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Housing segregation continues. And it is cutting short black Americans' lives.

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Leland Ware, Louis L. Redding Chair and professor.

Leland Ware, Louis L. Redding Chair and professor.

Where you reside determines how long you live.

The average life expectancy of a person living in a low-income neighborhood in Wilmingtons East Side is as low as 68 years. In some wealthy enclaves in Greenville, a mere 4.5 miles away, the life expectancy is 84 almost two decades more.

Why is this?

There are many factors in a person's health, ranging from innate physical factors such as age, gender and genes, to behavior and lifestyle choices, such as tobacco use and physical activity. But lifestyle choices are made in the context of a person's social and community networks  and their social, economic and physical environment.

What public health researchers refer to as the social determinants of health are the conditions in which people live, learn, work and play. Their research has shown that these conditions are the most important determinants of health. 

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Erin Knight, associate director of the Partnership for Healthy Communities

Erin Knight, associate director of the Partnership for Healthy Communities.

Neighborhoods that experience low economic and employment opportunities are likely to have underfunded education systems, inadequate access to health and social services, a lack of healthy food retailers, unstable housing, and a lack of safe recreational spaces. These conditions are influenced by larger structural forces, such as economic, education, and political systems, social norms, culture and power.

The negative aspects of living and working conditions in inner-city communities are largely the result of policies, practices, and attitudes that have caused an unequal distribution of resources across communities both in the past and in the present.

Segregated neighborhoods were perpetuated by the federal government after World War II when insured mortgages from the Department of Veterans Affairs and Federal Housing Administration allowed middle class families to purchase homes in suburban communities. Blacks were kept out because the government required racially restrictive covenants in mortgages.

In the 1950s and 60s the construction of the interstate highway system displaced people from their homes, sliced communities in half and led to abandonment and decay in city after city.

The history and legacy of structural racism has resulted in many black neighborhoods suffering from a lack of employment opportunities, underfunded public schools, substandard housing and inadequate access to health care.

Residential segregation is the legacy of the nations history and has long been identified as the root of many social and racial inequities in American cities. While different racial and ethnic groups and immigrants have experienced segregation in the U.S., African Americans have been victims of an unparalleled level of deliberate segregation that is perpetuated today through individual actions, institutional practices and public policy. 

Patterns of segregation among African Americans in the U.S. are the highest across all racial and ethnic groups.

Today at least 1 in 4 minority home seekers will encounter some form of racial discrimination. African Americans are steered away from white neighborhoods by real estate agents. African-Americans are turned down for mortgages and charged higher interest rates and charged for points at disproportionate rates.

According to Harvard University professor David Williams, a leading scholar on racism and health, residential segregation is the single most important policy that continues to have pervasive adverse effects on the socioeconomic status and the health of African Americans.

Health inequities are largely a function of the separate and unequal neighborhoods in which most blacks and whites reside. Research demonstrates that racial health inequities grounded in segregation are more than a function of diminished socioeconomic status of individuals living in segregated communities.

Health inequities remain even after income and education levels are considered. 

Pathways through which segregation contributes to health inequities include poor quality housing, inadequate heat, noise, overcrowding, and the presence of environmental hazards and allergens. Segregation perpetuates negative social environments that include exposure to violence, crime, and systematic differences in policing and incarceration.  

Residents live in a substandard built environment with features including higher exposure to fast food outlets and alcohol retailers.

As President Barack Obama observed in 2008, The biggest problem that we have in terms of race relations is dealing with the legacy of past discrimination, which has resulted in extreme disparities in terms of poverty, in terms of wealth and in terms of income."

Obama concluded: "Our inner cities are a legacy of what happened in the past."


This opinion piece was originally published by the News Journal.

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Leland Ware and Erin Knight explore the links between housing segregation and lifelong health for black Americans.
5/13/2019
5/13/2019
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Housing segregation continues. And it is cutting short black Americans' lives.