A Norms-Based Approach to Sustaining Integration

Waldeck, Sarah E.

Headlines about racial polarization and a country divided obscure an important present opportunity: racial integration initiated by local community choice. These local contexts have national significance in light of census data showing that American suburbs and exurbs are perfectly positioned to integrate and can do so through local choice irrespective of what occurs at the federal level.

However, integration is not preordained. Census data shows segregation decreasing within some large cities but increasing in metropolitan areas as a whole. When Blacks move to the suburbs, Whites flee to locations ever farther from the city’s center. Suburbs and exurbs, not cities, are the new ground zero for integration efforts. The stakes are high: Ferguson, Missouri, home of the 2014 protests, is a suburb from which sixty-two percent of the White population fled between 1990 and 2010.

Using empirical fieldwork from a Chicago suburb that successfully integrated in the 1970’s, this Article sheds light on how norms and other behavioral phenomena fuel the dynamics of integration. When a community deliberately chooses to integrate, it generates norms that foster and sustain integration. As a norm weaves itself into the fabric of the community, it becomes even more powerful than law. The norm helps ensure that individuals within the community make integration-affirming choices, even when those choices are costly. When the norm is visible to those outside the community, it attracts new members who value integration and are likely to support the policies that foster it. Once suburbs and exurbs opt for integration instead of White flight, norms and other mainstays of behavioral law and economics allow integration to perpetuate.

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Columbia Journal of Race and Law

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October 31, 2019