The New Housing Segregation in America - Pacific Standard

The New Housing Segregation in America

An analysis of United States Census data since 1990 uncovers how infrequently black and white Americans live together today.
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Finished brick homes in the Newport News Housing project for African Americans, October 1937. (Photo: Everett Historical/Shutterstock)

Finished brick homes in the Newport News Housing project for African Americans, October 1937. (Photo: Everett Historical/Shutterstock)

In recent years, studies have suggested that American cities are more integrated and diverse than they were a generation ago. Researcher Daniel Lichter doesn't agree.

"We're still a highly segregated society," says Lichter, a sociologist at Cornell University. Lichter's got data to back up his point: He and two colleagues from Mississippi State University recently analyzed population shifts as recorded in United States Censuses since 1990. They found a number of trends showing white Americans still tend to live apart from Americans of color, especially black Americans. This is a problem, as the Atlantic notes, that the U.S. has been trying to tackle for over 50 years.

Although explaining the effects of contemporary housing segregation wasn't part of their study, Lichter thinks modern housing patterns help explain some of the racial conflicts that have made headlines lately, such as the controversy over how often police in Ferguson, Missouri, ticket black drivers versus white ones, or the outrage over a video showing a white Texas police officer's rough treatment of black teens at a suburban pool party.

"When I see all the racial instances in suburban areas or small-town America, I think that reflects demographic changes that are happening in these places."

"When I see all the racial instances that are happening now in suburban areas or small-town America, I think that reflects demographic changes that are happening in these places—places that are unaccustomed to minority populations and racial diversity generally," Lichter says. "I think we're going to see a lot more of these instances in the next 10 or 15 years."

Ferguson and McKinney, Texas, are examples of just one of the housing trends Lichter and his team uncovered in their data: These places are suburbs into which Americans of color have increasingly moved. That's in contrast to a trend that sociologists noted in the late 1970s, in which black Americans lived predominantly in inner cities, while white Americans fled to the suburbs. Yet the movement of minorities into the suburbs hasn't made the average black American any more likely to live in a neighborhood with many white neighbors, as previous research has found. Instead, whites seem to be moving into their own even more isolated suburbs, leaving people of color behind. Meanwhile, institutions like school boards and police forces don't always change to reflect their new constituencies. "The institutional change lags the demographic change," Lichter says.

Lichter and his team also found that many American cities, like Denver, Minneapolis, and Washington, D.C., are gentrifying; drawing young, affluent, white adults back into urban areas. At the same time, however, gentrifiers tend to price out the less affluent residents, a high proportion of whom are people of color—who in turn then move to suburbs near the city.

"The whole picture of racial and ethnic segregation in the metropolitan region is being transformed," Lichter says. "We're trying to argue that segregation is taking a new form." No matter how it happens, though, such segregation means there's much more work to be done to get Americans to live and work together.

Quick Studies is an award-winning series that sheds light on new research and discoveries that change the way we look at the world.

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