Urban Wire Segregation, mobility, and access fifty years after the March on Washington
Zachary J. McDade
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“We cannot be satisfied as long as the colored person’s basic mobility is from a smaller ghetto to a larger one.” Martin Luther King Jr., 1963

One way to assess whether black Americans have gained greater mobility is to measure how much black-white segregation has changed since Dr. King’s March on Washington quote 50 years ago.

To do so, my Urban Institute colleagues examined 40 years of neighborhood-level data for hundreds of American cities. They constructed a measure of black-white segregation for which scores of 0 mean every neighborhood has the same black-white mix and 100 means no blacks and whites live together.

The upshot is that in 40 years—since two years after the passage of the Fair Housing Act and other landmark civil rights legislation—segregation has declined on average 27 percent from very high levels (76) to pretty high levels (56). In other words, there’s been modest progress on a deep problem.

The slow decline is especially pronounced in some large metros with large black populations. New York, where around 15 percent of the population is black, actually saw its segregation score increase from 75.0 to 76.4. Chicago, which is 17 percent black, dropped from a sky-high 90.5 to 74.5.

Interestingly, sometime around the year 2000, metros with small black populations began integrating at a faster clip (see chart above). In Boulder, Colorado, only 1.2 percent of the population was black in 2010, but the metro has a very low segregation score of 16.3. New York’s 16.8 percent black population lives in a city with a high segregation score of 76.8. So are blacks in Boulder better off? Has New York missed an important opportunity?

It’s hard to say. But we do know that segregation along racial lines has contributed to the vast disparities in opportunity between the races. A 2009 paper by my colleagues Marge Turner and Lynette Rawlings summarizes succinctly:

Racial segregation has excluded blacks and other minorities from neighborhoods that offer high-quality housing, schools, and other public services and has deprived predominantly minority neighborhoods of essential public services and private investments. Today, even middle-class minority neighborhoods have lower house price appreciation, fewer neighborhood amenities, lower-performing schools, and higher crime rates than white neighborhoods with comparable income levels. For example, Prince George’s County, Maryland, the most affluent African American community in the nation, lacks the department stores, sitdown restaurants, specialty stores, and other amenities typical of comparable white communities.

It’s clear that Dr. King’s statement remains an important reminder of the ways in which the economic deck is still stacked against many

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Research Areas Race and equity Housing
Tags Federal housing programs and policies Infrastructure Racial and ethnic disparities Housing markets Credit availability Homeownership Wealth inequality Mobility Inequality and mobility Racial barriers to housing Racial homeownership gap Structural racism
Policy Centers Metropolitan Housing and Communities Policy Center