Schelling and Segregation

Tyler Cowen of Marginal Revolution, who was mentored by Thomas Schelling at Harvard, praises Schelling’s Nobel prize by noting, among other things, Schelling’s analysis of the economics of segregation:

Tom showed how communities can end up segregated even when no single individual cares to live in a segregated neighborhood. Under the right conditions, it only need be the case that the person does not want to live as a minority in the neighborhood, and will move to a neighborhood where the family can be in the majority. Try playing this game with white and black chess pieces, I bet you will get to segregation pretty quickly.

True, but trivial. For, like many game-theoretic tricks, Schelling’s segregation gambit omits much important detail.

To begin with, blacks are not culturally homogeneous. Thomas Sowell argues, rather persuasively to this native of the North, that

[t]here have always been large disparities, even within the native black population of the U.S. Those blacks whose ancestors were “free persons of color” in 1850 have fared far better in income, occupation, and family stability than those blacks whose ancestors were freed in the next decade by Abraham Lincoln. . . .

The redneck culture [prevalent in the South] proved to be a major handicap for both whites and blacks who absorbed it. Today, the last remnants of that culture can still be found in the worst of the black ghettos, whether in the North or the South, for the ghettos of the North were settled by blacks from the South. The counterproductive and self-destructive culture of black rednecks in today’s ghettos is regarded by many as the only “authentic” black culture–and, for that reason, something not to be tampered with. Their talk, their attitudes, and their behavior are regarded as sacrosanct.

The people who take this view may think of themselves as friends of blacks. But they are the kinds of friends who can do more harm than enemies.

As Sowell explains more fully in his essay “Black Rednecks and White Liberals” (from the eponymous book) Northerners were rather accepting of the blacks in their midst until the great migrations of Southern blacks to the North from the 1930s onward. Then whites began to flee the neighborhoods into which Southern blacks were moving. The “old line” blacks sought to do the same, but they had less success than whites because the “old line” blacks became identified with the uncouth intruders from the South.

It is therefore meaningless to treat segregation as a game in which all whites are willing to live with black neighbors as long as they (the whites) aren’t in the minority. Most whites (including most liberals) do not want to live anywhere near any black rednecks if they can help it. Living in relatively safe, quiet, and attractive surroundings comes far ahead of whatever value there might be in “diversity.”

“Diversity” for its own sake is nevertheless a “good thing” in the liberal lexicon. The Houston Chronicle notes Schelling’s Nobel by saying that Schelling’s work

helps explain why housing segregation continues to be a problem, even in areas where residents say they have no extreme prejudice to another group.

Segregation isn’t a “problem,” it’s the solution to a potential problem. Segregation today is mainly a social phenomenon, not a legal one. It reflects a rational aversion on the part of whites to having neighbors whose culture breeds crime and other types of undesirable behavior.

As for what people say about their racial attitudes: Believe what they do, not what they say. Most well-to-do liberals choose to segregate themselves and their children from black rednecks. That kind of voluntary segregation, aside from demonstrating liberal hypocrisy about black redneck culture, also demonstrates the rationality of choosing to live in safer and more decorous surroundings.

Nor is segregation confined to cities. It has spread to the suburbs, as well, because black redneck culture has — too commonly — followed blacks there.

Related posts: Affirmative Action and Race (a collection of links)