Come On Rice Kinder Houston Area Survey, Houston’s Segregation is the Real Story, Not Our Demographic Diversity 

Houston Museum of African American Culture

September 6, 2018 

With  great  fanfare  each  year,  the  Rice  Kinder  Houston  Area  Survey examines Houston residents’ opinions on the city’s increasing diversity of our racial and ethnic population. But just how impactful is that examination to neighborhoods of color, given the use of diversity as its analytical core? That’s a valid question, and one we ask in this White Paper.

For   example,   this   year’s   Survey   Conclusion   included   the   statement:

“Hidden   beneath   the   political   divides,   Houston-area   residents   are embracing the diversity and are increasingly in favor of policy initiatives to reduce  the  region's  income  inequalities,  improve  the  public  schools,  and strengthen  resiliency  and  urban  amenities.  They  seem  more  prepared today than at any time in the past 37 years to support the many ongoing efforts  by  Houston's  business  and  civic  leadership  to  address  the  new realities  and  position  the  Houston  region  for  competitive  success  in  the years ahead."

That statement sounds good, but what does it really mean when it is not tied directly to our city’s challenging segregation. For example, it would be useful for policy makers to know the extent to which the favored initiatives include addressing the exclusion of low-income people of color from well- resourced areas as well as the unequal conditions experienced by people of color living in segregated areas, or both.

Houston gets great public relations branding for being the most diverse city in the country - so great that many think we have no racial problems here - and many people of color are used to officially spread this relatively benign demographic  reality.    Once  you  peek  behind  the  Ozian  curtain,  however, you find a tough segregated town full of racial disparities and income and wealth inequality that private sector philanthropic and business leadership, not  just  our  public  officials,  should  be  asked  to  address  in  a  more meaningful and impactful way.

Point No. 1.  Houston is one of the five most economically segregated cities  in  the  country,  according  to  a  2015  Martin  Prosperity  Institute report. 

This  alarming  fact  has  a  far  greater  impact  on  our  communities  than  a demographic  brand.  Indeed,  the  lead  author  of  the  2015  study,  Richard Florida, also authored a 2014 report that also ranked Houston No. 4 among the  most  income-segregated  metropolitan  areas  in  the  nation.  The  2015 study  is  even  more  definitive  as  it  looks  at  three  types  of  segregation  — economic,  educational  and  occupational  —  and  combines  them  into  a single   metric   to   judge   an   area's   economic   landscape.       Houston’s prominence on this list has to be of concern and begs the question, “Are we as racially progressive as the Rice Kinder Survey suggests and as we want people to think we are?”.

In 2010, 60.3% of Houston’s population identified as a minority compared with 42.1% in 1990. However, a Smithsonian Institute analysis noted this racial diversity does not bring with it racial integration. While Houston revels in  being  one  of  the  most  diverse  metropolitan  areas  in  the  country,  if represented on a map, the concentration of minority populations does not look like a “melting pot” of race and ethnicity but more like a sharply divided pie.

In  short,  we  are  NOT  solely  the  city  suggested  by  our  demographic diversity   public   relations.       We   are   also   an   extremely   racially segregated   city,   in   every   way;   residentially,   economically, educationally   and   occupationally.   Segregation   is   profoundly   more impactful than is demographic diversity on a range of social and economic well-being  outcomes  such  as  access  to  services,  how  people  view  one another,   and,   most   important,   the   average   level   of   poverty   in   our neighborhoods.

Point No. 2.  In Houston we must address BOTH the exclusion of low- income  people  of  color  from  well-resourced  areas AND  the  unequal conditions people of color living in segregated areas experience.

Our low-income neighborhoods deserve great schools and jobs and access to grocery stores just as much as rich and middle class neighborhoods do. The  problem  is  we  don’t  offer  these  things  now. And  without  real  buy-in from   progressive   city   elites,   current   policy   seems   likely   to   be   as unsuccessful  as  past  failed  initiatives.  On  racial  matters,  if  history  is  our guide, it seems such buy-in and investment is unlikely.

This  is  a  major  problem  for  our  city’s  most  optimistically  imagined future,  and  especially  for  the  future  of  Houston’s  people  of  color. Research   shows   that   “high   opportunity”   neighborhoods   result   from consistent and dedicated investment by the private sector into them. Such neighborhoods are   characterized by safer streets, good schools, greater levels of civic involvement and access to better jobs. These factors act to alleviate income and wealth inequality and help halt the cycle of poverty.  In addition to attractive tax incentives to promote private investment into the “Opportunity  Zones”  that  define  these  neighborhoods,  some  investment must  come  from  investors  who  see  them  as  part  of  a  common  future shared by them and the community residents.

In   our   city,   a   conversation   on   shared   futures   is   best   held   by   city philanthropic  and  business  elites  and  experienced  of  color  assets  in  our communities. But such of color assets are traditionally weak despite their effective community impact due to a lack of funding support and respect for them from our philanthropic and business communities. 

