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No. 66 January 2012


Racial Separation in America's Neighborhoods, 1890-2010

Edward Glaeser, Senior Fellow, Manhattan Institute for Policy Research

Jacob Vigdor, Adjunct Fellow, Manhattan Institute for Policy Research

Executive Summary


CR 66 (PDF)

Why Your Block Is More Integrated, Jacob Vigdor, New York Daily News, 2-1-12
Segregation Is Down. Great News, Right?, John McWhorter,, 1-30-12
Desegregation Is an Unsung U.S. Success Story: Edward Glaeser, Bloomberg View, 1-30-12
East Haven's Sins Call Us All To Action, Hartford Courant, 2-5-12
Housing Diversity Growing trend: Integrated Suburbs Point to Changes, National Study Finds. Metro Atlanta Reflects A Decade of Difference, Atlanta Journal Constitution, 2-5-12
Segregation at Historic Low, Study Shows, San Bernardino County Sun, 2-5-12
'End of Segregation'? Not Yet, But Goal Worthy; Study Shows Laudable Decline, But More Work Necessary, Charlotte Observer, 2-3-12
Dayton slowly moving toward integration, Dayton Daily News, 2-4-12
Racial Segregation Continues, Even Intensifies, CounterPunch, 2-3-12
Neighborhoods Across U.S. Are Growing More Diverse, But St. Louis ..., Riverfront Times, 2-1-12
Edward Glaeser on the Decline of, and the Changing Sources of, Racial Segregation, NRO's The Agenda, 2-1-12
Race 'opportunity gap' lowest in South, West, USA Today, 2-2-12
Study: Segregation Declines Across U.S., NPR's Morning Edition, 2-1-12
Chicago: Less Segregated, Still Really Segregated, ChicagoMag,com, 2-12-12
Reports of the End of Segregation Greatly Exaggerated,, 2-1-12
Study: Segregation Is Dead, Except In DC, Washington City Paper, 2-1-12
One Serious Problem Gone,, 2-1-12
The Disappearing Segregated City, WAMU, 2-1-12
Study finds US cities more racially integrated, Boston Globe, 1-31-12
The Ebb of Racial Segregation Is Slower in New York, Wall Street Journal's Metropolis, 1-31-12
Black segregation in the U.S. hits all-time low proving legacy of civil rights era is still strong, Daily Mail, 1-31-12
Chicago Most Segregated City In America, Despite Significant Improvements In Last Decade, Huffington Post, 1-31-12
Segregation to its Lowest in a Century - Immigration a Factor, Study Finds, FOX News Latino, 1-31-12
Editorial: Racism Is Still Prevalent Today, Oklahoma Daily, 1-31-12
Study Finds U.S. Cities Less Segregated,, 1-31-12
Decline in segregation not a cure-all, report says Racial gains acknowledged; disparities cited, Chicago Tribune, 1-31-12
Study: Blacks are less segregated than ever before, Detroit Free Press, 1-31-12
Study: Segregation in U.S. on decline, but disparities persist,, 1-31-12
US Cities More Racially Integrated Than Ever, Study Finds,, 1-31-12
All-White Urban Neighborhoods 'Effectively Extinct', Newser, 1-31-12
Blacks living in less segregated neighborhoods, Tuscon Citizen, 1-31-12
The new segregation is economic, The Seattle Times, 1-31-12
Segregation Hits Historic Low—U.S. Cities Becoming More Racially Integrated, Study Says, But Progress Still Slow, Wall Street Journal, 1-31-12
US Racial Segregation In Metro Areas At Historic Low—Study, Dow Jones Newswire, 1-31-12
Segregation Drops Sharply in Chicago, Chicago Sun-Times, 1-31-12
U.S. cities almost free of segregation, Study Finds, Tampa Bay Times, 1-31-12
Racial Segregation In US At An All-time Low, Sydney Morning Herald, 1-31-12
Study: Blacks Are Less Segregated Than Ever Before, USA Today, 1-30-12
Nation's Cities Almost Free of Segregation, Study Finds, San Antonio Express, 1-30-12
Study of Census Results Finds That Residential Segregation Is Down Sharply, New York Times, 1-30-12
Black Segregation at Lowest Level in Century, Study Finds, Slate, 1-30-12
Segregation of Blacks at Record Low, Think Tank Report Says, Los Angeles Times's Nation Now, 1-30-12
Segregation in U.S. Cities on the Decline, Study Says,, 1-30-12
The Wall Street Journal's "Opinion Journal" 2-1-12 - Watch the segment
WBAL-BAL's "11 News at 5," 1-31-12
WGNO-NO's "News With A Twist," 1-31-12
NPR's "Morning Edition," 1-31-12
Chicago Public Radio, 1-31-12
NRP's "Talk of the Nation," 2-1-12

