Diversity’s Fault Lines

Sociologist Sarah Mayorga examines the coded ways white people engage with their Black and Latinx neighbors.

An illustration showing two white families talking to each other over a white picket fence, and — on the adjacent side of the yard — a much higher section of fence blocks a Black family from view.
Davide Bonazzi

Associate professor of sociology Sarah Mayorga studies the sort of people who live in cities, often in older or historic homes. They’re well-educated. Many of them work in such creative professions as architecture, web design or academia.

They are partial to Priuses, jogging strollers and anything artisanal. They shop at independent bookstores and hover over their laptops at eclectic cafes that serve nitro cold brew and specialty kombucha. They get their veggies at the local farmers market and eat at the neighborhood Mexican taqueria.

They lean left in their political views and reliably vote Democratic. Some call themselves progressives. Lately, a few have been flirting with the label “democratic socialist.”

They are also white. If you ask them why they choose to live in their neighborhood, they will likely tell you it’s for the diversity — they can walk out their front door and see people of all races, ethnicities, religions and nationalities.

In the early 2010s, Mayorga spent 18 months interviewing members of this milieu in Durham, North Carolina, for her doctoral dissertation. She wanted to know what urban whites meant when they said they valued living in a racially and ethnically mixed community. She hoped to understand their real relationships with people of color.

What she found was disturbing. The people she studied paid lip service to diversity, yet their social networks were overwhelmingly white. Although they described their neighborhood as friendly and racially integrated, many people of color did not share that view.

What’s behind this disconnect, Mayorga wondered? And what does it say about America’s progress toward true racial equity?

Challenging power from the inside

Mayorga was born to a Nicaraguan family living in Puerto Rico. When she was 2, her father, an engineer, was recruited by a Florida-based Italian company. Growing up in Miami’s multiethnic Kendall neighborhood, Mayorga self-identified primarily as Nicaraguan, because her family had a culture and heritage distinct from the Cubans, Mexicans, Puerto Ricans, Peruvians, and other Latin and South American groups living around her.

As an undergrad at Providence College, she began to identify as Latina more readily. Most of the student body was white, and her minority status solidified her bond with other Latin and South Americans — regardless of their country of origin — as well as with other students of color.

In her sophomore year, Mayorga took a required course on Western civilization. At the start of each class, the professor would play a musical selection related to the topic at hand. Though most of the lectures focused on white European culture and history, one class discussed Latin American revolutions. To introduce it, the professor played a recording of Madonna singing a song from “Evita.”

Mayorga believes the faculty member was well-intentioned yet so steeped in a white European milieu it didn’t occur to him to play a Latin American song instead of Andrew Lloyd Webber. The choice didn’t sit right with her. But when she looked around the class — a sea of white faces — “no one else seemed to notice,” she says.

Another course, “The Power of Whiteness,” sparked Mayorga’s interest in sociology. It explored the privileges whites enjoy in the U.S. simply by virtue of being white and the complex economic, political and cultural structures that exist to justify these inequities. The class “was radicalizing in the best possible way,” Mayorga says. “It opened up a whole new way of understanding the world.”

While earning her PhD at Duke University, Mayorga studied with sociologist Eduardo Bonilla-Silva. In his 2017 book, “Racism Without Racists: Colorblind Racism and the Persistence of Racial Inequality in America,” Bonilla-Silva calls for a new definition of racism, one less focused on individual attitudes and more focused on the forces that perpetuate racial disparities. Don’t ask who is or isn’t a racist, he urges. Examine the economic, political and cultural systems that oppress people of color, in which we are all consciously or unconsciously implicated.

Bonilla-Silva’s term “colorblind racism” refers to the rhetorical sleight of hand white Americans use when they talk about race, making it seem they aren’t talking about race at all. He argues that, in many cases, it’s a way of dismissing concerns about racism and social injustice. Sometimes, it’s a way of hiding a true desire to see people of color remain targets of prejudice.

For her dissertation, which she later reworked into a book titled “Behind the White Picket Fence: Power and Privilege in a Multiethnic Neighborhood” (University of North Carolina Press, 2014), Mayorga looked at what liberal urban whites living in a racially mixed neighborhood had to say about race and what their relationships with residents of color were like. She didn’t have to go far to find her subjects. Durham, where Duke is located, had seen an influx of liberal urban whites since the 1990s. And the city hadn’t gentrified like Brooklyn or San Francisco had. Durham’s whites were still solidly middle-class.

Mayorga identified a 10-block area that was about 33% white, 40% Black and the rest Latinx. To protect the identity of the people she interviewed, she gave the neighborhood a made-up name, Creekridge Park.

She had an unexpected advantage in getting white Creekridge Park residents to open up to her — they thought she was one of them. Light-skinned, Mayorga could easily be mistaken for white. She found it tougher going when interviewing people of color. They perceived her as an outsider. One Latinx resident was surprised she spoke Spanish.

