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Glimpses of a Ghetto-Free Future

Segregation is steadily declining—but whites still live in the least diverse neighborhoods

David Sacks

One of the most intimate settings of American life is the neighborhood. Neighborhoods are where Americans socialize, shop, and attend school. They are where civic matters have the most impact—and where a place’s racial makeup can foster interactions with other groups, or not. For many Americans, the term that comes to mind when thinking about race and neighborhoods is “segregation.” The stark separation between blacks and whites across broad swaths of American neighborhoods was deeply rooted in the discriminatory forces that denied blacks anything resembling equal access to jobs, adequate schooling, and public services—both before and after the civil rights movement of the 1960s.

Vestiges of that segregation remain. But the twenty-first century has brought a diversity explosion that holds the potential to reshape neighborhoods as the country moves forward. In the case of blacks, the emergence of a middle class, their continuing flow to prosperous metropolitan regions in the South, and their more widespread movement to the suburbs are driving a shift toward more integrated living settings than was the norm for much of the last century. This development is especially remarkable when viewed in the context of the “ghettoization” of much of the last century, one of the most defining and regrettable episodes in American history.

Black-white segregation first began to decline during the 1970s, although the most significant decreases occurred in modest-sized metropolitan areas in the South and West that housed relatively small numbers of blacks. Unlike with Hispanics and Asians, an increase in income or educational attainment for black households did not translate into access to appreciably more integrated or higher-status neighborhoods. Areas with the largest, most concentrated black populations, including Chicago, Detroit, and Cleveland, remained highly segregated, with minimal black suburbanization. One way to measure a place’s segregation is with a “dissimilarity index,” where a value of 0 equals complete integration and 100 is complete segregation. By that metric, large, non-southern metropolitan areas showed segretation declines of fewer than 5 points between 1970 and 1980.

Declines in black-white segregation continued through the 1980s. Between 1970 and 1990, segregation dropped from 87 to 63 in Dallas, from 82 to 66 in Atlanta, and from 78 to 66 in Houston. Many such areas were beginning to attract black migrants, part of the emerging reverse black migration to the South. Because substantial suburban growth in these areas took place after the enactment of the Fair Housing Act, the impact of that law in reducing segregation was greater than in more stagnant areas of the country with little new housing development. Yet as of 1990, Chicago, Cleveland, and Detroit continued to show segregation levels above 80, and the majority of their northern counterparts registered levels in the high 70s or above. Within these areas, old stereotypes persisted about which communities were appropriate for whites and blacks, with whites expressing a strong distaste for integrated neighborhoods.

The 2010 census shows that black-white segregation is still quite evident in the United States. But it also reveals forces that will finally lead to an easing of segregation, well below the ghettoized patterns of the mid-twentieth century. Among all metropolitan areas, the average segregation level is 47; among the 100 largest, including those with the largest black populations, it stands at 55—well below the levels of 70 or more in the immediate postwar decades. A total of 93 of these areas showed declines in segregation between 1990 and 2010, making neighborhoods without any black residents extremely rare.

One of the trends spurring this shift is the continued integration of southern communities that are magnets for both blacks and whites as well as in areas in the West where new suburban housing continues to be constructed. The pattern of declining segregation is beginning to spread to places like Tampa, Bradenton, and Lakeland, in Florida, where segregation has decreased markedly. In the North, black population losses in cities, the destruction of large public housing projects, and increased suburbanization of blacks are contributing to declines in segregation.

Another impetus toward less segregation is the growth of the Hispanic and Asian populations. Although all minority groups still show a preference for members of their own group as neighbors, tolerance for other groups is strongest in settings that are already multiracial, and Hispanic and Asian segregation levels are, on average, much lower than those for blacks.That leaves open the possibility that in metropolitan areas where blacks are one of multiple minority groups, members of those other minorities can serve to “buffer” old divisions. The 2010 census shows that some of the lowest black-white segregation scores are in areas with large or growing new minority populations, including Phoenix, Las Vegas, Riverside, Tucson, Stockton, and San Antonio. Several southeastern areas that have had notable recent declines in black-white segregation are home to substantial Hispanic populations. The increased multiracial character of New Sun Belt metropolitan areas, both inside and outside the South, should even further attenuate segregation in metropolitan areas.

