America’s Residential Caste System


In an interesting recent Politico opinion piece, Sheryll Cashin (a law professor at Georgetown University) dissects, what she calls ‘America’s residential caste system’.

America is starkly divided between neighborhoods that benefit from overinvestment and those that suffer from disinvestment. But identifying the geography of racial inequality also offers a mechanism for change.

These divides can literally be mapped, revealing the geography of racial inequality in America. While we don’t always think about it in this way, geography is key to understanding where and why inequality persists — and key to redressing it.

Anti-Black habits of disinvestment and plunder continue to this day. Government at all levels overinvests in affluent white space and disinvests in Black neighborhoods, with the exception of excessive spending on policing and incarceration. Many current public policies and processes encourage rather than discourage racial segregation. And competition between communities of abundance and communities of need sets up a budgetary politics in which affluent spaces and people usually win out.The end result is more residential sorting:A recent comprehensive analysis by the Othering and Belonging Institute found that 81 percent of metropolitan regions with a population above 200,000 were more segregated in 2019 than they were in 1990.

These mean realities should be called what they are — a system of residential caste that harms those who cannot buy their way into bastions of affluence, which is most Americans. Residential caste also contributes to the broken politics from which we all suffer: Racial segregation makes it easier for cynics to draw political boundaries that create ideological extremes, and for dog-whistling politicians to stoke fear and division.

Prof. Sheryll’s essay, is a part of her new forthcoming book “White Space, Black Hood: Opportunity Hoarding and Segregation in the Age of Inequality“, where she writes “I have identified three primary processes through which the ‘hood and affluent white space persist: boundary maintenance, opportunity hoarding and stereotype-driven surveillance”. She adds that healing is still possible and offers various solutions.

Understanding and acknowledging the role of geographic lines in structuring racial inequality presents an opportunity — a targeted mechanism for transformation.