Racialized Housing Segregation and the Structural Oppression of Black Families: Understanding the Mechanisms at Play

Bethany L. Letiecq, Ph.D., George Mason University; Joseph M. Williams, Ph.D., University of Virginia, Charlottesville; Colleen K. Vesely, Ph.D., George Mason University; and Jocelyn R. Smith Lee, Ph.D., University of North Carolina, Greensboro
/ NCFR Report, Fall 2021

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Bethany L. Letiecq et al
From left: Bethany L. Letiecq, Ph.D.; Joseph M. Williams, Ph.D.; Colleen K. Vesely, Ph.D.; and Jocelyn R. Smith Lee, Ph.D.

In Brief

  • To dismantle structural racism, family scholars must document the mechanisms of racialized oppression.
  • Within the housing market, four structural mechanisms of racialized oppression exist: housing divestment, denigration of Black residents, policing and systems collusion, and White community action.
  • Family Scientists can play key roles in advancing solutions to structural racism in housing and other systems.

“A very serious problem . . . at every economic level, is the nonavailability of safe, decent, sanitary housing. The unwillingness of City and State Government, financial institutions, private builders and other segments of the home building industry to provide housing that is available to Negroes is in large measure responsible for this condition.” 

The above quote was written anonymously by Black leaders (known as the Secret Seven) in a report to the Alexandria City Council in 1968, the same year the U.S. Congress passed the Fair Housing Act (FHA). The FHA prohibited discrimination based on race, national origin, and family status (among other characteristics) regarding the sale, rental, and financing of housing. In championing the FHA, Senator Edward Brooke, the first Black person elected to the U.S. Senate by popular vote, shared how he was unable to provide the home of his choice for his family because of the color of his skin (U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development, HUD, n.d.).

The housing market encountered by Senator Brooke has a long, entrenched racist history, a result of slavery, Jim Crow laws, and other racist tactics (e.g., segregation, redlining, restrictive covenants, banking policies) that limited Black families’ housing and homeownership (Massey & Denton, 1993). These racialized housing segregation laws, policies, and practices precluded Black families from accessing wealth for centuries (Brown, 2021). In 1979, Pettigrew asserted that racialized housing segregation was the “structural linchpin” of American race relations and a critical factor in maintaining the Black underclass.

Today, some 50 years after the FHA’s passage, hypersegregation—an extreme form of segregation and isolation—persists among low-income Black families in neighborhoods across the United States (Duneier, 2016; Massey, 2016). Racialized housing segregation is correlated with a host of deleterious conditions affecting Black family life, including economic deprivation, policing and community violence, trauma exposure, poor health outcomes, and lowered life expectancies (Bailey et al., 2021). Thus, the housing market remains a significant stratifying force in America, contributing to structural racism and health inequality (Massey, 2016). But how does structural racism work in housing markets? What are the mechanisms at play?

A review of the literature and the authors’ community-based research in partnership with Black families (e.g., Letiecq et al., 2019; Smith Lee & Robinson, 2019) reveals at least four central features or mechanisms of structural racism evident in racially segregated housing markets: divestment and disrepair, denigration of Black residents, policing and systems collusion, and White community action. We delineate how each of these mechanisms works to maintain racialized housing segregation to the structural harms of families of color. We conclude with implications for the Family Science discipline.

Divestment and Disrepair

Residential segregation and the establishment of impoverished racialized ghettos have led to broad public divestment in Black neighborhoods. The divestment includes infrastructure (e.g., roads, public schools, green spaces), employment opportunities, and services (e.g., transportation, grocery stores, banks; Bailey et al., 2021). Divestment has also resulted in massive disrepair of public housing and low-income apartment complexes. Mold, mildew, broken appliances, peeling paint, roaches, mice, and bedbug infestations are commonplace in racially hypersegregated neighborhoods (Shah et al., 2018). Residents also report a lack of responsiveness by maintenance units and many hidden fees that add to their fiscal precarity (Letiecq et al., 2019; Ocen, 2012).

While such neighborhoods experience divestment and disrepair, housing costs have continued to rise in gentrifying neighborhoods, rendering housing alternatives unaffordable and inaccessible to many low-income residents (Chaskin & Joseph, 2015; Desmond, 2016). While many people believe that residents do not pay rent for subsidized housing units, that is not the case. Once a family is determined eligible and selected for HUD assistance, the rent they must pay is roughly 30% of their income (Perl & McCarty, 2017). In one housing study, residents expressed frustration paying rent for dilapidated, neglected, roach-infested housing often isolated from services and supports (Letiecq et al., 2019).

