Policing, Segregation, and Causation vs. Correlation

Racial disparities in police killings increase with segregation. Does this mean segregation causes racialized police violence?

policing and segregation. Image of police telephone box, with peeling paint
Photo by Will Scullin for flickr, CC by 2.0

Everyone should be safe and secure in their homes, their neighborhoods, and going about their lives, no matter who they are, what they look like, or where they have chosen to live. This is a pretty basic statement, and yet it’s one that is clear this country has not lived up to—especially for Black Americans.

People in the housing field who have long fought for fair lending, fair housing, and integration are well aware that the promise of the civil rights movement, in terms of free choice to live wherever one chooses in peace, has not been realized. Many have pointed out, as Gail Schechter of HOME recently did, that open housing was the primary focus of the civil rights movement in the North, and it faced virulent opposition. Despite legal changes prohibiting explicit racial discrimination in housing, it continues through unspoken biases and through rules and systems that compound and perpetuate the disadvantages Black families were left with as a result of legally allowed discrimination.

There is an understandable desire to connect this knowledge to the fight against police violence. And I think they are connected. But we need to be careful about how we understand that connection if we really want to dismantle it.

Police Do Our Dirty Work

In a New York Times op-ed in early July, Betsy Hodges, the mayor of Minneapolis from 2014 to 2018, called out white liberals for blocking systemic changes that would have advanced racial equity. Hodges said it was extremely hard to generate support from white liberals for changes in school funding that would advance equity or in zoning that would advance fair housing, even while they profess support for racial equity and support smaller measures that don’t make them feel uncomfortable. Racial segregation within the city has actually been increasing since 2000. It’s a powerful and important point, and the op-ed is worth a read.

But along the way Hodges describes the police as aware that they were being asked to handle the results of our unequal system. “White liberals like me ask the police to do our dirty work,” she wrote, “dealing with the racial and economic inequities our policies create.”

She’s not wrong. That is part of what’s happening. Certainly one of the arguments for defunding the police is that we have asked them to solve every problem, whether that problem is suited to their skill set or not.

When we don’t fulfill people’s basic human need for housing, and then criminalize homelessness and ask law enforcement to “deal with it,” we are asking those agencies to handle something they are not trained for or able to provide the actual solution for. Even if we set up pathways to explicitly give police a nonpunitive option to offer, such as case management that should lead to housing, as in the LEAD (law-enforcement assisted diversion) program, if there isn’t enough housing for them to offer, it’s still not going to solve homelessness.

Similarly with mental health crises—sending armed people who are trained to react to anything less than total predictability and obedience with violence to respond to mental health situations is an obviously inappropriate way to deal with the results of an underfunded and nonfunctional mental health system.

But is the relationship of policing to segregation the same as its relationship to homelessness and mental health?

Policing Segregated Cities

A study published in December 2019 in the Journal of the National Medical Association looked at racial disparities in who is killed by police and found markedly higher rates in more segregated cities. In other words, in those cities that are more divided into mostly-white and mostly-Black neighborhoods, the rate at which police are more likely to kill Black people than white people increases substantially.

Schechter took this to mean police violence is the direct result of segregation, though the reason this would follow is unclear.

I take it to mean that police violence is necessary to maintain segregation, and deployed for that purpose.

Police involvement with residential segregation looks like aggressively responding to Black people who are perceived to be “out of place” or who are doing things that make white observers feel uncomfortable, but which wouldn’t be a matter of police involvement or wouldn’t escalate to violence if white people were doing them.

Think of the lists we’ve been forced to compile of reasons Black people get the police called on them—jogging while Black, sleeping while Black, barbecuing while Black, shopping while Black, playing with a toy gun while Black, birdwatching while Black.

These things are not particularly outcomes of “racial and economic inequities,” as Hodges said. These things are not problems that we’re forcing police to mop up because we won’t invest in better solutions. They are not, in fact, problems at all.

This is not trying to handle the fallout of segregation.

 This is actively enforcing segregation.

And that has always been local law enforcement’s role. It did little to nothing to crack down on white violence against Black households moving into previously white areas (and even participated in it), but it regularly responds to exaggerated white fears in integrated environments repressively.

Gregory Smithsimon, a professor of sociology at Brooklyn College and author of Cause . . . And How It Doesn’t Always Equal Effect, notes that police violence is currently concentrated in the border lands between primarily Black and primarily white residential areas. “Police shootings peak in the middle,” he writes. “Beginning with an all-white area, they rise as the Black population begins to get bigger but is not large enough to be politically dominant. When the Black community is large enough to have significant political influence, fewer shootings occur.”

Black Lives Matter organizing focuses on police, he argues, in part because law enforcement’s ability and willingness “to violently control or harass African Americans in public space” is “a process that has contributed significantly to the ongoing residential segregation of African Americans.”

Discriminatory behavior and the race-class fallout of centuries of oppression can account for a lot of our ongoing segregation. But Smithsimon argues it can’t account for all of it. Especially for Black households with means, fear of violence and a desire not to put themselves through the exhaustion of being unwelcome and constantly subject to suspicion also plays in.

Does this mean we shouldn’t fight for more fair housing? Of course not.

But it does mean that to win it we have to address the fact that police forces are not organized to protect people, but to reduce disorder and protect capital, and in our current society integration is perceived as both disorder and a threat to property values.

That’s crystal clear in Trump’s justification for doing away with fair housing provisions at HUD.

As long as segregation is backed up with state-sponsored violence, legal remedies for it are going to remain only partially effective. This is another reason for the housing world to get on board with defunding the police.