Table of Contents:
Executive Summary
About the Authors
How Segregation is Measured
The Decline in Segregation, 2000-2010
Why Has Segregation Declined?

Following every census enumeration since 1890, the Census Bureau has released neighborhood-level data on race. This report presents an analysis of the data from 13 consecutive census administrations on the long-run path of racial segregation across American cities. This report extends our previous work on segregation, by incorporating information from the 2010 census, made available to the public in early 2011 (Cutler, Glaeser, and Vigdor, 1999; and Glaeser and Vigdor, 2003). America’s cities have been shaped over decades, and even the most recent data need historical perspective to be understood (Logan and Stults, 2011). The main findings follow:

  • The most standard segregation measure shows that american cities are now more integrated than they’ve been since 1910. Segregation rose dramatically with black migration to cities in the mid-twentieth century. On average, this rise has been entirely erased by integration since the 1960s.
  • All-white neighborhoods are effectively extinct. A half-century ago, one-fifth of America’s urban neighborhoods had exactly zero black residents. Today, African-American residents can be found in 199 out of every 200 neighborhoods nationwide. The remaining neighborhoods are mostly in remote rural areas or in cities with very little black population.
  • Gentrification and immigration have made a dent in segregation. While these phenomena are clearly important in some areas, the rise of black suburbanization explains much more of the decline in segregation.
  • Ghetto neighborhoods persist, but most are in decline. For every diversifying ghetto neighborhood, many more house a dwindling population of black residents.

At its mid-century peak, segregation reflected the operation of both government and market forces. Beginning in the 1930s, federal regulations disfavored the extension of mortgage credit to homeowners in mixed-race neighborhoods. Restrictive covenants prohibited integration in some areas (until the Supreme Court ruled them unenforceable in 1948). Decisions by public housing authorities and other agencies often reinforced existing patterns of segregation.

The decline in segregation can be partly attributed to the reform of these government practices and partly to changes in racial attitudes that can be considered both cause and consequence of policy change. The extension of mortgage credit also appears to have encouraged suburban integration; the list of cities with the largest declines in segregation. since 2000 includes several caught up in the subprime housing bubble during the same period.

The decline in segregation carries with it several lessons relevant to public policy debates:

  • The end of segregation has not caused the end of racial inequality. Only a few decades ago, conventional wisdom held that segregation was the driving force behind socioeconomic inequality. The persistence of inequality, even as segregation has receded, suggests that inequality is a far more complex phenomenon.
  • Access to credit has fostered mobility. At a time when proposed regulations threaten to eliminate the market for lending to marginal borrowers, it is important to recognize that there are costs and benefits associated with tightening credit standards.
  • The freedom to choose one’s location has helped reduce segregation. Segregation has declined in part because African-Americans left older, more segregated, cities and moved to less segregated Sun Belt cities and suburbs. This process occurred despite some public attempts to keep people in these older areas.

About the Authors

EDWARD GLAESER is a senior fellow at the Manhattan Institute, contributing editor of City Journal, a contributor to The New York Times’ Economix blog, and the Fred and Eleanor Glimp Professor of Economics at Harvard University, where he has taught since 1992. He is director of the Taubman Center for State and Local Government and director of the Rappaport Institute of Greater Boston. Glaeser teaches urban and social economics and microeconomic theory. He has published dozens of papers on cities, economic growth, and law and economics. In particular, his work has focused on the determinants of city growth and the role of cities as centers of idea transmission. Glaeser also edits the Quarterly Journal of Economics. His book, Triumph of the City: How Our Greatest Invention Makes Us Richer, Smarter, Greener, Healthier, and Happier, (The Penguin Press, 2011) was published in 2011. He received his Ph.D. from the University of Chicago in 1992.

