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Veterans Are Less Likely to Live in Segregated Neighborhoods

New research suggests the experience of military service makes whites more open to living alongside people of all races.

By Tom Jacobs


(Photo: Brendan Smialowski/Getty Images)

Last week, Gallup research reported that living in “white, segregated enclaves” increased one’s chances of supporting Donald Trump. Jonathan Rothwell noted that “Limited interactions with racial and ethnic minorities, immigrants, and college graduates may contribute to prejudicial stereotypes.”

While that’s hardly a new insight, the rise in overt racism that Trump has apparently unleashed underlines its importance. When people of various races and backgrounds share the same schools, parks, and soccer leagues, demonization becomes difficult.

So how can integration be encouraged? Well, new research identifies one major life experience that inspires whites to live in more diverse neighborhoods: having served in the military.

“We find that young white veterans live in neighborhoods that are significantly more diverse, and have a lower percentage non-Hispanic white than their civilian counterparts,” writes a research team led by University of Connecticut sociologist Mary Fischer. “This is a positive trend that has gone largely unnoticed.”

If you’re in the armed services, living and working alongside people of all colors and ethnicities quickly becomes the norm.

Fischer and her colleagues used data from the National Educational Longitudinal Study, a nationally representative sample of Americans that was first conducted in 1988 when the participants were in the eighth grade. They focused on a follow-up study conducted in 2000, when most were 26 years old.

Using Census Bureau data, the researchers noted the racial composition and diversity of the zip code where each participant lived. They also noted whether he or she was an active or former member of the armed forces.

“We find that non-Hispanic white veterans are settling in neighborhoods with fewer whites, and greater racial diversity, than their civilian counterparts,” the researchers report. This held true even after they took into account a variety of factors that could influence their choice of where to live.

While it’s impossible to definitively say why this is the case, Fischer and her colleagues note that the military is “the only large-scale institution where blacks and whites come into frequent and prolonged contact with one another as both co-worker and neighbor.” They also point out that interracial marriage is more common in the military than in civilian life.

The implication is clear: If you’re in the armed services, living and working alongside people of all colors and ethnicities quickly becomes the norm. So for many white vets, moving into a racially mixed neighborhood is, essentially, no big deal.

“In a society where racial residential segregation remains largely intractable for some marginalized groups,” Fischer and his colleagues conclude, “it is important to ask where we can find an exception, and then ask why.”

Their research suggests that, when it comes to choosing a neighborhood, white vets “do not behave similarly to the average white civilian.” Which, in this case, is a positive thing.