One more reason to expect further meaningful declines in black-white segregation is the emergence of the black middle class and the increased ability of blacks to translate economic advancement into housing in less segregated and higher-quality neighborhoods. Because of the refusal of whites to accept any blacks in their neighborhoods, there was scant evidence as recently as 1980 of any translation of improvement in blacks’ personal economic circumstances into better neighborhood quality. White attitudes began to change in the 1990s. Although—limited by persistent discriminatory attitudes and social inertia—blacks still are less able to make this transition than Hispanics or Asians, upper-income and more educated blacks are now more able to live in integrated, well-off neighborhoods. The upward mobility of a segment of the black population brings the promise of greater declines in segregation.

Among 87 large areas with at least minimal black populations, 47 areas, located primarily in the South and West, show segregation scores below 60, the threshhold for highly clustered neighborhoods. In contrast, in 1990 only 29 areas were below that line. Among the areas with segregation levels now below 60 are Atlanta, Louisville, Dallas, Nashville, Tampa, Minneapolis–St. Paul, Des Moines, and Providence, also fell below 60. Even more revealing is the reduction of segregation in areas with traditionally higher levels. Each of the areas with segregation levels stuck above 60 or more did show declines—by more than 5 points for most—since 1990. In 1990, 27 areas had segregation scores exceeding 70, with five areas (Detroit, Chicago, Cleveland, Milwaukee, and Buffalo) exceeding 80. By 2010, only seven areas sat at that level, and only one (Milwaukee) stayed above 80. These reductions are coming in places where until recently segregation would not budge.

This discussion has thus far forcused on segregation levels as measured by the dissimilarity index, which despite its merits fails to incorporate an important real-world fact: Real world-neighborhoods include several racial groups, not just a pairing between whites and a single minority group. Therefore, to get a fuller sense of segregation as it’s lived now, it’s useful to also observe the kind of neighborhood in which the “average” white, black, Hispanic, and Asian resident lives. This picture, drawn from 2010 census data on metropolitan and nonmetropolitan areas of all sizes and in every part of the country, shows the relative segregation experienced by the “average” resident of each racial group.

The average white resident, for example, lives in a far less diverse neighborhood—one that is more than three-quarters white—than residents of any other group. Nonetheless, the average white person today lives in a neighborhood that includes more minorities than was the case in 1980, when such neighborhoods were nearly 90 percent white. Moreover, the average member of each of the nation’s major minority groups lives in a neighborhood that is at least one-third white, and in the case of Asians, nearly one-half white.

The recent widespread reduction in black-white segregation should not in any way be confused with its elimination. Segregation levels in the 50 to 60 range, found in many large metropolitan areas, are still substantial by any standard. Black children, in particular, are hurt by being stuck in neighborhoods—and therefore public schools—that often have fewer resources and show poorer overall performance. Statistics comparing neighborhood profiles for average black, Hispanic, and Asian children show them having less contact with whites than is the case for their adult population (in part because of white families continuing tendency to choose local areas with better resources and schools and fewer minorities than the local areas available to minorities). The isolation of many black children in high-poverty areas perpetuates disadvantages across generations and deprive a substantial segment of the black population of the wherewithal to relocate to higher-quality communities.

Yet new forces are ushering in an era that will be quite different from the wholesale ghettoization of the past as long-maintained spatial divisions blur. Population shifts that are bringing Hispanics and Asians to previously whiter New Sun Belt and Heartland regions will most certainly continue to alter the neighborhood experiences of these groups by bringing them into more contact with whites. The nation’s blacks are moving onto a path that more closely follows that of other racial minorities and immigrant groups as more blacks move to more suburban and integrated communities. The broader migration patterns are moving in the direction of greater neighborhood racial integration, even if segregation is far from being eliminated.

Reprinted with permission from Diversity Explosion: How New Racial Demographics are Remaking America by William H. Frey (Brookings Press, 2014).