JACOB L. VIGDOR is an adjunct fellow at the Manhattan Institute, a professor of public policy and economics at Duke University, a Faculty Research Fellow at the National Bureau of Economic Research, and an external fellow at the Centre for Research and Analysis of Migration at University College London. His academic research interests are in the broad areas of education policy, immigration policy, housing policy, and political economy. Within those areas, he has published numerous scholarly articles on the topics of residential segregation, immigrant assimilation, housing affordability, the consequences of gentrification, the determinants of student achievement in elementary and secondary school, the causes and consequences of delinquent behavior among adolescents, teacher turnover, civic participation and voting patterns, and racial inequality in the labor market. These articles have been published in outlets such as The Journal of Political Economy, The Review of Economics and Statistics, The Journal of Public Economics, The Journal of Human Resources, and The Journal of Policy Analysis and Management. His book on assimilation and immigration policy, From Immigrants to Americans: The Rise and Fall of Fitting In (Rowman and Littlefield, 2009), received the 2009 IPUMS research award for the best analysis of historical Census data. In addition to this scholarly work, Vigdor has written several evidence-based policy briefs and reports for a broader audience. These include civic reports on immigrant assimilation published by the Manhattan Institute, as well as articles espousing fundamental changes to teacher compensation and illuminating the pitfalls of rebuilding disaster-struck cities. Vigdor has taught at Duke since 1999. He received a B.S. in policy analysis from Cornell University in 1994 and a Ph.D. in economics from Harvard University in 1999.


Over the past century, residential segregation in the United States has undergone two radical transformations. The first occurred between 1910 and 1960, as African-American migration to cities met with white hostility and produced massive ghettos in almost every major city. The second transformation is still ongoing, according to recently released data from the 2010 census. Segregation has declined steadily from its mid-century peak, with significant drops in every decade since 1970. As of 2010, the separation of African-Americans from individuals of other races stood at its lowest level in nearly a century. Fifty years ago, nearly half the black population lived in what might be termed a “ghetto” neighborhood, with an African-American share above 80 percent. Today, that proportion has fallen to 20 percent.

This report focuses on the pervasive decline in segregation that occurred during the first decade of the twenty-first century. Using the most common segregation index, the dissimilarity index, the separation of blacks from individuals of other races declined in all 85 of the nation’s 85 largest metropolitan areas. In 657 out of 658 housing markets tracked by the Census Bureau, segregation is now lower than the average level of segregation marked in 1970.[1] Segregation declined in 522 out of 658 housing markets overall between 2000 and 2010.

Using an alternate measure that focuses on the extent to which blacks are isolated in neighborhoods where few members of other groups live, declines occurred in the nation’s 30 largest metropolitan areas. According to the isolation index, declines occurred in 516 out of 658 housing markets. No housing market in the United States today features an isolation level as high as the national average in 1970.

Several factors help to explain the 40-year decline in residential segregation. Federal housing policy has shifted over time, away from actions that promoted or perpetuated segregation and toward actions that diminish segregation. Restrictive covenants and “redlining” are things of the past, and the Fair Housing Act of 1968 made housing-market discrimination illegal. More recently, the demolition of large-scale housing projects in major cities has accelerated a long process of population decline in former ghetto neighborhoods.

Significant shifts in public attitudes toward integration have complemented these official policy changes. The number of American neighborhoods with exactly zero black residents has decreased by more than 90 percent over the past 50 years. The majority of remaining neighborhoods without African-American residents are either in rural areas or metropolitan regions where less than 1 percent of the population is black.