At  HMAAC  we  have  made  the  argument  that  African  American  cultural assets build meaningful and impactful cultural capital that helps transform communities by reducing income and wealth inequality and poverty.   We have  also  made  the  argument  that  strengthening  the  financial  support  of African American assets, especially cultural ones, to allow them to gain the operational and management experience that comes from more extensive community engagement, will, in the medium to long term, positively impact the problems associated with unequal conditions experienced by people of color living in segregated areas.

By  making  segregation  the  analytical  core  for  evaluating  Houstonians attitudes  about  “diversity,”  light  can  be  shed  on  the  extent  of  trust  our philanthropic  and  business  elites  have  in  African  American  and  of  color assets   as   a   significant   and   impactful   partner   for   change   in   our neighborhoods,  and  the  extent  to  which  such  change  is  a  shared  goal.

While  we  noted  the  huge  lack  of  trust  and  funding  in  a  previous  White Paper, “Call for Equity in Houston Cultural Funding,” as evidenced by the less  than  1%  funding  of  of  color  cultural  assets  by  Houston’s  major philanthropic foundations, it would be a nice barometer of our progress if that trust is measured annually in the Survey by responses from foundation officials to questions about of color assets.

Point  No.  3.  It’s  time  this  African  American  generation  emphasizes acquiring assets.

Data from the Brookings Institute indicates that, despite all current progress to  bridge  income  inequality,  Houston’s  richest  residents  still  make  11.8 times the average income of the poorest residents ($220,582 to $18,759), which is significantly higher than the national average (9.6 times). While the Rice Kinder Survey indicates favorable feelings about reducing income inequality,  by  not  correlating  such  inequality  to  economic  segregation,  it seems  to  leave  us  with  a  high  degree  of  uncertainty  about  what  those favorable feelings actually mean.

Whether or not we make a dent in this horrendous income disparity in the

next few generations, Houston’s African Americans can move collectively to change the wealth disparity, in order to give our kids, our future, a vision of economic success that seems achievable and not remote.  Despite the lack of  inclusion  in  the  city’s  economy, African American  ownership  of  assets and wealth building can make a slow, but steady difference in addressing the  unequal  conditions  in  our  communities.  Such  ownership  of  assets  is part of the additional private investment suggested earlier that is required to make Opportunity Zones truly effective.

At the recent HMAAC forum The Gathering, one of the featured speakers, an African American born to little wealth, told the participants of how twelve years  earlier  he  began  to  acquire  assets  with  the  purchase  of  a  $100 vending machine, and how he measured his return on investment “quarter by  quarter.”  Five  years  and  numerous  machines  later,  he  was  buying dilapidated houses near the low-income Sunnyside neighborhood where he grew up.  His quality control: his sisters had lived in Section 8 housing and any house he restored had to meet a standard of comfort he would want for his  sisters.  Not  only  has  this  investor  been  a  good  community  minded samaritan, but he also gained wealth, telling his audience that if he quit his day job tomorrow, he would not lose any of his lifestyle. 

Such  an  asset  acquisition  strategy,  one  that  HMAAC  started  at  The Gathering, is certainly worth the effort, especially given the failure of public sector  policies  to  have  any  significant  impact  in  offsetting  the  debilitating effect  of  Houston’s  stark  segregation.  Bottom  line:  while  The  Gathering’s highlighted  speaker’s  experience  did  not  reduce  the  income  gap,  it  has helped reduced the wealth gap.


As  the  Houston  Museum  of  African  American  Culture  (HMAAC)  has indicated over and over again on social media YOU/WE HAVE A CHOICE. What are you/we going to do? There is a lot of talk constantly by and about our low income and of color communities.  But there is little effective action that  meets  HMAAC’s  goal  to  actually  disrupt  intergenerational  poverty,  to change the picture that is now prevalent and put forth throughout this White Paper. 

A good  start  is  to  take  the  Rice  Kinder  Houston Area  Survey  for  what  it really  is,  a  relatively  benign  comment,  when  it  comes  to  race,  on  our population  diversity,  rather  than  an  indication  of  attitudes  on  ending  the overwhelming   residential,   education,   occupational   and   economic segregation  that  continues  to  act  as  a  barrier  to  progress  for  African Americans and Latinos in our city.

Perhaps if our city’s stark segregation was the analytical core of the Rice Kinder   Area   Survey,   we   could   more   transparently   gauge   our   city’s philanthropic  and  business  elites  propensity  to  invest  in  of  color  cultural and other assets, and in their recognition of such assets’ critical importance in creating an inclusive and not simply a statistically diverse city.

Perhaps if we measured our progress through the prism of our segregation and  make  our  goal  our  integration  -  economically,  educationally  and occupationally - we might make some substantial progress as a city toward meeting that goal as well as the reduction of residential segregation, and, in the  process,  become  the  national  example  of  a  preferred  future  we  so desperately want and claim to be. 

Perhaps if Houston’s African Americans begin to focus on wealth through asset acquisition despite continued unacceptable income disparities, a slow and  historically  elusive  revitalization  of  our  neighborhoods  might  finally begin to take hold. That would be real impact, real change, real progress.

John Guess, Jr.

CEO, Houston Museum of African American Culture