Vol. 11 No. 2 (February 2001) pp. 91-93.

CROSSING THE CLASS AND COLOR LINES: FROM PUBLIC HOUSING TO WHITE SUBURBIA by Leonard S. Rubinowitz and James E. Rosenbaum. Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 2000. 241 pp. Cloth $25.00.

Reviewed by Charles M. Lamb, Department of Political Science, University at Buffalo, State University of New York.

Housing segregation based on race and class persists in many urban and suburban areas of the United States. The segregation of African Americans, in particular, became pronounced in the North's housing market after their migration from the South primarily between the 1920s and 1960s. Hoping to find good jobs, these new northern residents became highly segregated, often living in the most distressed urban areas, with relatively few residing in the suburbs. As the African American population of cities such as Chicago, Cleveland, Detroit, New York, and Philadelphia grew markedly, what had been mostly harmonious relations between whites and blacks in the North became strained or even hostile. Various private and public practices also contributed to the growth of housing segregation due to race and class. Real estate agents relied on steering and blockbusting to keep African Americans out of white neighborhoods, for example, and financial lending institutions developed practices like redlining to preserve white areas. In addition, the federal government maintained policies and practices having the intent and effect of discriminating on grounds of race, and exclusionary zoning in some suburbs prevented the construction of low-income housing that could assist the poor and minorities.

Research over the past decade demonstrates that segregation and discrimination in housing are still widespread, although they appear to be modestly declining in some metropolitan areas. This raises the important question of how poor minority families will be affected as racial and economic segregation decrease over time. Rubinowitz and Rosenbaum address this question in the context of the Gautreaux program in Chicago. In HILLS v. GAUTREAUX (1976), the Supreme Court unanimously held that it was "not impermissible" for a district court to order a remedy including housing relief throughout Chicago and the greater metropolitan area where HUD had knowingly provided federal funds to Chicago's discriminatory public housing programs in violation of the Fifth Amendment and Title VI of the Civil Rights Act of 1964. The enforcement of GAUTREAUX, falling to HUD, was logically christened the "Gautreaux program." Its primary focus was to provide housing subsidies to a relatively small number of cautiously chosen African American families that would move from Chicago's public housing to rental housing in better parts of the city and in the six surrounding counties.

CROSSING THE CLASS AND COLOR LINES is a useful examination of a fascinating, judicially ordered, federal program and its implementation and impact

Page 92 begins here

by two mature scholars. In some ways it is not dispassionate research, however, being written from the vantage point of the African American mothers and children who participated in the Gautreaux program. The authors, who clearly sympathize with the plight of the Gautreaux families and the program itself, for instance, nowhere address the viewpoints of white suburbanites affected by the program. Part I, consisting of three chapters, describes Chicago's earlier scattered site program, as well as the Gautreaux program's development and implementation. Part II, composed of six chapters, inspects the characteristics of the Gautreaux families relocated in the suburbs and city, comparing how they fared in terms of safety, social interactions, education, and employment. Although Part I is anchored in traditional published sources, Part II is grounded in interviews, conducted in 1982 and 1989, with Gautreaux mothers. These interviews are frequently quoted to demonstrate the beliefs of selected mothers toward safety, social integration, education, and employment, often with no indication of whether those individual beliefs are in any way representative of Gautreaux mothers generally.

Rubinowitz and Rosenbaum reach several general conclusions about the Gautreaux families that may be true of other housing mobility programs. As expected, Gautreaux participants found a safer environment in the suburbs than the city, with far less exposure to gangs, drugs, and life-threatening crime. Although Gautreaux participants encountered some instances of suburban racial harassment, especially early on, rarely did they encounter the violence and physical harm of the city's public housing projects. There was, by contrast, surprisingly little difference between suburban and city movers in terms of social integration -- having friends, interacting with neighbors, and identifying friendly neighbors. Yet, as expected, interracial friendships were more common among suburban Gautreaux families, while city movers were more likely to have African American friends.

Rubinowitz and Rosenbaum find some support for two highly touted benefits of racial and economic suburban integration -- improved educational and employment opportunities for minorities. Interviewees suggested that the housing advantages of the Gautreaux program were the most crucial reason for participation by African American mothers; suburban Section 8 housing was superior to affordable housing in the city, along with a much safer living environment. The suburbs also provided the possibility of a better education. Not surprisingly, Rubinowitz and Rosenbaum find that suburban schools had more resources and programs than those available to city movers, class sizes were smaller, classrooms had fewer disciplinary problems, and educational standards were higher. The more demanding suburban educational standards meant that some African American children performed below average, and about seven percent were placed in special education classes. Though sometimes charging that special education assignments were due to racial or class bias, 92 percent of the Gautreaux mothers still believed that suburban schools and teachers were preferable to those in Chicago.

Suburban movers reported that, after the initial years, fewer problems arose and that African American children were less afraid to attend suburban than city schools, as they adjusted to their new living environment. By that time minority children were performing as well in suburban as city schools, and their athletic performance significantly improved. As the authors note:

Page 93 begins here

"The findings on children's outcomes are apparently unimpressive, based on the numbers. The suburban and city movers had very similar rates of behavior problems, similar grades, and similar class ranks" (p. 160). Yet, athletic accomplishment fueled academic success as suburban teachers provided African American children even more assistance and encouragement if they demonstrated outstanding athletic skills.

Rubinowitz and Rosenbaum conclude that poor inner-city minority children typically adapt to a new suburban environment in terms of both education and employment. Suburban movers were more likely than city movers "to be (1) in high school, (2) in a college track, (3) in a four-year college, (4) in a job, (5) in a job with benefits, and (6) not outside the education and employment systems" (p. 171). Compared to city movers in the job market, suburban movers were more often employed (75 percent versus 41 percent), more often earning at least $6.50 per hour (21 percent versus 5 percent,) and more likely to hold jobs with benefits (55 percent versus 23 percent). All this, the authors contend, demonstrates the fallacy of the permanent disadvantage hypothesis: "that because the suburbs have different standards than the city, low-income youth in the suburbs will suffer a permanent disadvantage and will have lower education and employment than city movers" (p. 161). They conclude, instead, that African American families are capable of crossing major racial and economic lines, coping with associated problems, and benefiting in terms of housing, safety, education, and employment.

Over fifty other mobility programs were developed nationwide in the 1990s due in part to the Gautreaux program--despite scarce federal funding and a limited supply of affordable private housing for the poor. In particular, Congress funded Moving to Opportunity (MTO) between 1992 and 1999. Compared to the Gautreaux program, MTO was a limited HUD experiment in Baltimore, Boston, Chicago, Los Angeles, and New York. Only Baltimore experienced extreme opposition to MTO, mainly because of white fears that large numbers of poor people would be relocated to Baltimore's suburbs. Other mobility programs, either voluntary or growing out of litigation, appeared in cities like Cincinnati, Dallas, Hartford, Memphis, and Oakland.

The Gautreaux program highlights the strengths and weaknesses of housing mobility programs, and much can be learned from it. The real issue for the future, as the authors indicate, is the extent to which white Americans will embrace the idea of giving minorities and the poor the opportunity to start afresh in white suburban areas. The answer indeed looms large for the new century as the nation continues its unending struggle to define the meaning of racial justice.

In all, CROSSING THE CLASS AND COLOR LINES is the first full-scale account on the Gautreaux program, its implementation and impact. The volume stands out as a respectable contribution to the fair housing literature. Nevertheless, it could have benefited from more attention to detail, more powerful statistical analysis, and a more detached perspective.


HILLS v. GAUTREAUX, 425 U. S. (1976).

Copyright 2001 by the author, Charles M. Lamb.