The integration of some ghetto neighborhoods—by immigrants or gentrifying whites—plays only a small role in the overall decline in segregation. The Hispanic population grew in almost every corner of the United States over the past decade, roughly equally in predominantly black and predominantly white neighborhoods. The typical African-American resides in a neighborhood that is 14 percent Hispanic, only slightly higher than the figure for the population as a whole. And for every prominent example of a black neighborhood undergoing gentrification—in Harlem, Roxbury, or Columbia Heights—there are countless more neighborhoods witnessing no such trend. Instead, the dominant trend in predominantly black neighborhoods nationwide has been population loss. Particularly in the formerly hyper-segregated cities of the Northeast and Midwest, ghetto neighborhoods have witnessed profound population declines, as former residents decamp for the suburbs or for the rapidly growing cities of the Sun Belt—where segregation is generally very low.

How Segregation is Measured

Residential segregation can be measured in a variety of ways. The most common method is to form an index that summarizes the level of segregation in a metropolitan area on a scale from zero, where every neighborhood is just as diverse as the entire region, to 100, where individuals of different races never share neighborhoods. Indices differ according to their coding of intermediate situations, where neighborhoods are at least somewhat diverse but can nonetheless be categorized by race. Some indices require more detailed geographical data than others, with the most sophisticated using census information collected on a block-by-block basis.

This report focuses on two measures—the dissimilarity index and the isolation index—both of which have a long history in social-scientific writing on segregation. The two measures together adequately summarize segregation, being highly correlated with more sophisticated indices, while being simple enough to calculate that even data from the late nineteenth century are sufficiently rich to permit their computation.

The dissimilarity index measures the extent to which two groups are found in equal proportion in all neighborhoods. It can be interpreted as the proportion of individuals of either group that would have to change neighborhoods in order to achieve perfect integration. It is the most commonly used segregation measure, first introduced into the sociology literature shortly after World War II.

Dissimilarity is not a perfect measure. Consider the following scenario. There are two equal-size neighborhoods in a city: one is 100 percent white; and the other is 98 percent white and 2 percent black. According to the dissimilarity index, this city is fairly segregated, since about half of the black residents would need to move in order to achieve perfect integration. In an important sense, though, the black residents are not isolated—after all, they live in a neighborhood that is 98 percent white.

The isolation index is designed to distinguish this sort of scenario from one where neighborhoods have dramatically different racial character. It measures the tendency for members of one group to live in neighborhoods where their share of the population is above the citywide average. In this hypothetical example, black residents live in a neighborhood that is 2 percent black, which is just 1 percentage point higher than what would be expected under perfect integration. The isolation index would therefore be on the order of 1 percent, rather than 50 percent.

Both indices require us to define a couple of terms. We must define a neighborhood and define the relevant collection of neighborhoods that together form a common housing market. In practice, both definitions are based on basic census geography. For purposes of this report, a neighborhood is defined as a census tract. In 2010, there were 72,531 census tracts in the United States, containing an average of 4,256 people. Not all census tracts are of equal population: in 2010, the largest tract corresponded to the Marine Corps base at Camp Pendleton near San Diego, and counted more than 37,000 residents. About 90 percent of the time, the population of a census tract varies between 1,500 and 7,500.

A housing market in this study corresponds to a Core Based Statistical Area (CBSA), as defined by the Office of Management and Budget. A CBSA is a collection of counties corresponding to a metropolitan or “micropolitan” area. There are 942 CBSAs in the United States. The largest, corresponding to the New York metropolitan area, comprises one county in eastern Pennsylvania, 12 counties in northern New Jersey, the five boroughs, and five suburban counties in New York, and counts nearly 19 million residents. The smallest, covering the city of Tallulah and Madison Parish in northeast Louisiana, counts only 12,000 residents. Approximately 20 million Americans live in rural areas not included in any CBSA. This report presents information on segregation only in CBSAs that count at least 1,000 black residents, as segregation indices have little meaning when the black population is minute.

The concept of a CBSA did not exist as of 2000. This report includes information on segregation in both 2000 and 2010, using the CBSA definitions as amended by OMB on December 1, 2009.

Finally, segregation can be measured only after segmenting the population into two groups. In the case of racial segregation, this is not a trivial matter. Since 2000, the Census Bureau has permitted individuals to describe themselves as belonging to more than one racial category. As the overwhelming majority of respondents select exactly one category, this report will consider the segregation of African-Americans, counting only those individuals who identify themselves as African-American alone. Segregation indices computed using a more inclusive definition of African-American are nearly identical to the ones reported here (Glaeser and Vigdor, 2003). The indices reported here therefore describe the residential separation of blacks from both multiracial individuals and those of any other race.

