Exploring the Kyriarchy: The Marginalization of Black Neighborhoods

Black people in the United States today suffer the effects of a history of institutional and social racism. One area in which these effects can be explored are in neighborhoods. Following the abolition of slavery, Jim Crow laws - especially in the American South - segregated neighborhoods, businesses, and public facilities. However, even after the passage of the Civil Rights Act of 1964, black people and neighborhoods still suffer from racial discrimination. The effects of historical federal redlining policies, environmental racism, unemployment, and over-policing leave black people unequal in the US.  


An interactive map released in October 2016 documents the history of redlining and how it’s effects still exist today. Redlining was a 1930s federal government policy that graded neighborhoods on riskiness in terms of mortgages. Banks then used these grades to make decisions about home loans. As the interactive map shows, neighborhoods with people of color were given the lowest grades, and those close to black neighborhoods were also rated as risky. Black neighborhoods were devalued specifically because of the skin color of the people who lived there.

Redlining significantly contributed to the wealth gap between people of color and whites. In the 20th century homeownership was an investment that allowed families to pass wealth on to their children. Because black families were shut out of homeownership opportunities, they missed out on opportunities to invest in the future for their families.

Redlining policies also encouraged white neighborhoods to strictly enforce race based policies regarding who was allowed to move in. As the 2016 redlining map notes, some neighborhoods that were highly rated were highly restrictive, meaning that they kept out people of color. Just one black household increased the riskiness, and affected the rating under redlining policies. 

Unemployment and the Black Wage Gap

While redlining restricted where black families could live and their opportunities to invest and pass along wealth in their families, unemployment and wage gaps further prevented upward mobility. While President Trump recently touted the lowest black unemployment rate since we started measuring it, he failed to acknowledge that it has consistently been nearly double the white unemployment rate in that same time period. Further, employed black men and women have earned less than employed white men and women, respectively. In fact, since 1979 the wage gap between blacks and whites has widened. Access to education and employment opportunities, which can be dependent on where people live, have contributed to the wage gap. 

Mass Incarceration and Over Policing

Mass incarceration vitiates our ideas of the unemployment rate because those who are incarcerated are not included in reported unemployment numbers. When the number of employed people includes incarceration as an adjustment, the number of employed white men changes very little, while for black men the rate drops significantly with the incarceration adjustment. 

Beyond mass incarceration, over policing also affects black neighborhoods. The broken windows theory of policing posits that preventing smaller crimes will lead to a prevention of more serious crime. But in practice police departments often target black neighborhoods for smaller crimes while ignoring more serious ones. When people cannot rely on police to address serious crimes, violence can result to fill the void of justice, which results in even more policing of those neighborhoods. Additionally, research released in 2018 created an index of structural racism that includes racially segregated neighborhoods and other factors. The research reveals a link between police shootings of unarmed black men and higher degrees of structural racism, particularly segregated neighborhoods. 

Environmental racism

While black neighborhoods have been undervalued through segregation, redlining, and over policing, they have also been undervalued by corporations and their own states. Environmental racism has affected many black citizens across the US. 

As of 2018 the residents of Africatown, near Mobile, AL, are involved in a lawsuit against International Paper for introducing toxic compounds into the air, water, and ground in their community. Pollution in the air has affected family gardens, food on which residents rely. In 2006 two thirds of the congregation of a single church said that they or a family member had cancer. The area surrounding Africatown is still zoned for heavy industry, so - although the International Paper mill is closed - the possibility of future industrial pollution is still a real threat. 

In 2014 Flint, Michigan suffered environmental racism from the state, rather than by industry. A few years earlier the governor of Michigan appointed a city manager to solve Flint’s fiscal problems. One of the “solutions” was to supply water from the Flint River instead of the Detroit River. Water had not been sourced from the Flint River previously, because it had been deeply polluted by the car manufacturing industry in the area. Once sourced from the Flint River, the polluted water corrupted aging pipes, allowing lead to seep into the water supply. The residents of Flint - largely poor people of color - have suffered. Due to the high levels of lead in the water, children there are at risk of brain damage that can cause behavioral and intellectual problems. In February 2018, scientists made a link between the low chlorine levels in the water and a bacterium that affected nearly 90 people with Legionnaires’ disease, killing 12. It is likely that other long term health effects will be discovered in the coming years. 

These two towns are not isolated in environmental racism. Reporting in January 2018 highlighted a black residential area in Orlando, FL that was disproportionately affected by pollution from cars and trucks. Research released in September 2017 found that people of color are exposed to transportation pollution at higher rates than white populations, leading to an estimated 5000 premature deaths between 2000 and 2010. No relief is expected soon. The current EPA chief has rolled back clean air and water regulations, increasing the risks for all citizens. But while people of color and poor people remain the largest groups exposed, environmental racism is alive and well today. 

Food deserts and Health

Beyond pollution, black neighborhoods also suffer as food deserts. The USDA definition of a food desert is an area, usually where poor people live, that is devoid of places to purchase healthy foods like fruits and vegetables. The American Heart Association describes eating healthy foods as a part of measures to combat cardiovascular disease. Research from the Johns Hopkins School of Nursing found that, while food deserts have long been known to exist in areas with a high level of poverty, minority neighborhoods disproportionately suffer from a lack of healthy food options. Rather, these neighborhoods often offer mostly processed foods, which are high in sugar and trans fats. Healthy foods also cost more on average per day than less healthy options. Poor people of color are at a higher risk of living in a food desert, as well as at risk for long term health effects from poor diets. 

Racism, Stress, and Health

Some researchers are concluding that the racial gap in health outcomes are also related to the stress of experiencing racism. The physical effects of experiencing stress - heart pounding, increased cortisol levels - can negatively affect long term health when they occur too often. Racism can affect health outcomes in other ways, too. According to the Center for Disease Control black women are more than three times as likely to die from pregnancy related issues than white women. Some research shows that patients who give birth at hospitals that serve mostly black populations experience a greater number of complications. 

A 2015 New York Times article found that 1.5 million black men are missing from society. The causes are mass incarceration and early deaths, including homicides and long term health problems. Those “missing men” are the casualties of many of the problems we’ve explored here. Segregation caused by dated housing policies and systemic racism has resulted in neighborhoods with lower access to quality healthcare, healthy food, and healthy air and water. The combination of these factors, as well as the stress of experiencing racism, has lead to negative long term health outcomes, including premature deaths. Segregation has also contributed to reduced employment opportunities and has exacerbated poverty. In short, racial segregation and discrimination that has existed since the abolition of slavery, including in 2018, presents serious health and safety risks to black people in the United States. Racial injustice is clearly complicated and multifaceted, and it requires many different solutions to solve. Starting with the causes of racism as it relates to black neighborhoods may be a good place to start.