The voices of Urban Institute's researchers and staff
February 1, 2012

Racial segregation: It’s not history

February 1, 2012

The Manhattan Institute for Policy Research’s website made a triumphal proclamation this week that we have reached “the end of the segregated century.” The New York Times dutifully spread the news, leading with the headline “Segregation Curtailed in U.S. Cities, Study Finds.” The story beneath the spin, however, shows that segregation isn’t just a phenomenon to look back on regretfully during African American History Month (which begins today). Segregation lives on in far too many American cities.

In 1970, two years had elapsed since Congress enacted the end of private-sector apartheid with the Fair Housing Act; only a few years before that, President Kennedy had ordered the desegregation of public housing. Why should we wonder that segregation levels have declined since then? Shouldn’t the real story be that in the nation’s second-largest metropolitan area, Chicago, over 70 percent of African Americans would have to move to a predominantly non-black neighborhood (or the same proportion of whites would have to move to mostly non-white areas) to achieve an even racial distribution? Chicago isn’t the only metropolitan area in this position: Detroit, Cleveland, and St. Louis also surpass 70 on this segregation index. New York, Baltimore, and Philadelphia—that is, a continuous band of urbanization stretching from just north of Washington, DC, to the middle of Connecticut with well over 25 million inhabitants—stand between 60 and 65. The heart of the northeast corridor still lives in a segregated century, as does the fringe of the Great Lakes. Even “less segregated” metropolitan areas still have levels of racial segregation far higher than the Fair Housing Act promised.

Beyond racial segregation, the Urban Institute’s own research for the Joint Center for Political and Economic Studies shows that concentrated poverty has spiked since 2000 and that African Americans and Latinos have borne the brunt of that increase. A quarter of African Americans in U.S. metros live in census tracts with poverty rates above 30 percent, as do about one in six Latinos. Only one out of every 25 non-Hispanic whites lives in a high-poverty tract. Startlingly, a non-poor African American is more likely to live in a high-poverty tract than a white American with a family income below poverty.

The conclusion of the Manhattan Institute report is worth repeating for its insidious misdirection: “During [the 1960s], the fight against housing segregation seemed to offer the possibility that once the races mixed more readily, all would be well....Yet we now know that eliminating segregation was not a magic bullet.” The report suggests that, having won the fight, we can now shift our attention to “closing achievement and employment gaps between blacks and whites.”

But we haven’t won the fight against racial residential segregation and we’ve scarcely begun a serious fight against the concentrated poverty that remains the most toxic legacy of American apartheid. Racially exclusionary zoning practices persist. Public housing authorities perpetuated segregation well into the 1990s; such practices have not ended just because they are illegal. Illegal discrimination against black and Hispanic renters and owners goes on, as ample Urban Institute research has shown. And whites still seek out and are steered to predominantly white neighborhoods.

Addressing racial segregation in the nation’s most populous metropolitan areas isn’t a historic victory yet. Residential segregation continues, and discrimination and exclusionary practices still must be countered, so that someday it can honestly be American history.

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Comments

Thank you, Rolf! We need effective responses like this to the "progress through press release" approach that captures so much attention.

Kudos, Rolf. This sort of mis-information needs to be countered.

Thank you very much for the essay. It is an important one since segregation has not ended. Nevertheless segregation is waning even in the most segregated locations. We also see some changes that may be linked to decreased black-white segregation such as much more interracial marriage and declining school segregation although the change there is modest.
Neighborhoods are much more racially integrated now than in the past. That is worth noting as is your comment about segregation in some of the older, slow growing midwestern metropolises. Governmental policies helped to create segregation and, since the Fair Housing Act, have contributed to its reduction.