The Decline in Segregation, 2000-2012

The dissimilarity and isolation indices can be computed using data from every census since 1890. Figure 1 reports average segregation levels—as experienced by the “average” urban black resident—for the 120-year span between 1890 and 2010. In the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries, prior to the Great Migration of blacks from the rural South to urban areas, segregation was comparatively modest. Between 1910 and 1960, blacks moved to urban areas in vast numbers. Upon arriving, they often encountered legal obstacles in their choice of neighborhood, ranging from restrictive deed covenants (enforced until the late 1940s), federally sponsored redlining in mortgage lending, and outright discrimination by landlords, real-estate agents, or local public housing authorities. As a consequence, segregation rose dramatically. By mid-century, the typical urban African-American lived in a city where 80 percent of the black population would have to move in order to achieve integration and in a neighborhood where the black share exceeded the citywide average by roughly 60 percentage points.

The decline in segregation since 1970 has been no less dramatic than the earlier rise. As of 2010, dissimilarity had declined to its lowest level in a century and isolation to its lowest level in 90 years. This shift does not mean that segregation has disappeared: the typical urban African-American lives in a housing market where more than half the black population would need to move in order to achieve complete integration. The average African-American lives in a neighborhood where the share of population that is black exceeds the metropolitan average by roughly 30 percentage points.

Table 1 shows the dissimilarity and isolation index values for the nation’s ten largest metropolitan areas as of 2010. Using either index, segregation declined in all ten between 2000 and 2010. Chicago, long one of the nation’s most segregated cities, posts the highest dissimilarity and isolation levels in the group. Yet these levels are still significantly below the mid-century peak: as recently as 1970, dissimilarity in the Chicago area topped 90 percent.

Over the last decade, Chicago had the second-largest declines in dissimilarity and isolation among this top-ten group (after Houston), which illustrates a more natural trend where more segregated areas had the sharpest declines in segregation. If an area’s dissimilarity index was 10 percentage points higher in 2000, on average its dissimilarity index declined by 1.3 percentage points more between 2010 and 2000.

According to the dissimilarity index, Dallas and Houston are the least segregated large cities; Los Angeles boasts the lowest isolation index value. Houston experienced the largest declines in both isolation and dissimilarity. All three regions share common characteristics: they are Sun Belt metropolises that exhibited significant population growth in the fair-housing era; and they are centers of immigration, particularly from Mexico and other parts of Latin America.

Declines in segregation have long been stronger in metropolitan areas that were growing more quickly. Between 2000 and 2010, holding initial dissimilarity constant, we find that if a metropolitan area’s population grew by 20 percent more between 2000 and 2010, its dissimilarity index dropped by 1.2 percentage points more.

Declines in segregation were not confined to the nation’s largest metropolitan areas. Of the 628 housing markets for which segregation can be calculated in both 2000 and 2010, dissimilarity and isolation increased in only 95. Table 2 identifies the ten largest areas with increases in segregation between 2000 and 2010. The list begins with Boise, Idaho, a rapidly growing metropolitan area with slightly more than 600,000 residents in 2010. While dissimilarity and isolation both increased in Boise over the decade, the indices remain at remarkably low levels—the isolation index, in particular, remains under 1 percent.

The list continues with cities drawn primarily from the northern part of the United States. In all ten, dissimilarity and isolation in 2010 lie significantly below the national average; isolation exceeds 10 percent in only one. It should also be noted that the black share of the population is under 4 percent in all but one of these cities. The Ann Arbor area is the only region on this list with more than 10,000 black residents.

While increases in segregation tended to be confined to small cities with insignificant black populations, large decreases can be found in some of the nation’s largest metro areas. Table 3 lists the 15 regions with declines in dissimilarity exceeding 10 percentage points between 2000 and 2010. While the markets at the top of the list are modest in size, the list also contains Kansas City, Detroit, and Tampa. The presence of Detroit, long one of the nation’s most segregated cities, foreshadows one important reason for the half-century decline in segregation: the depopulation of former ghetto neighborhoods.

