Racial Segregation Continues, And Even Intensifies

Richard Rothstein, Economic Policy Institute, February 3, 2012

In a study released this week, two Manhattan Institute researchers heralded the “end of the segregated century.” Harvard professor Edward Glaeser and Duke professor Jacob Vigdor showed that African American segregation levels have now declined to their lowest point since 1920, just after the beginning of the “Great Migration” of rural sharecroppers from the South to Northern industrial metropolitan regions.

From 2010 Census data, professors Glaeser and Vigdor calculate changes in what sociologists term “dissimilarity indices.” They find a national dissimilarity (or segregation) rate of about 55 percent for African Americans—in other words, “only” 55 percent of African Americans would now have to move to neighborhoods with more non-blacks in order to evenly distribute the black population throughout all neighborhoods in their metropolitan areas. This is a substantial decline from the segregation level of about 80 percent in 1970.

The report attributes this success primarily to legal prohibitions on housing discrimination. {snip}

But the celebrations are premature. Although the Manhattan Institute’s Census data were accurate, a 55 percent dissimilarity rate can hardly be called the “end” of segregation. And segregation can only get worse, not better. Because the epidemic of foreclosures has disproportionately affected African Americans, many blacks who were able to move to predominantly white neighborhoods in the last decade will undoubtedly relocate back to poorer and more racially isolated black neighborhoods. This likely reversal of dissimilarity decline will only show up in future census analyses.

More important, however, dissimilarity indices do not describe what most people mean when they think of a segregated society, and they don’t point policymakers to the most critical problems facing the country which, by more relevant measures, is becoming more segregated, not less.

Recent declines in dissimilarity have had complex causes: One is that low-income Hispanic (and in some regions, Asian) immigrants have moved into neighborhoods that previously were mostly black. This reduces the proportion of blacks in those neighborhoods (and thus causes a metropolitan area’s dissimilarity index to fall) but does little to integrate African Americans into white neighborhoods.

For policy purposes, a more appropriate index of segregation than dissimilarity is an index that describes the “exposure” of African Americans to the majority white population. By this measure, segregation is today greater than it was in 1940, and has remained mostly unchanged since 1950.  As John Logan and Brian Stults of Brown University’s US2010 Project have shown, in 1940, the average black lived in a neighborhood that was 40 percent white. In 1950 it fell to 35 percent—where it remains today. This average, of course, aggregates data from many neighborhoods where blacks have virtually no exposure to whites, and others where integration is advanced.  {snip}

Another cause of reduced dissimilarity is indeed cause for celebration, but also has an unintended side-effect with dire consequences: The growth of the black middle class and the decline of housing discrimination has permitted more middle-class African Americans to flee the ghetto, frequently to inner-ring suburbs that are less homogenously black than the ghetto, although sometimes in transition from a predominantly white to a larger black population.

But as a result, inner-city ghettos are left without a middle class and are more homogenously poverty-stricken and hopeless. {snip}


A special caution to the hyperbole surrounding the Manhattan Institute report, is the observation of Reardon and Bischoff that middle-class black families are still “much more likely to live in neighborhoods with low-income white neighbors than are comparable middle-class white families.”

These discouraging trends partly reflect growing economic inequality in the nation as a whole—now compounded by the disproportionate harm suffered by African Americans during the post-2007 economic collapse. Partly, persistent black segregation (defined as lack of exposure to whites and ghettoized concentration of black poverty) stems from exclusionary zoning laws adopted by most suburbs in the early to mid-20th century, with the not-so-disguised purpose of keeping those suburbs lily-white. As the Brookings Institution’s Jonathan Rothwell recently observed, unless a concerted effort is made to force these suburbs to abandon such zoning and permit the construction of low- and moderate-income housing, there is little hope of reversing these trends.

But the reality that low-income whites are much more integrated into the middle-class population than are low-income blacks suggests that, declines in dissimilarity notwithstanding, an attack on exclusionary zoning—while necessary—will not alone be sufficient to desegregate the nation. Race-conscious policy remains necessary to undo the effects of racial residential rules established over the course of a century. Promoting the “end” of segregation, as the Manhattan Institute has done, can only undermine the political will that must be mobilized to embark on this course.


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