Sarah Mayorga-Gallo: What We’re Missing When We Talk about Integrated Neighborhoods

mayorga-gallo_behind_PBWe welcome to the blog today a guest post by Sarah Mayorga-Gallo, author of Behind the White Picket Fence: Power and Privilege in a Multiethnic Neighborhood. The link between residential segregation and racial inequality is well established, so it would seem that greater equality would prevail in integrated neighborhoods. But as Mayorga-Gallo argues, multiethnic and mixed-income neighborhoods still harbor the signs of continued, systemic racial inequalities. Drawing on deep ethnographic and other innovative research from “Creekridge Park,” a pseudonymous urban community in Durham, North Carolina, Mayorga-Gallo demonstrates that the proximity of white, African American, and Latino neighbors does not ensure equity; rather, proximity and equity are in fact subject to structural-level processes of stratification.

In today’s post, Mayorga-Gallo examines the “white codes” present in multiethnic neighborhoods that hinder racial and residential integration.


What is the relationship between residential segregation and racial inequality? Scholars have spent decades analyzing data and arguing that residential segregation is the “linchpin” of racial inequality in the United States. The conclusion that many draw, therefore, is that residential integration is the key to reducing racial inequality. Pretty straightforward, right? Well, not quite.

In my study of Creekridge Park, a multiethnic, mixed income urban neighborhood in Durham, North Carolina, I found that racial stratification can still be reproduced even when different racial-ethnic groups live next door to each other. Creekridge Park is home to white, black, and Latino/a residents, and is “integrated” according to common social science definitions. Through a series of in-depth interviews, participant observation, and a household survey, I found that local social norms actually reinforced high interracial social distance. Contemporary understandings of diversity fuel these interactions.

Many social scientists use spatial measures, such as the dissimilarity index, to understand social processes of inequality. However, without acknowledging the structural and ideological racial context in which segregation takes place, we mistake a symptom for the cause. As a result, we may overlook the inequity of statistically integrated and multiethnic spaces—especially when they are accompanied by exaltations of diversity and progressivism. For example, residents of Creekridge Park scored more liberally than the national average on racial attitude questions, and most white residents I spoke with lauded the neighborhood’s diversity. They criticized the racially segregated “blah” suburbs and specifically sought out a “mixed-up” urban neighborhood. Based on these characteristics, one might assume Creekridge Park is the kind of place where positive interracial interactions would flourish. So how do we explain these seeming contradictions?

What I found is that codes of conduct (which I call white codes) maintain high interracial social distance between white and nonwhite residents in Creekridge Park. These codes of interracial conduct dictate appropriate neighborhood behavior between whites and residents of color and help explain why white residents had mostly white social networks despite living in a multiethnic, statistically integrated neighborhood and praising the neighborhood’s diversity. Diversity ideology, which I discuss at length in Behind the White Picket Fence, is an important part of creating these neighborhood norms.

What do white codes look like? Let’s start with Cheryl. Cheryl, a black homeowner in her fifties, was not greeted by her neighbors, most of whom are white, until her fifth or sixth year in the neighborhood, after she started planting flowers in her front yard. Although Cheryl’s example indicates how a multiethnic neighborhood could potentially produce positive interracial interactions, it also shows how the basis of these interactions must be some kind of shared interest or experience. Gardening, which was common among white residents in Creekridge Park, framed Cheryl as safe and approachable. By gardening, Cheryl challenged ideas about blackness held by many white residents in this neighborhood context (e.g., that blacks are disinvested, lower-income renters).

Several white residents used homeownership status to explain why they did not have many interracial relationships. In Creekridge Park, white residents were equally as likely to rent as own their home, while black and Latino/a residents were more likely to be renters. One could argue that gardening marked Cheryl as a homeowner and someone worth investing time in. While scholars should not ignore housing tenure, I find an emphasis on the renter-homeowner divide obscures racialized patterns of social interactions in Creekridge Park. For example, white homeowners were much more likely to have positive relationships with renters if the renters were also white, and black homeowners were more likely to experience social isolation than their white counterparts. These patterns point to a particular racialized experience in Creekridge Park that cannot be explained by simple renter-homeowner differences.

Although being ignored by your neighbors may seem like a mild example of racial inequality, I found that high interracial social distance could aggravate other situations. For example, interneighbor conflicts were an important catalyst for phone calls to the police and other city services. Many residents said they dealt with neighborhood conflict by speaking with the appropriate neighbor first. I found, however, that when white residents described specific conflicts with nonwhite neighbors, white residents usually involved the police or another authority. In part, this occurs because white residents were less likely to know their nonwhite neighbors. As Emma, a newcomer and white homeowner described, “I would say if they were people that we knew, could trust, and feel safe talking to, probably most people for one, [we] would’ve already talked to them if there was gonna be an issue that would bring, potentially bringing up a problem. But then for people that I didn’t know I’d probably just call the police [laughs].” When white residents are more likely to know and be friendly with other white residents, however, different approaches to “friends” and “strangers” can reinforce high interracial social distance and produce racialized outcomes.

An example of this type of interaction comes from Mary, a black longtime renter who lives with her adult son. She described a situation with her neighbor Mark, a white homeowner, who in her view was “mean and hateful.” A few years prior to our meeting, Mary’s son littered in Mark’s front yard and Mark proceeded to call Mary’s landlord to try to evict Mary. She explained that her landlord did not kick her and her son out because she always pays her rent on time, but Mary was dismayed with her neighbor’s actions. Since Mary did not have a particularly close relationship with Mark, which at least on his part seemed intentional, his procedure to address the trash issue maintained their high interracial social distance.

Integration is not an automatic solution for the problems of segregation. Social distance norms in multiethnic settings can still reinforce racial stratification. If we want to better understand and challenge contemporary racial inequality, not only do we need to study the quality of social interactions between racial-ethnic groups, but we also need to consider the structural and ideological racial context in which these interactions take place.

Sarah Mayorga-Gallo is assistant professor of sociology at the University of Cincinnati. Her book, Behind the White Picket Fence: Power and Privilege in a Multiethnic Neighborhood, is now available. Follow her on Twitter @MayorgaGallo.