Is There Such a Thing as Voluntary Segregation?

nightingale-revised (3)As the author of a book called Segregation, there is one question I receive more often than any other: “do you write at all about voluntary segregation?” Often that question is accompanied by another one: “isn’t there some segregation that’s good?” Such questions have some scholarly basis. As the Oxford sociologist Ceri Peach put it in a classic essay, “segregation is of two types: the good and the bad; the voluntary and the imposed; the ethnic village and the ghetto.” On the one hand, in other words, there are neighborhoods that are segregated because people living outside the neighborhood want them to be segregated, that is they are involuntarily segregated. On the other hand, there are neighborhoods that are segregated because those who live inside them want to be segregated–voluntary segregation, or “self-segregation.” Voluntarily segregated neighborhoods, we assume, come into being because people who live there benefit from their choice to live among people like them. In those cases, Peach argues, segregation is good.

In the book (p. 12) I am very skeptical about the idea of voluntary segregation.

Why? Is it because I believe voluntary segregation does not exist—in other words, is it because I believe that no group of people in history has ever wanted to live in a segregated neighborhood?

No. Many people have wanted segregation in history. The main characters in my book, after all, are leaders of white-run segregationist movements. These people say explicitly and in no uncertain terms that they want to live in segregated neighborhoods. They want segregation so badly that they also explicitly say that they want to exclude people of darker or different skin color. Their craving for segregation leads them to make up theories for why such segregation is needed, drawing on the prevailing religious, cultural, scientific, or political wisdom of their day. These theories also often claim that segregation offers benefits for all people in society—that is, that segregation is fundamentally good. The voluntary nature of these segregationists’ actions is also attested by the fact that they seek and often acquire the power they need to put their segregationist plans into action. They try to persuade as many other people as possible—both whites and people of color—to join their movement or acquiesce to its goals. They work hard to enlist powerful institutions to put their segregationist plans into action, drawing in particular upon three institutions with transnational and even global influence: imperial or national governments, networks of intellectuals and experts, and the international real estate industry. Finally, white segregationists have a powerful underlying motive for what they want to do. Though they claim that segregation is good for everyone, this is obviously a smokescreen. What they really, obviously, and often explicitly want is to decrease people of color’s access to power and urban resources, and they want to hoard that power and those resources for themselves (see “Segregation as a Tool of Power” below).

What form of segregation could be more voluntary than that? White-led segregationist movements say they want to segregate cities; they back their desire up with reference to a philosophy of the social good; they assemble the power necessary to actually get what they want; and they have an overarching political and economic incentive to do all of this. The fact that they have opposition which seeks to thwart their will only reinforces the voluntary nature of their segregation. Faced with such opposition, white segregationists fight back and seek to prevail. In their hands, segregation is an act of will and power.

So, there’s the answer to my first question. Since my book is largely about white segregationists and other segregationists who act with will and power, it is largely—almost entirely–about voluntary segregation.

So, why am I so skeptical about using the idea of “voluntary segregation”?

The problem is that when we use the term “voluntary segregation” we never use it to talk about the white segregationists who most clearly fit the definition of the term. Instead, we almost always use it to talk about people with much less segregationist will and power: ancient and medieval foreign merchant communities, European Jews, Chinatown residents, “separatist” African Americans or even African Americans discouraged by the prospect of residential integration, and–as in Peach’s article–recent immigrants who live in ethnic “enclaves” or “villages.” In other words we use voluntary segregation to describe people whose commitment to segregation and—especially– to the exclusion of others from neighborhoods is ambiguous; who muster ambiguous, contradictory, or highly contested political, religious, cultural, or scientific reasons behind their quests for segregation; who have little in the way of access to powerful institutions to guarantee segregation; and who get at best ambiguous benefits from it. Many studies suggest that ethnic enclaves, for example, hinder their inhabitants’ access to well-paying jobs, unions, business capital, and other benefits. In no case are they ever able to hoard city-spanning (let alone national or world-spanning) measures of urban power or control over economic resources. Often, their “choice” of segregation comes down to the fact that they have no other choice. Alternatively, it may be that their only other choices are much worse: expulsion from cities and all the resources cities provide, or outright annihilation. Sometimes the main benefit to such “segregationists” is that they build better networks for mutual support and cultural preservation, hardly something that is dependent upon the segregation of neighborhoods or, even less, upon the exclusion of others from those neighborhoods. Sometimes the main benefit from “self-segregation” consists of very fragile and temporary measures of physical protection from much more powerful segregationists.

It is this fact–that we use “voluntary segregation” to describe people who place such ambiguous will and power behind segregation and who actually possess the smallest range of choices in the politics of urban space—that makes me skeptical of the term.

There are two analytical problems with this strange usage, and these analytical problems contain within themselves a very disturbing political problem.

I introduce the first analytical problem on p. 12 of the book. Using the word “voluntary” to describe the range of “segregationists” that we typically call voluntary simply does not “substitute for a close analysis of the relative institutional strength, and the changing and often narrow range of options available to … non-dominant groups in different cities at different times in world history.” Various other chapters of the book offer at least the beginnings of the kind of close analysis I have in mind for foreign merchant communities, Jews, residents of Chinatowns, and African Americans (pp.  28, 32; 35-36; 150-54; 388). I will write about ethnic enclaves in another post soon, highlighting the very real different political options their inhabitants possessed compared with black people in ghettos.

The second analytical problem is that the distinction between voluntary and coercive is intrinsically a false one. Though Ceri Peach makes one of the strongest cases for that distinction, even he ends his article with  the admission that “an opaque interaction” may actually link voluntary and coercive segregation.

I think we can be a lot less opaque than that. We only need to refocus our analytical lenses away from the intentions of ethnics and blacks and upon the politics of white segregationist movements. The most coercive forms of segregation are also the most voluntary. They come into being with the most will and power behind them and most extensively limit the choices of far less powerful people, often including the people we habitually think of as embracing segregation voluntarily.

For antisegregationist movements, ignoring this insight carries fatal political consequences:  By giving “voluntary” segregation a separate and coequal status, and by limiting our discussions of it to relatively disempowered people we  hint that even segregation’s least willing victims might perhaps, secretly, want what they get.  Innuendos of that sort only further hide the overwhelming and still driving presence of coercive segregation—as well as the fact that it takes will and power to implement it. The danger of demoting the importance of coercive segregation in this way is that it allows segregationists to wrap themselves in a powerfully mystifying layer of camouflage.

In the past, segregationists, most notably those in the U.S., have found a variety of types of rhetorical and institutional camouflage useful, and even essential, to their campaigns to get what they want (a more thorough discussion can be found in the last three chapters of Segregation).

In our age, the consequences of this license to camouflage are far reaching.  Today’s most die-hard segregationists pursue almost all of their work behind plausibly unfalsifiable public declarations that they do not want segregation or any kind of inequality. In such an age, anything that mystifies or demotes the importance of coerced segregation only works into the hands of the most powerful, willful—and worst–of our own time’s segregationists.


Ceri Peach’s essay is entitled “Good Segregation, Bad Segregation,” and can be found in Planning Perspectives, 11 (1996): 379-98, quotations from 379 and 391.


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