Notably, the list of cities with significant drops in segregation includes five smaller metropolitan areas in Florida, including several that are often included in lists of regions heavily affected by the housing bubble of the past decade. This foreshadows yet another partial explanation for the decline in segregation over the past decade.

As a final exercise, Table 4 shows the long-run trajectory of the ten most segregated areas in 1970 still in existence in 2010.[2] Unsurprisingly, dissimilarity has declined in each of them. In some cases, segregation has declined dramatically. Los Angeles, Oklahoma City, and Wichita have all receded from dissimilarity levels of about 90 percent to levels at or below the national average. The greatest declines have occurred closer to the Sun Belt; segregation in the Rust Belt The End of the Segregated Century: Racial Separation in America’s Neighborhoods, 1890–2010 7 cities of Chicago, Cleveland, Detroit, and Milwaukee has declined more slowly—and, as we have seen, much of the decline in Detroit occurred only in the last ten years.

Why Has Segregetion Declined?

The turning point in the history of American residential segregation occurred around 1970. In our past work, we presented evidence supporting the view that the rise in segregation between 1900 and 1960 reflected, in part, a maze of barriers, such as restrictive covenants, that limited African-American choices. We also presented evidence suggesting that the decline in segregation reflected the dismantling of these barriers to African-American freedom.

The successful fight for housing freedom began with the Supreme Court ruling against raced-based zoning in 1917 (Buchanan v. Warley) and against using public resources to enforce racial deed covenants in 1948 (Shelley v. Kraemer). New York City officially banned housing discrimination in its 1958 Fair Housing Practices Law, and the nation followed suit with the 1968 Fair Housing Act. The years since 1970 have seen the demolition of segregated high-rise housing projects.

In the era of legal housing discrimination, restrictions on the housing choices of African-Americans led to price premiums for ghetto housing. As the legal and social restrictions on these choices subsided, housing prices in ghettos collapsed as the neighborhoods depopulated. In some limited cases, former ghetto neighborhoods have enjoyed a population resurgence fueled by the introduction—or reintroduction—of other racial and ethnic groups.

African-American suburbanization and the neareradication of the all-white neighborhood

In 1960, the Census Bureau divided the metropolitan portions of the United States into 22,688 census tracts. Of these, more than 20 percent—4,700—had exactly zero black residents. In the half-century since 1960, even as the number of census tracts has nearly tripled to 72,531, the number of tracts with zero black residents has declined to 424. Even as recently as 2000, there were 902 such neighborhoods nationwide. So even in the past decade alone, the number of tracts without black residents has been halved.

It is difficult to locate neighborhoods without black residents in metropolitan America. Of the 424 tracts with no black residents, more than half are either in rural areas or in CBSAs where less than 1 percent of the population is African-American. There are more neighborhoods without black residents in the Dakotas than in California, in spite of the fact that the former have less than 5 percent of the latter’s population. Every single census tract in Connecticut, Maryland, and New Hampshire has at least one black resident. Excluding regions of the country that had virtually no African-Americans to start with, as well as the 25 neighborhoods that have no blacks but are simultaneously majority non-Anglo white, there are a total of 170 remaining all-white neighborhoods. In 50 years, the proportion of these neighborhoods has declined from one in five to one in 427. Over the same period, the proportion of African-Americans residing in majority-nonblack areas has nearly doubled, from 29.7 percent to 58.5 percent.

Many of the former all-white neighborhoods were in suburbs, and such areas now typically contain at least a small number of African-Americans. While it may be tempting to see the overwhelmingly white nature of many suburbs as evidence of stagnation or stasis, the presence of even modest numbers of African- Americans in suburbs demonstrates the remarkable change in American society. Indeed, measured by dissimilarity indices, suburbs are often among the most integrated parts of America.

