Good news, bad news: Demographic shifts have virtually erased segregation, but not racial inequality. [Credit: iStock]
Good news, bad news: Demographic shifts have virtually erased segregation, but not racial inequality. [Credit: iStock]

Suburban Swirl

Study finds near-record levels of racial integration in cities.
April 1, 2012

In 1975, the extreme racial segregation of many American cities led George Clinton and the funk band Parliament to record “Chocolate City,” which contrasted several cities with nearly all-black populations with their “vanilla suburbs.”

What has happened since is nothing short of remarkable, says Jacob Vigdor, a Duke professor of public policy and economics. “America’s neighborhoods are much less seg- regated than they used to be, and we need to appreciate the story of how it happened,” he says.

In fact, a study by Vigdor and Harvard economist Edward Glaeser recently found that American cities are more integrated now than they’ve been since 1910, the result of persistent demographic shifts that have played out during the past half-century. While white gentrification of traditionally black neighborhoods is a minor factor, the main driver of desegregation is the movement of minorities into more-diverse cities and suburbs, Vigdor says. “It’s primarily a story of progress, of black families choosing to leave segregated cities and live in more diverse areas elsewhere.”

The report, based on census data and written for the Manhattan Institute for Policy Research, notes that fifty years ago, one-fifth of all neighborhoods in U.S. metropolitan areas had no black residents. Today, more than 99 percent of neighborhoods are inte-grated, with the exceptions tending to be remote, rural areas or cities with very few black residents overall.

The demographic shift has virtually erased the segregation that ensued in the first half of the twentieth century, after millions of black families moved from the South to escape Jim Crow laws. During that time, African Americans and immigrants often were shunted into designated neighborhoods by discriminatory housing policies.

The authors caution that an end of segregation does not mean an end of racial in- equality. However, Vigdor says, the increased mobility of African-American families— and the virtual extinction of all-white bastions that mobility has created—are unsung success stories. “Poverty might keep some families out of some neighborhoods these days, but race does not,” he says. “That is a real accomplishment.”