Posted on November 12, 2021

Philly Remains One of the Most Racially Segregated Cities in America

Aseem Shukla and Michaelle Bond, Philadelphia Inquirer, October 19, 2021

As Linda Bell walked down a street in East Mount Airy, where she’s lived all her life, she pointed out what she calls “my” playground, in a part of the Northwest Philadelphia neighborhood that remains largely Black. A paved walkway overgrown with vegetation leads to a neglected basketball court.

She contrasts that with the better-kept “white” playground nearby, where she recalls not being welcome as a child.

Mount Airy, which lies directly between the 19118 and 19138 zip codes, has long won national recognition for its level of racial integration. In the 1950s and 1960s, residents banded together to halt white flight from the neighborhood.

But Bell, 69, who sits on the board of the East Mount Airy Neighbors community group, doesn’t experience a model of integration. As she walked, she counted the boarded-up and visibly vacant homes on her side of the neighborhood and contrasted them with the intact houses in adjacent Chestnut Hill.


That persistent residential segregation makes Philadelphia one of the country’s most racially divided cities. An Inquirer analysis of 2020 Census data shows that almost no matter which groups you look at, and using multiple ways of measuring segregation, Philly is one of the most stubbornly divided metropolitan areas in a rapidly diversifying and increasingly integrated country:

  • The eight-county region’s Black-white residential segregation is the fourth highest among the 20 biggest metropolitan areas, as defined by the Census Bureau. The region is the sixth-most segregated between Hispanic and white residents.
  • Among the 30 biggest cities, Philadelphia is second only to Chicago in its level of residential segregation between Black and white residents, according to data from Brown University. Between Hispanic and white residents, it’s the sixth-most segregated.
  • Considering every U.S. county that has at least 10,000 people and a Black population of at least 5%, Philadelphia is more segregated than 94% of them.
  • While residential segregation between Black and white residents has declined nationwide over the last several decades, it’s happened much slower in Philadelphia. The city’s position near the top of rankings of segregated places has stayed almost the same since 1980.


As complicated as the causes and effects of residential segregation are, actually measuring it can be simple.

One of the most commonly used measures is called the “dissimilarity index,” which gives a region a 0-to-100 score by comparing the demographics of the whole area (like Philadelphia) with those of its constituent parts (like neighborhoods or city blocks).

In a highly segregated city, some neighborhoods might be very Black and others very white, making for a high “dissimilarity” between the smaller neighborhoods and the larger city. In a less segregated place, individual neighborhoods have a mix of residents, making their demographics more similar to the overall area.

  • Imagine a village with two neighborhoods and 200 people.
  • In the village, all 100 white people live on the west side.
  • And all 100 Black people live on the east side.
  • Neither neighborhood, one 100% Black and one 100% white, matches the village as a whole, which is 50-50. That complete segregation would yield a dissimilarity index of 100.
  • But if Black and white residents lived perfectly mixed together, both neighborhoods would have an equal split that matches the whole village. The dissimilarity index would be 0.
  • Most big cities are nowhere near either extreme. Experts consider values below 30 to denote low segregation. From 30 to 60 is moderate.
  • Nashville has a value of 49.
  • Above 60, experts consider a city to be “hypersegregated.”
  • Philadelphia’s Black-white dissimilarity index is about 70.


Philadelphia has the second-highest dissimilarity index among the 30 biggest cities, and the 12th highest out of hundreds that a team led by John Logan at Brown University examined.

The Inquirer compared Philadelphia with all the other counties in America with more than 10,000 people and at least 5% of whom are Black. Philadelphia’s dissimilarity index was higher than 94% of them. A similar comparison looking at Hispanic residents shows Philly to be more segregated than 96% of counties.

And while Philadelphia’s suburban counties are much less segregated, the city’s segregation pulls the whole area’s dissimilarity score upward, placing the region behind only the New York City, Chicago, and Detroit metropolitan areas.


Another measure of segregation, the “isolation index,” essentially measures how likely residents are to have a neighbor of a different race. Philly has the sixth-highest Black isolation score among major cities, meaning Black Philadelphians mostly have Black neighbors.


Experts are worried these numbers aren’t declining fast enough. The pace of residential desegregation has been glacial, and it’s even more sluggish today than it was decades ago.


Compare the Philadelphia and Dallas metro areas. Both had Black-white dissimilarity scores of about 78 in 1980. But over the last 40 years, Philly’s has declined only 10 points, while Dallas’ has declined by 25.

And social scientists have noticed another problem: While desegregation is moving in the right direction, the social problems associated with residential segregation mostly have not.


Part of the apparent paradox could come down to how desegregation is taking place. In general, it’s true that more integrated neighborhoods have provided better opportunities for historically disadvantaged groups — but not if the problems that go with segregation follow the people who are moving.

For example, Logan’s research has found that Black-white desegregation can occur when Black residents move into a previously white neighborhood after Hispanic or Asian residents do. That no longer triggers white flight the way it once did. But there’s a caveat: These newly integrated neighborhoods also tend to be more disadvantaged in the first place.

“Blacks are getting into more neighborhoods with whites, but it’s not better neighborhoods with whites,” Logan said. “It’s just that it’s the neighborhoods where the whites who are there are worse off. So it’s not exactly equalizing.”


There’s also gentrification. Neighborhoods don’t just integrate when Black people and other people of color move to previously white areas; it can also happen in reverse.