A dark-haired woman in a black-and-white print dress stands in front of two old multistory houses.
Mike Lovett
Sarah Mayorga

Having shifted her identity from Nicaraguan to Latina in college, Mayorga was now passing as white. She says it didn’t cause her any great distress. “Rather than fueling an identity crisis from reaping the benefits of whiteness,” she says, “it gave me an opportunity to challenge power from the inside.”

When Mayorga asked Creekridge Park’s white residents to describe their neighborhood, they gave remarkably similar answers.

“It’s a really diverse neighborhood,” said one. “Age, race, sexual orientation — we have it all here.”

“You have all kinds of folks, you know, so it’s a mixture of everybody, basically,” said another.

“It’s definitely diverse. It’s economically diverse. It’s racially diverse. It’s educationally diverse,” said a third.

For Mayorga, there was an obvious follow-up question for white residents: Did they interact with Black and Latinx people?

For the most part, they did not.

The illusion of integration

One white Creekridge Park resident described relations with Black and Latinx residents not as friendships but “neighborships,” the kind of connection where you express pleasantries when you meet on the street or keep an eye on your neighbor’s home when he’s away.

Another proudly ticked off the names of neighbors who are people of color to show Mayorga how diverse the community is. But when Mayorga asked about her relationships with them, the woman stumbled. “Um, yeah, that’s an interesting thing to me,” she said. “There isn’t that much mixing really, I guess.”

For the most part, Latinx residents were OK with this distance. Many spoke Spanish as their primary language and preferred to be with other Spanish speakers. The presence of undocumented immigrants in the community also made them wary of letting outsiders in.

Black residents, though, expressed a desire for closer ties with whites, and said they often encountered hostility and racism. Cheryl, a 50-something Black homeowner, lived on her block for five years before any of her white neighbors introduced themselves. The first time a white person exchanged a pleasantry with Cheryl, she was planting flowers in her yard. Mayorga says this was a sign the white resident saw her as someone “invested in the neighborhood” — the “right” kind of homeowner, despite her race.

Jerry, a disabled Black veteran in his 60s, told Mayorga he was accused of being a panhandler when he went to a neighborhood cafe that catered to a mostly white clientele.

Mayorga did not seek to expose Durham residents as racists. Instead, she sought to understand why whites described their neighborhood as friendly and racially integrated but many people of color did not. What was the source of the disconnect? Did it arise from a power imbalance between whites and nonwhites? What role did this disconnect play in perpetuating inequality and social injustice?

“It’s not that the whites in the neighborhood had some evil intent,” Mayorga says. It’s that “they had the ability to shape the neighborhood in the way they desired, without having to take into account the points of view of residents of color.”

Americans must reconsider what they mean when they say a neighborhood is integrated, she explains. On paper, Creekridge Park is a model of a racially and ethnically mixed community. In reality, it’s socially segregated.

The term “diversity ideology” describes what Mayorga observed in Creekridge Park and among whites generally. It becomes enough for whites to be around people of color. They don’t take the next step of getting to know people of color or go beyond extolling the virtue of diversity to truly fight for social justice.

“It becomes this performance of being ‘the good type of white person,’” Mayorga says. “We stay in that first step of proving we’re committed to diversity and never really follow through with the commitment.”

Mayorga attended meetings of the Creekridge Park Neighborhood Association, where white members told her how much they valued diversity. They wanted Black and Latinx residents to join and attend meetings. Yet membership remained overwhelmingly white.

The CPNA distributed a quarterly newsletter to keep residents informed of its activities. A single copy was hand-delivered to every home and apartment building. The former might have four or five people living there; the latter could have dozens. Most whites were homeowners. People of color mostly lived in apartments. The newsletter was printed only in English. “We don’t know what it says. I toss it,” a Latina woman living in an apartment told Mayorga.

Cheryl, the Black homeowner, told Mayorga she went to a few CPNA meetings but concluded the burden would be on her to attract other people of color as members. Given her work and travel commitments, she didn’t have the time or energy. “I might be the only Black [at a meeting], which I’m sure contributed in part to my not wanting to go on a regular basis,” she said.

When Mayorga asked CPNA’s white members why the association’s membership wasn’t diverse, they invariably put the blame on people of color. One man said Black and Latinx people were less interested in the neighborhood because they were renters.

‘Dogs are our connectors’

Tammy, a 50-something Creekridge Park homeowner, worried about her neighbor’s dog, who barked constantly. One day, Tammy hid in woods near the neighbor’s house and watched the animal through binoculars. It seemed to her the dog was kept inside too small a space in the neighbor’s yard. When the neighbor spotted Tammy, she at first said she was looking at another homeowner’s dog. Then she dropped the pretense and offered to buy him a doghouse.

