review in the Washington Post.)  Although I don’t usually like to refer to books that I haven’t read, Satter’s book seems to be particularly timely, in that it draws a link between the pushing of subprime loans on minority households in recent years to the abuses of black families in housing in earlier decades.  Focusing on Chicago, Satter’s thesis appears to be that redlining facilitated the mistreatment by lenders and landlords, playing a large role in creating the dreary ghettos that still plague cities such as Chicago today.

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