While studies of racial residential preferences generally converge on the pattern that blacks prefer neighborhoods with a substantial proportion of African Americans, but whites are uncomfortable with no more than 20% black, the forces underlying these preferences receive comparatively less empirical attention. This paper uses perceptions of community undesirability as a measure of racial residential preferences to address this question. Data come from the Multi-City Study of Urban Inequality, which asked large samples of whites and African Americans in Atlanta, Boston, Detroit, and Los Angeles to rate the desirability of 5–7 local communities. In addition to the closed-ended ratings, this paper draws on a systematic analysis of open-ended survey data asking respondents to explain why they find communities undesirable. Overall, blacks rate most communities as more desirable than whites, and African Americans find desirable many of the communities in which they are the numerical minority. Whites rate mixed race communities as undesirable, in part because of a desire to avoid black neighbors, but also because of what may be an over-inflated perception of crime in those communities. Analyses of African American community ratings highlight the importance of racial climate in shaping perceptions of communities and argue against the assertion that racial composition alone is the key factor in black preferences.

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