The neighbor accepted. When Tammy volunteered to walk his pet regularly, he let her do that, too. Soon, she was watching the dog during the day while the neighbor’s kids were at school. Eventually, the family let Tammy know they didn’t want to keep the animal, so she volunteered to find it a new owner. In the meantime, she took the dog to her home. The dog was still there when Mayorga interviewed Tammy for her research.

An illustration showing a white woman petting a dog on a leash held by a Black man; the leash is threaded through a white picket fence that separates the man and the woman.
Davide Bonazzi

Tammy was white; the neighbor, Latino. Tammy never once mentioned this. In her view, she was a good neighbor. But Mayorga sees Tammy’s story as an example of how whites speak about race in veiled terms, their good intentions outweighing the effect of their actions.

What if the neighbor had been white? Would Tammy have felt she had the right to take over caring for the dog? Would she have been as sure the animal was being mistreated? Despite their interactions, Tammy never became friends with her neighbor. She told Mayorga she was focused on helping the dog, not on getting to know the dog’s owner. The neighbor was, in effect, invisible to her.

Even though she never got to know them, Tammy told Mayorga she believed her neighbors loved their dog, but “they just didn’t [...] know [...] what to do with her.” For Tammy, this was an expression of sympathy and understanding.

Mayorga didn’t doubt Tammy’s intentions, but she also detected paternalism. “Tammy felt justified in judging her Latino/a neighbor’s pet care as inferior because she had good intentions,” Mayorga wrote in her book. “She failed to see her views and expectations of dog care as culturally specific and not universally good.”

Lots of other Creekridge Park residents talked to Mayorga about dogs. “It’s a very doggy neighborhood,” one said. “Dogs are our connectors,” said another. Residents stopped to chat while walking their dogs. They swapped pet stories. These were seen as interactions fostering social cohesion.

Though the topic of race never came up in pet discussions, Mayorga found it lurked beneath the surface. White owners said dogs gave them a sense of safety and security. When asked where, exactly, they felt endangered, they invariably mentioned the streets where Black and Latinx residents tended to live.

In a 2018 article in the journal Sociological Forum, Mayorga argued that whites have social norms around proper dog treatment and etiquette: Dogs shouldn’t be tethered. They need many daily walks. They need access to large pens and doggie doors.

Mayorga believes white people use these standards, which aren’t supported by any scientific data, to pass judgment on Black and Latinx people and find them deficient without having to acknowledge they are using race as a criterion.

Why is this person a stranger?

Mayorga is now working on a book, scheduled to be published next year, on the intersection between race and class, a topic her work in Durham, particularly her exploration of the schism between renters and homeowners, touched on.

For the new book, she spent nine months interviewing 117 residents in two working-class neighborhoods in Cincinnati, one white, the other multiracial. She studied the kinds of relationships renters and homeowners had with each other. Does the racial makeup of a neighborhood matter in the creation of close ties? What assumptions and behaviors kept residents from connecting?

Mayorga found many people she spoke with — across all races and ethnic groups — were focused on the gentrification of the downtown area by upwardly mobile whites, similar to the ones she’d interviewed in Durham. This group was seen as driving up property values and pushing out longtime residents. But residents had different views on what this displacement meant for their neighborhoods.

Since residents’ income level was about the same, Mayorga was able to isolate race and ethnicity as factors influencing their opinions. This allows her to study racial capitalism, the interconnectedness of racism and capitalism, which creates sustained urban inequality from which whites and economic elites benefit. “When I talk about whiteness, I’m really talking about power — being able to shape the world in your vision and make the world the way you want it to be,” she says.

None of the problems Mayorga diagnoses has an easy solution. “There is no checklist of things people are supposed to say or do,” she notes.

Instead, she says, understanding the problems helps whites better understand the impact of their behavior. For instance, there was nothing inherently wrong with Tammy’s offering to help her neighbor out with his dog. But her approach might have been different if she’d been friendly with her neighbor in the first place. “Rather than asking, ‘What can I do about my neighbor’s dog?’ she could have asked, ‘Why is this person a stranger to me?’” Mayorga says.

Along the same lines, the whites in Creekridge Park’s neighborhood association might have been able to diversify their membership if they’d recognized the cultural and racial biases that kept them from effectively reaching out to people of color. Or if they had asked what issues renters cared about and made them a priority. “What if homeowners organized alongside renters for rent control?” Mayorga says. “That would be powerful.”

Most important, whites need to recognize that good intentions are not enough, she says. Only through action can the racial divide in the U.S. be bridged and social justice achieved.

“It’s about trying to undo the racist structures that are all around us,” Mayorga says, “so that our interactions with one another reinforce our humanity and dignity. Only that way can we all come a little closer.”