Baltimore is one of 16 large metropolitan areas marred by "hypersegregation" -- defined as when many blacks live in poor, densely packed neighborhoods near the urban core and isolated from the larger society, according to a new study.
Segregation not only traps millions of black Americans in poor neighborhoods, but it also blocks their attempts to rise out of poverty, according to "American Apartheid: Segregation and the Making of the Underclass," a book by two sociologists that is being released today.
In arguing that housing patterns in Baltimore and other cities helped create a black "underclass," the authors revive a point of view that has been out of fashion among some leading black intellectuals.
Much recent writing on African-American poverty has stressed the importance of class over race. As blue-collar jobs disappeared from cities and middle-class blacks moved out, the theory went, an overwhelmingly poor, black "underclass" was left behind in what used to be mixed-income neighborhoods.
Segregation itself was not viewed as a handicap because, it was argued, if all other things are equal, blacks maximize their political and economic strength by living in the same neighborhoods.
But segregation can indeed cause poverty and is the "key factor responsible" for creation of the "underclass," contend authors Douglas S. Massey of the University of Chicago and Nancy A. Denton of the State University of New York at Albany.
In a segregated city, they write, rising poverty destroys black neighborhoods because only poor blacks will move into them. Segregation doesn't force poor whites to live amid such concentrated poverty, the study says.
As poverty rises in segregated neighborhoods, joblessness, crime, school failure and teen-age parenthood increase, the sociologists contend. Those maladies create even more poverty in a downward, self-perpetuating spiral.
"The persistence of racial segregation makes it difficult for aspiring black families to escape the concentrated poverty of the ghetto and puts them at a distinct disadvantage in the larger competition for education, jobs, wealth and power," the authors write.
Despite federal fair housing laws, white prejudice ensures that blacks live in neighborhoods that are nearly as segregated as those of a quarter-century ago, the book says.
"The basic problem is white people don't really want to live with black people," Dr. Massey said in an interview.
When blacks are asked to choose among five types of neighborhood -- all-black, 70 percent black, 50 percent black, 15 percent black or all-white -- most prefer to live in a 50 percent black area. Their second choice is 70 percent black, followed by 15 percent black, all-black and all-white.
But once a neighborhood has a substantial black population, whites tend to stop buying homes there and the area eventually becomes segregated.
Segregation isolates poor blacks from middle-class contacts in the mainstream economy.
Segregation also causes black speech patterns to verge away from standard American English, creating an obstacle for some poor blacks seeking jobs, the book argues.
"When you segregate poor people, they don't see people around them who are succeeding," says George N. Buntin, executive director of the Baltimore chapter of the NAACP. "Poverty does have a way of exacerbating itself simply because you are surrounded by nothing but poverty."
Mr. Buntin says there has always been a debate among blacks about whether integration is necessary to pull African-Americans out of poverty. "We would much prefer to do it on our own, but the political reality of the situation suggests to me that it's not going to happen" without dismantling segregation, he says.
Most blacks don't seek integration per se, Dr. Massey says, but "they will put up with integration" to obtain better schools, safer streets and greater appreciation of home values.