America the Segregated

Of all the forms of inequality in American society, residential segregation may be the most pernicious. Where you live determines where you go to school, what social networks you can join, what jobs you can access, and whether your voice is likely to be heard in the electoral politics.

That is why a new report from two demographers, John Logan and Brian Stults, is essential reading. The authors examine patterns of residential racial segregation in the United States using data from the decennial Census from 1980 to 2010. Although black-white segregation is slowly decreasing in most areas, the report reveals that blacks continue to live in very different neighborhoods than whites. This is especially true in the Northeast and Midwest. Asians and Hispanics are as segregated today as they were thirty years ago, and their growth is creating more intense ethnic enclaves in many parts of the country. The chart below reveals the typical racial diversity encountered by whites, Asians, Hispanics, and blacks in their neighborhoods.


The authors use two measures of segregation that are common in the literature: the index of dissimilarity which measures how evenly spread groups are across a geographic area (0 is completely even, 100 completely segregated) and the isolation index, which measures the percent of one’s own group that a typical person would encounter in their neighborhood. I focus here on the dissimilarity index, although the two measures are positively correlated.

The Slow Decline of Black-White Segregation

Black-white segregation peaked in the 1970s, and has slowly declined since that time. This decline has occurred across both areas where blacks are a small fraction of the population, and those in which they make up a large percentage (see the diagram below).

The most segregated black metropolitan areas continue to be in the Northeast and Midwest, among those cities with the largest black populations the ten most segregated are: Detroit, Milwaukee, New York City metro, Newark, Chicago, Philadelphia, Miami, Cleveland, Saint Louis, and Long Island. Although the pace of desegregation remains slow in most areas, there are a few success stories: the dissimilarity index in Atlanta, for example, dropped almost 20 points in the last three decades. According to the authors, most desegregation has occurred from blacks moving into historically white areas, and not the other way around.

Changing Residential Dynamics for Hispanics and Asians

Hispanic-white segregation remains stable over time, but lower than black-white segregation. Areas where Hispanics are a small minority of the population are becoming more segregated however, and there are more such areas in the United States due to increasing patterns of internal migration. In general, areas where Hispanic growth is high are becoming more segregated. Regional shifts are an important dynamic for Hispanics, and are probably due in part to selective fertility patterns and international patterns of immigration, rather than just a reshuffling of Hispanics already in the United States.

The picture below illustrates the residential segregation for Asians. Levels of segregation are relatively low in most metropolitan areas and consistent over time. The most segregated Asian areas are generally those with the highest proportions of Asians (such as Edison, New Jersey and New York City).

The Future of Segregation

Our progress on residential segregation is frustratingly slow. To start desegregating cities like Detroit or Milwaukee, we need to first address the underlying socioeconomic realities of segregation. Short of a massive income redistribution and transfer program, we need to totally rethink patterns of housing development and the delivery of basic services. The desegregated city of the future would probably leverage public funding with private developments to build more mixed income housing, provide more amenities that are attractive to a stable and diverse cross-section of the community (such as cultural attractions and restaurants), and most importantly would equitably finance the delivery of schools, police, and health care so that these services could be affordable across the socioeconomic spectrum. In this regard, a little bit of coercion (through higher property taxes on high value properties, and redistribution through city tax schemes) can be paired with persuasion (making previously unattractive destinations appealing). If you build it, they may come.

About Brendan Saloner

I am a postdoctoral fellow at the University of Pennsylvania in the Robert Wood Johnson Health and Society Scholars Program. I completed a PhD in health policy at Harvard in 2012. My current research focuses on children's health, public programs, racial/ethnic disparities, and mental health. I am also interested in justice and health care.
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