Where the Popular Kids Live

If you went to a public school that was majority white, you most likely remember the “popular kids”. Usually white, American, typically very wealthy, and all somehow friends since the beginning of time. You weren’t included? Well it probably had nothing to do with your bad acne or inability to talk to crushes.

My first year in San Francisco I lived with a friend from high school. We’d reminisce about our hometown and during one conversation noticed that the neighborhoods we grew up in were completely segregated. My friend, whose family emigrated from South Korea lived in the predominantly immigrant neighborhood. My family ended up living in a predominantly Jewish area and the rest of our town was split into neat little squares oddly separated by nationality, race, and religion. A few of these “zones” were exclusively inhabited by kids we saw as “popular”. The teens who threw the parties, were the first to have an iPhone, led sports teams, and spent their weekends drinking.

In the mid 1900’s the New Deal brought about a state sponsored system of segregation. White middle-class and lower-middle class families were placed in suburbs, while the black communities and other minorities were pushed into urban development projects.

And in 1934 things got worse. The Federal Housing Administration (FHA) started a process of “redlining”, a practice which indicated to appraisers that Black neighborhoods were too risky to insure mortgages.

Many FHA policies were justified by stating that property values would decline if black citizens bought housing in certain areas. In fact, the opposite was true. Black families were willing to pay more because they had fewer options, so when black families bought housing, property values increased.

Black citizens had as much financial ability to afford homes as whites, but were prohibited from doing so. And this had long lasting consequences. It created enormous economic gaps between black and white civilians. Today there is a 60 percent income ratio between the two groups, and black families have 20 times less wealth. This is almost entirely due to federal housing policies implemented through the 20th century.

But still, today, even when financial opportunity is similar among racial and ethnic groups, race plays a disproportionate role in where people end up living. The map below displays New York City and highlights the alarming racial segregation that continues almost a century after FHA policies began.

New York City color coded by race. Click here, to check out the full map and key.

Massive segregation also extends to college campuses, especially those that have older, more developed fraternity systems.

I went to a small liberal arts school in upstate New York. Our campus was completely segregated due to our fraternity housing system. Older, wealthier fraternities were all located “up-campus”, and their alumni and members were almost all white.

“Down-campus” was reserved for international students, the queer housing community, and multicultural fraternities that were majority black or Latinx. Even AEPi, a traditionally Jewish fraternity, was located along with the other minority groups. The only exception was the oldest fraternity on our campus, founded in the early 1800’s, that had the unique position of holding both on and off campus housing.

And this segregation carried over into our cafeteria, which had a literal glass wall between where international, queer, and POC students sat, and where the white Americans would eat.

This constant geographic separation forbade integration, giving students who were deemed part of the “popular crowd” disproportionate control over student government, the alumni association, the board of trustees, and other high up institutions that did everything from determine school policies to approve which clubs could receive funding.

They were popular for a reason. They held control.

Property, housing, land, and the policies that control these aspects of our society have made it impossible for young folks, or their parents to ascend socially or economically.

“The segregation of our metropolitan areas today leads … to stagnant inequality, because families are much less able to be upwardly mobile when they’re living in segregated neighborhoods where opportunity is absent… If we want greater equality in this society… we need to take steps to desegregate.”

Even if you completely ignored the lasting consequences of FHA policies, and accumulated wealth, you still have the current problem of Homeowner Associations. Many neighborhoods are run by groups of long time home owners that have complete control over who moves into their community. And while outright discriminatory treatment is harder to find, the problem of “disparate impact” is frequent. These are policies that appear neutral but have the effect of discriminating against a specific group. For example, not allowing tricycles is considered disparate impact because it disproportionally targets children.

And Homeowner Associations don’t just control neighborhoods they often also have influence over local business and the PTSA — so school policies and funding.

Speaking with our neighbors we heard many stories of everything from outright discrimination over the past several decades to disparate impact that took place not so long ago. These communities would limit housing access to people who were non-Christian, immigrants, or POCs. Sometimes, in ways as simple as requiring Church memberships.

The students at our school who were part of the “in-crowd” lived in these communities, and in many cases their families had worked to keep diversity out. Parents often knew each other through homeowner associations, working together to support these systems. Whether their children realized it or not, their wealth, privilege, and opportunities required a systematic expulsion of anyone trying to attain equal opportunity.

Popularity was often times just power due to resources. And when it was time to hold parties, spend money, or have a parent call in to school, the in-crowd was able to do things the rest of us couldn’t. We didn’t own the land, property, or have the influence.

The consequences of FHA policies, school districts, and homeowner associations continue to fuel segregation in the states and create classism that is incredibly difficult to confront without integration. If you’re looking to learn more about segregation in America, check out The Color of Law by Richard Rothstein.

And just remember, if you ever feel unpopular, you may simply need to be born Christian, white, and in the states.