The easing of credit standards in the early part of the decade permitted many moderate-income African- American families access to neighborhoods that would have otherwise been out of their financial reach. While some of these families would go on to become delinquent on their loans after the housing bubble burst, a larger share managed to keep up on their payments, thereby maintaining their foothold. Yet African-American suburbanization is a long-run trend that long predates the subprime lending boom (Cutler, Glaeser, and Vigdor, 1999). While Table 3 documents that several of the metropolitan areas with the greatest declines in segregation are also areas associated with significant exposure to the subprime mortgage market, it is also true that several metro areas with significant subprime exposure—such as Miami and Las Vegas—appear to have followed fairly unremarkable segregation trajectories over the past decade.

As of this writing, turmoil in the American housing market had not yet fully subsided, so we cannot know the full extent of the bubble’s impact on segregation. The data used for this report reflect the location of the population as of April 1, 2010, several years after the housing bubble burst, and the data are well in line with 30 years of segregation decline. The decline in segregation over the past decade spread broadly over areas with and without significant housing bubbles.

Depopulation of the ghetto

Figure 1 shows that dissimilarity declined by 25 percentage points between 1970 and 2010. Only a handful of individual cities experienced declines that large, however. Table 4 shows declines of that magnitude only in five of the ten most segregated cities of 1970. As of that year, the nation’s largest black population belonged to New York; the dissimilarity index has declined by less than 10 points in that area between 1970 and the present. How could segregation decline so much nationwide if the decline in individual areas was so modest?

The answer lies in interregional migration. In addition to moving from cities to suburbs in large numbers, blacks—along with members of every other racial and ethnic group—relocated toward the Sun Belt and away from the more segregated areas of the Northeast and Midwest. On average, metropolitan-area population growth decline by 1.8 percent more if the area had a 10-percentage-point higher dissimilarity index as of 2000.

Table 5 shows the list of ten metropolitan areas with the largest black populations in 1970 and 2010. In 1970, only two true Sun Belt cities—Los Angeles and Houston—appear on the list. In 2010, fully half the cities on the list are in the Sun Belt. Atlanta, which would have placed 13th in terms of black population in 1970, had risen to number two on the list by 2010. Miami and Dallas have also joined the list. Notably, these cities were not particularly integrated as of 1970. Integration has accompanied growth, partly through the process of neighborhood change but largely by the establishment of new neighborhoods with an inherently integrated character.

Holding segregation fixed at 2010 levels, redistributing the black population to its location in 1970 would add about five points to mean dissimilarity and six points to mean isolation. Thus, interregional migration alone— the depopulation of cities with the most significant ghettos at mid-century—can explain about a fifth of the decline in segregation since 1970.

The depopulation of ghettos has been driven not only by the “pull” factors of suburbanization and Sun Belt weather but also by the reversal of past public housing policy. Massive housing projects built at the peak of urban segregation, such as Chicago’s Robert Taylor Homes, were demolished over the past decade— following on the earlier destruction of other notorious projects, including St. Louis’s Pruitt-Igoe complex. The Robert Taylor Homes were constructed with an express purpose of perpetuating segregation, separated from traditionally white neighborhoods on Chicago’s South Side by the massive Dan Ryan Expressway. The highrise project occupied several census tracts; one of these tracts registered 1,532 residents in 2000—99.1 percent of them African-American—and exactly zero in 2010. More broadly, the set of census tracts with black shares of higher than 80 percent experienced an average population decline of 3.6 percent over the past decade—even as the nation’s population grew by nearly 10 percent. The number of such tracts declined as well—for reasons to be discussed below.

The demolition of mid-century housing projects has not been without controversy. Removing these massive monuments to officially condoned segregation does seem to have accelerated the process of integration.

Inroads into the ghetto

At mid-century, during the peak decades of black migration, existing neighborhoods in numerous cities “tipped” rapidly from predominantly white to predominantly black. Migration to the Rust Belt slowed significantly after 1965, as manufacturing employment reached its historic peak. Through subsequent periods of decline and renewal, it has been very uncommon for black neighborhoods, once “tipped,” to “un-tip.” Depopulation, rather than subsequent ethnic or racial change, has been the dominant demographic change in the ghetto since 1970.

