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How Amazon's same-day delivery service reflects decades of residential segregation

Libby Nelson is Vox's policy editor, leading coverage of how government action and inaction shape American life. Libby has more than a decade of policy journalism experience, including at Inside Higher Ed and Politico. She joined Vox in 2014.

If you've used it, Amazon's same-day delivery service can seem like magic: all the convenience of shopping online, plus the instant gratification of getting whatever you want by the end of the day.

But the way the same-day magic is distributed within the big cities where it's available follows a sadly familiar pattern. It's much more likely to be available to white residents than to black residents, according to a fascinating new analysis by Bloomberg's David Ingold and Spencer Soper.

Amazon swears this isn't on purpose. According to the company, the neighborhoods where you can get same-day delivery are determined by their proximity to Amazon's warehouses and, at least at first, where the most Prime members live.

Ingold and Soper make a strong case that Amazon should consider race in the equation for two reasons: The black neighborhoods neglected by same-day delivery also tend to be places where convenient, well-stocked stores with low prices aren't available either. And shopping online has particular upsides for people of color because they can't be discriminated against or profiled based on their race. In other words, Amazon is neglecting customers who could use its service the most.

The Bloomberg analysis is yet another example of how patterns of residential segregation affect all aspects of people's lives. The neighborhoods excluded from Prime's same-day delivery are many of the same places where the Federal Housing Administration refused to back mortgages in the mid-20th century, creating a vast, government-driven gap between black and white Americans in wealth, education, and opportunity.

And while not being able to get an Amazon package within hours of placing your order is far from the worst form of disadvantage people living in those neighborhoods face, it's a reminder of just how far-reaching the effects of housing segregation are.

Go deeper:

  • Poor neighborhoods are systemically served worse by retail stores. In New York City, areas with more black residents have farther to travel to all kinds of stores, according to a study published in 2013 in the Journal of Urban Health.
  • Comparing redlining maps from the 1930s and demographic data today show how long the effects of federal housing policies have lingered, Belt magazine wrote last year.
  • It's amazing what a short leap it is from Amazon Prime's shipping practices to Ta-Nehisi Coates's The Case for Reparations, the definitive recent argument on the damage wrought by housing segregation.

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