The Role of Place, Prejudice, and Perception
Hyde Park, home to the prestigious University of Chicago, is a diverse academic enclave tucked in the middle of Chicago’s South Side and among some of the nation’s most segregated neighborhoods. It was in this juxtaposition of settings, leafy academia with concrete jungle, that IPR sociologist Lincoln Quillian became interested in pursuing the study of urban sociology as an undergraduate student there in the late 1980s.
“The neighborhood was quite a departure from my upbringing in suburban California,” Quillian recalled.
Already interested in studying poverty—an interest passed on to him by his mother, a social worker—Quillian was also exposed to the pioneering research of prominent U. Chicago scholars in race and segregation, in particular William Julius Wilson and Douglas Massey, who were both on the faculty at that time.
Quillian’s interests would lead him down a scholarly path to doctoral studies at Harvard and then positions at the University of Wisconsin-Madison and now IPR/Northwestern. His research examines the complex issues of race, ethnicity, social stratification, and segregation, with a distinct emphasis on looking at how these often intertwined matters can influence people’s perceptions and prejudices. Along the way, his work has begun to shed new light on how we think about race and segregation.
Quillian’s recent research has focused on the causes and consequences of segregation in American cities, examining the topic from racial, ethnic and socioeconomic angles.
“Residential segregation is an important mechanism that creates inequality and a structure of disadvantages. It also affects attitudes people have about each other in a long-term way,” he said.
In a 2012 American Sociological Review article, Quillian questioned a prevailing theory of how spatially concentrated poverty is a consequence of racial residential segregation. While previous research looked at racial segregation and economic segregation within a race, Quillian wondered why these did not explain certain anomalies, such as why middle-class blacks lived in higher tracts of concentrated poverty than whites who earned less.
“It turns out there’s a third form [of segregation] that comparatively is pretty important,” he said. “It is the segregation of high-income members of other race groups from black and Hispanic neighborhoods.”
Other-race neighbors of blacks and Hispanics were disproportionately poor. This helps to explain why Hispanics, who live in far less segregated neighborhoods than blacks, do not experience significantly less poverty concentration. It also indicates that reducing neighborhood racial segregation alone cannot reduce concentrated poverty.
Quillian is also expanding this line of research, examining neighborhood and socioeconomic segregation in comparable French and American cities. With Hugues Lagrange of Sciences Po, Quillian found much higher rates of socioeconomic segregation—measured by income, employment status, and education level—in the United States. They estimated that at least half of this could be the result of higher U.S. income inequality.
Perceived Crime Victimization Risk
Another highly cited study by Quillian links how individuals estimate their risk of becoming a crime victim to their perceptions of their neighborhoods.
Quillian and Devah Pager of Harvard University matched survey response data by zip code to local demographic data. Though respondents accurately predicted their risk of job loss or loss of healthcare, when it came to crime, the racial makeup of their neighborhood strongly influenced their perceived risk. Whites overestimated their risk twice as much in predominantly black zip codes as in areas with smaller black populations.
“People vastly overestimate their risk of being a victim of a crime,” Quillian said, “and a neighborhood’s racial composition cues perception, independent of actual crime rates in that area.”
The observed bias, Quillian said, confirms a “systematic distortion,” where respondents rely on stereotypes to gauge risk rather than more pertinent information.
Prejudice and Perceived Group Threat
One of Quillian’s most well-known studies is a 1995 American Sociological Review article that continues to resonate. It examined anti-immigrant and racial prejudice in 12 European countries. He found increased hostile attitudes by the majority racial or ethnic group toward minority groups when these subordinate groups constituted a proportionally larger part of a nation’s population and economic conditions were worse.
“The results were troubling and very constant,” Quillian said. Subsequent studies have confirmed similar patterns in the United States and elsewhere.
As many debate whether the election of our first black president and slowly declining racial segregation means we’ve reached a postracial era, Quillian’s research continues to chip away at deeply held perceptions, prejudices and stereotypes, shining new light on how we might approach and understand, and perhaps even solve, some of these deep-rooted and complex issues.