Nonetheless, in certain cities, integration has occurred in predominantly black neighborhoods. Washington, D.C.’s Navy Yard neighborhood has witnessed rapid change, from 95 percent black in 2000 to 31 percent black in 2010, as redevelopment led to a 50 percent increase in population.[3] A more gradual process of racial change is occurring in the city’s northwest quadrant, where several neighborhoods have seen a 25 percent drop in the proportion of black residents over the past decade.[4] This area represents the forefront of a wave of gentrification that began in Georgetown some decades ago and has crept steadily eastward since.

The “untipping” of a handful of neighborhoods near the city center is accompanied by the more numerous regions of African-American Washington where no trace of gentrification exists. In 2000, the District of Columbia contained 17 census tracts—with 46,796 inhabitants among them—that were more than 98 percent black. As of 2010, every single one of them remained more than 95 percent black. Gentrification in Washington, as elsewhere, has occurred primarily at the fringe of the ghetto.

Since 1990, cities in regions with little previous history of immigration have witnessed substantial inflows of foreign-born residents—a majority of them from Latin America. These immigrants can be found in almost every type of neighborhood—99.8 percent of the populated census tracts in the country have at least one resident who claims Hispanic ethnicity. It is therefore not surprising that Hispanics have made inroads into predominantly black neighborhoods.

The forefront of integration between blacks and Hispanics can be found in cities such as Charlotte, North Carolina, which is located in Mecklenburg County, a county that contains 223 census tracts, with 20 of them at least one-quarter black and onequarter Hispanic. One might be tempted to attribute any drop in segregation in the Charlotte region to the phenomenon of Hispanics moving into predominantly black neighborhoods.

Yet several pieces of information are inconsistent with this hypothesis. Segregation declined only modestly in Charlotte over the past decade—by three points on the dissimilarity index, and five on isolation.

Hispanics did not move into the most African-American neighborhoods. Eight of Mecklenburg County’s census tracts were at least 80 percent black in 2000; all of them remained in that category as of 2010.

The Hispanic influx into Charlotte concentrated on areas that were already at least somewhat integrated; none of the neighborhoods counted among the 20 with black and Hispanic representation were more than 65 percent black in 2000. In fact, each of the 20 tracts was at least 13 percent Hispanic by 2000.

The story of integration in Charlotte thus does not hinge on the entry of Hispanics into areas that had been exclusively black. A more familiar story of black entry into suburban neighborhoods plays a stronger role. The proportion of Mecklenburg County census tracts with fewer than 5 percent black residents declined from 46 percent to 39 percent between 2000 and 2010.

In summary, gentrification and immigration have made some contribution to the decline in segregation over the past decade. They are relatively minor factors, however. The raw number of predominantly black neighborhoods, with at least 80 percent black residents, declined by only 7 percent between 2000 and 2010. The raw number of neighborhoods without any black residents, by contrast, declined 53 percent over the same period.


The 1960s were the heyday of racial segregation. During those years, segregation seemed a likely cause of many of the troubles afflicting African-Americans. Segregation was so enormous, and so unfair, that it seemed to create a separate and unequal experience for African-Americans everywhere. During those years, the fight against housing segregation seemed to offer the possibility that once the races mixed more readily, all would be well.

Forty years later, we know that this dream was a myth. There is every reason to relish the fact that there is more freedom in housing today than 50 years ago and to applaud those who fought to create that change. Yet we now know that eliminating segregation was not a magic bullet. Residential segregation has declined pervasively, as ghettos depopulate and the nation’s population center shifts toward the less segregated Sun Belt. At the same time, there has been only limited progress in closing achievement and employment gaps between blacks and whites.

The difficult lesson of these decades is that society is complicated and single solutions rarely solve everything. While the decline in segregation remains good news, far too many Americans still lack the opportunity to achieve meaningful success.


1.The sole exception is the Sault Ste. Marie, Michigan, area, where the presence of a majority-black state correctional facility in what is otherwise a fairly homogeneous community skews the segregation measure significantly.
2. Excluded from the list are areas absorbed into other CBSAs: Fort Lauderdale, Florida; Gary, Indiana; and Fort Worth, Texas.
3. Census tract 72, District of Columbia.
4. Census tracts 46, 48.01, 48.02, and 49.01, District of Columbia.




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