Miriam Axel-Lute is CEO/editor-in-chief of Shelterforce. She lives in Albany, New York, and is a proud small-city aficionado.


  1. Since police are likely to shoot when they feel threatened, is it possible that more segregated cities are just more violent places?

    • 1. That’s a very generous view of what’s happening with police violence. 2. Even if it were true, feeling threatened and being threatened are not the same thing. All it would show in this case is that police feel threatened by people violating the unspoken norms of segregation, not that those areas are necessarily more violent (outside of the violence required to maintain them). The study that found higher rates of racially disparate police violence in segregated metros *controlled for crime rates,* as well as several other potential causal factors.

      • Smithsimon’s article is based on a study behind a paywall. https://www.jstor.org/stable/10.1086/231291
        The abstract doesn’t mention anything about segregation or transitional neighborhoods, but states “Tobit analyses of 170 cities show that racial inequality explains police killings. Interpersonal violence measured by the murder rate also accounts for this use of lethal force. Separate analyses of police killings of blacks show that cities with more blacks and a recent growth in the black population have higher police killing rates of blacks, but the presence of a black mayor reduces these killings. “

  2. I’m so glad you pulled that argument out of my column because, in fact, it was my whole reason for writing it: that people who don’t know the origin of northern civil rights protest in the first place — zeroing in on housing segregation — might isolate the injustice of racist policing without getting at the root cause. I think you and I in fact both agree that police actively *maintain* segregation. But I would argue that *first* we needed to create those all-white communities by establishing the real estate policies of denying housing in suburbs to Black (and Asian and Jewish families too); having banks and our own FHA deny mortgages and guarantees; and undergirding a culture of racism to *create* our white suburbs. So indeed, police brutality is caused by segregation. Nikole Hannah-Jones said much the same thing in her talk on July 7th hosted by the National Low-Income Housing Coalition, that the South segregated by law and the North segregated by housing. Policing practices perpetuate the a-priori engineered pattern.

    • It may be a chicken and egg question. I think my point is mostly that we need to fix *both* parts of it to make it go away. Neither by themselves will be sufficient.

      • Agree, both aspects of segregation are true, and policing is so inextricably tied up with enforcing segregation that we can’t achieve integration or equity without fundamental changes to public safety. But just as the housing world needs to be on board with defunding the police, it is critical to squarely address segregation in order to end police violence. When the spatial organization of policing and white violence is overlooked, it enables the “bad apple” analysis to predominate. Calls for changes to policing must go beyond “accountability,” and explicitly connect the dots to necessary changes in the way the state uses other tools (including housing and zoning) to enforce segregation and maintain white control.

  3. I work in housing currently, but used to be in law enforcement. I’ve also written body camera policy (which is its own crap shoot, feel free to ask me about it). Time and time again I have friends come to me asking what to do. They say, in summary, I go into neighborhood x, and bad things happen. I go into neighborhood y, and they don’t. Neighborhood x is black. I have to constantly fight against the associations that my mind makes because of what I see on my day to day job. But what is wrong of me to assume, and what is true? I can’t tell. It just all feels wrong.

    Which sounds like they just need to try harder until you realize, white America doesn’t deal with the results of racism every day, and we still cross the street and clutch our purses.

    This is a great example of a self reinforcing problem. Segregation leads to unfair policing. Unfair policing leads to segregation. I am so happy to see this dialogue come out into the public space, because I’ve been ramming my head into it for years. You are correct, we need to fix both in order to fix the problem. There are so many systematic failures that happen before someone becomes homeless, just like before a confrontation occurs between a police officer and a civilian. Whenever someone becomes homeless, whenever a confrontation occurs, we as a society have failed. To fix it, we as a society (not just a select group of people) will need to actually assume responsibility for the totality of our actions.

    That’s my soapbox for the day. Love ya Shelterforce!

  4. One issue that I didn’t see addressed in this article is the economic situation that results from housing segregation. Black families, even Black families of means, are denied mortgages or charged higher rates for their home loans. In predominately Black communities housing prices are on average 30% lower than predominately White communities. With lower homeownership rates many Black families pay more for rent than they would for mortgages. Many times rent week is an immense transfer of wealth from Black renters to White landlords. Remember housing accounts for the majority of middle-class wealth in the United States and not only are Black families turned down at higher rates for homeownership, but many times they are renting from White landlords they are extracting money from already disinvested neighborhoods. In many Black communities, there are a staggering number of vacant and abandoned properties, but there are constantly large and growing affordable housing crises. I often wonder do the police see themselves as an occupying force and not a protecting force. A view from the “Hood”!

    • Absolutely! I wasn’t trying to get into all the effects of housing segregation here because there are so many, but all of those dynamics are certainly also in play!

  5. Jackie Robinson left black employment to work in white employment. Due to culture, many races live in communities of the same race, going to different schools, churches, playgrounds, etc. Look around in any town or city and you’ll see race is grouping with others of the same race. Money to buy and move elsewhere, certainly comes into play, but like Robinson, one has to be willing to buck the norm. Today, blacks are becoming more vocal in achieving their desires and this is good, but not when voting is needed and time and time again, voting offers little other than tokenism by government. Police go where crime is and their perceived racism is due to the face they are presented with, not because they are waiting to kill blacks. Many race communities don’t respond to outreach programs because they fear the crime that rules their communities. Certainly, a difficult task since we are dealing with the reality of the way it is, but reorganizing police departments, funding poor communities, diversifying where people live, and restricting criminals from their free access and control of areas are all necessary. Black on black crime is a major problem today and no one is really addressing it because it doesn’t fit the media hype.


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