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Reports of the End of Segregation Greatly Exaggerated

The Manhattan Institute just released a new study by economists Ed Glaeser and Jacob Vigdor called “The End of the Segregated Century.” It cheerfully notes that segregation is at its lowest level since 1910 and that all-white neighborhoods “are virtually extinct.”

Their report seems accurate enough in describing the changes and is consistent, in many respects, with other research. Yet, in focusing exclusively on change, the report fails to convey that segregation is still quite high throughout much of America. Moreover, the summary and discussion are misleading in their insinuation that “the end of segregation” has failed as a “driving force” behind increasing socio-economic equality between races.

First, let me deal with the extent of segregation. It’s great that the percentage of blacks living in totally or nearly all-black neighborhoods has fallen dramatically since the height of Jim Crow, when racial covenants restricted blacks from living in certain neighborhoods, anti-black violence was common, and finance and real estate market discrimination were formalized.

Today, however, 51 percent of the entire U.S. metropolitan black population still lives in 50 metropolitan areas where segregation is high, according to the dissimilarity index data provided by John Logan of Brown University (a score above 60 is considered high--and means that 60 percent of blacks would have to switch neighborhoods with whites to achieve balance). This is down from 86 percent of blacks in 1980, living in 194 metropolitan areas, but it means that most blacks still live in highly-segregated metropolitan areas, mostly in the Northeast and Midwest. Moreover, the share of metro black residents living in at least moderately segregated metros (an index of 40 or above) is 95 percent.

Drilling down to the neighborhood level  using the isolation and exposure indices, one sees that the average black person in 2010 lived in a neighborhood that is just 35 percent white and 45 percent black, despite living in a metropolitan area that is, on average, 59 percent white and 20 percent black.

Look at Washington D.C., where I live. Out of the 145,311 residents in Wards 7 and 8, 95 percent are black and less than 3 percent are white, according to 2005–2009 census data. Meanwhile, in Ward 3, just 6 percent of residents are black.

As Doug Massey’s classic book pointed out, despite all the Little Italys, Polish Quarters, and Chinatowns, no immigrant group ever had segregation levels near as high as blacks did in the 1980s, and that remains true in 2010. Meanwhile, as I discussed in American Law and Economics Review, Hispanics and whites are growing more isolated, in part as a result of exclusionary zoning practices, such that Hispanic levels of neighborhood isolation now approach black levels. All this is to say that it is grossly inaccurate to refer to “the end of segregation.”

The racial changes in residential proximity are occurring even as segregation by income has been growing since 1970, as Sean F. Reardon and Kendra Bischoff have recently published. Here, Glaeser seems to have a particular blind spot. He is a major critic of current zoning practice, but refuses to acknowledge its consequences on segregation by income, which are well documented. Instead, he attributes segregation by income to the preference of the poor to live near public transportation and ignores the fact that public transportation is impossible in sprawling suburbs because of zoning. New research suggests how weak the public transit connection really is.

All that is bad enough for the Manhattan Institute report, but Glaeser and Vigdor also manage to disparage the ideals of the civil rights movement and contradict Glaeser’s previous research. They claim that the trend in segregation offers several “lessons relevant for public policy debates.” First is this: “The end of segregation has not caused the end of racial inequality. Only a few decades ago, conventional wisdom held that segregation was the driving force behind socioeconomic inequality. The persistence of inequality, even as segregation has receded, suggests that inequality is a far more complex phenomenon.”

Calling something “conventional wisdom” is often a euphemistic way of suggesting that people didn’t know what they were talking about. I suppose they mean civil right leaders in the public sphere and respected scholars in the academic sphere. One respected academic who helped advance the notion that desegregation would lead to economic equality is none other than Ed Glaeser. With David Cutler, he published an article on segregation in the Quarterly Journal of Economics, where they wrote:

“Alternatively, if we consider the more extreme experiment of eliminating current levels of segregation entirely, then all of the black-white differences in earnings, high school graduation rates, and idleness would disappear, as would two-thirds of the black-white difference in single motherhood.”

This wasn’t written in 1960, but in 1997, after years of progress on integration. And in fact, Glaeser actually referenced the article as evidence that segregation continues to harm blacks in an op-ed yesterday. Still, the report fails to mention even one study in the rich academic literature--Johnson for example--documenting that increased integration has greatly benefitted blacks.

Glaeser and, to a lesser extent, Vigdor both have done great scholarly work on the causes and effects of segregation. This report for the Manhattan Institute, however, adds little value to their contribution and may even diminish it.