The blog of the Urban Institute
April 16, 2012

The end of segregation?

April 16, 2012

Earlier this year, the Manhattan Institute published an analysis by Ed Glaeser and Jacob Vigdor arguing that the twentieth century saw the end of segregation and that we should declare victory and turn our attention to other explanations for persistent (and widening) equity gaps.

I wish I could agree.

Residential segregation can be measured in many different ways. Sometimes, the metric that’s chosen drives the result. Glaeser and Vigdor focus on the extent to which blacks live separately from everybody else (whites, Latinos, Asians, people of mixed race or ethnicity). And indeed, this measure of segregation has declined substantially over the last few decades.

Take a look at the two pie charts below. The average black person’s neighborhood is dramatically more diverse today than three decades ago. But that’s mostly because many more Latinos and Asians now live in neighborhoods with blacks, not because very many more white people live there.

The average white person’s neighborhood—where more than three quarters of the neighbors are also white—also looks more diverse today than three decades ago, due to modest increases in neighbors of all non-white groups.

So Glaeser and Vigdor are right that blacks are less segregated from non-blacks than they were three or four decades ago. But blacks are only a little less segregated from whites.

Given our country’s bitter history of de jure segregation and systematic discrimination against African Americans, segregation of blacks from non-Hispanic whites (who possess the greatest wealth and power in our society) is a better measure than segregation of blacks from all non-blacks. By this measure, segregation is slowly declining, but it remains stubbornly high, especially in big metros with large African-American populations. And it’s in these metros that other measures of black-white inequality are also high.

Segregation certainly isn’t the only cause of racial inequality, but it’s inextricably entangled with gaps in school quality, employment and earnings, homeownership opportunity, and wealth accumulation. If we want to make progress toward a more equitable society, we can’t close our eyes to the persistence of residential segregation.


As an organization, the Urban Institute does not take positions on issues. Experts are independent and empowered to share their evidence-based views and recommendations shaped by research.


You had me until I got to "homeownership opportunity". True desegregation can begin only when rental rates in good neighborhoods are affordable to more working people. Not everyone wants to be (or should be) a homeowner -- but housing choice is largely dictated by income, and not much more. In order to give more people the same access to jobs and transit (and therefore mobility and 'wealth accumulation') we need to somehow figure out a way to get municipalities to invest in quality affordable rental housing for middle- and lower-middle class working families. Once people are firmly rooted in a stable community and have access to better transit and job opportunities -- then we can talk about homeownership.