Denigration of Low-Income Black Families

Central to structural racism in housing is the denigration and dehumanization of Black families through racist cultural tropes (Bailey et al., 2021). Racist tropes promulgated from the highest levels of government (e.g., Reagan’s coinage of the term “welfare queen”) demean and demonize low-income families of color, and Black mothers in particular, as amoral and unworthy of public supports, care, and dignity (Ocen, 2012). Racist cultural tropes blame poor Black people for their economic marginalization and impoverishment, denying the existence of structural oppression at the intersections of race, class, and gender. These racist tropes also justify the divestment in housing and other critical infrastructure supports that are essential to health and safety.

Policing and Systems Collusion

Another structural mechanism of oppression in the public housing sector is the collusion of systems that police, regulate, and control Black families. For example, Bailey et al. (2021) noted how redlining required the cooperation of government, banking, credit, and real estate industries, as well as private developers and homeowners. Together, “these parties helped stoke cultural beliefs that Blacks made bad neighbors whose presence would lower real-estate values and increase crime” (Bailey et al., 2021, p. 769). Other systems—social welfare, child protection, and law enforcement—collaborate to ensure that benefit recipients adhere to their rules. Not following the rules can result in fees, fines, lost benefits, eviction, legal action, incarceration, and family separation—severe and criminalizing penalties that increase the anxiety, threats, and harms experienced by Black families (Desmond, 2016; Ocen, 2012). Fear of severe punishments across systems can have a chilling effect, silencing individuals from advocating for their rights or remedies to poor housing circumstances.

White Community Action

The last central feature of structural racism in housing is White community action. White people, through individual and organized approaches, have taken actions to prohibit Black families from living in their neighborhoods (Ocen, 2012; Trounstine, 2018). While wealthier families of color have made inroads into White neighborhoods in the past decade, low-income Black families remain targets of White community ire and action (Khare et al., 2015).

In her study of racially restrictive covenants, Ocen (2012) found that the collective action of White residents ensured racialized exclusion, especially among Black holders of Section 8 vouchers. In several communities, members of private neighborhood homeowner associations worked to lobby elected officials to regulate the public housing market, asking city officials to prevent Section 8 occupation of certain homes or calling for investigations of Section 8 households by the Public Housing Authority. White community members also made noncriminal complaints to local law enforcement, such as complaining about barking dogs, children playing in the street, and loud music. Recent studies show how such complaints can result in resident investigations, compliance checks, law enforcement searches, and new, often more restrictive ordinances (e.g., Khare et al., 2015; Ocen, 2012; Trounstine, 2018). These agentic acts by White residents reinforce structural racism in housing markets.

Implications for the Discipline

The perniciousness of structural racism in American housing markets appears to be the structural linchpin of not only race relations but also family health (Bailey et al., 2021; Pettigrew, 1979). What roles can Family Scientists play to dismantle structural racism in housing?

Family researchers must document and better understand the mechanisms of White family advantage as well as the oppressive forces bearing down on Black families in housing markets to reproduce structural racism and associated health disparities. In 1996, García Coll and her colleagues called for theories and research studies that integrate structural racism constructs into explanatory child development models. However, as Murry et al. (2018) more recently noted, few have heeded this call. It is no longer acceptable to study Black family life devoid of or disconnected from analyses of systems like housing and other sites of structural racism. Indeed, we submit that scholars who conduct race-comparative family studies and do not take structural racism into account risk perpetuating deficit narratives and fueling racism.

Family Scientists must continue to dismantle and stop perpetuating deficit-based narratives about Black family adaptation in our teachings and community-engaged practices. It is imperative to recognize that structural racism is at the root of racialized family disparities and inequality, which requires antiracist structural solutions, not Black family intervention. Family practitioners and scholar-advocates seeking to advance racial justice should work to expose and change laws, policies, and practices at every societal level that reinforce and reproduce racialized oppression across systems serving, regulating, and policing Black and other families of color.


Racialized housing segregation is an important site of Black family structural oppression in America. Family Science scholars and advocates for racial justice must work to document the mechanisms of structural racism at play within housing markets and other systems in order to dismantle these racist forces. We must redress and repair legacies of structural racism in housing markets by adopting antiracist laws, policies, and practices. Family researchers, practitioners, and policymakers can and should play critical roles to advance racial justice for family equality and well-being.




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