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Segregation May Be Less of a Problem, But It's Still a Problem

A new look at economic and crime indicators in segregated U.S. neighborhoods finds the same old problems of inequality.
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Segregation in the United States is not what it once was. While it would be farcical to suggest that it’s gone away, the numbers say it has definitely waned—the Manhattan Institute reported last year that all-white neighborhoods are “effectively extinct,” and America’s biggest cities are more integrated than they’ve been in a century.

“Most whites,” the Department of Housing and Urban Development wrote in June, “live in more diverse neighborhoods today than they did three decades ago, reflecting the combined effects of immigration, greater minority access to white neighborhoods, and gentrification of some minority neighborhoods. Consistent with this trend, racial and ethnic prejudice is generally waning among Americans, and attitudes toward residential diversity are more open today—especially among young people.”

Amid this sunshine, three academics from New York University’s Wagner Graduate School of Public Service ask in a new paper, “What does segregation mean today?” Separate, they found, still means unequal.

While Jorge De la Roca, Ingrid Gould Ellen, and Katherine M. O’Regan didn’t answer the question for individuals, they did answer it on a neighborhood (actually a Census tract) level. Unlike many past researchers, the trio also looked beyond black and white segregation to include Hispanics and Asians, and learned that “residential segregation from whites is not on the decline for these other, growing minority groups.” (In 2010 Hispanics were 16 percent of the overall U.S. population, followed by blacks at 12 percent and Asians at five percent.)

Their findings, published in the new edition of the journal Regional Science & Urban Economics, don’t paint a dramatically different current picture from what might have been seen in the past. After looking at three Census decades of bigger-city neighborhood measures such as poverty, employment, educational attainment, quality of local schools, and amount of crime, they write:

Our analysis shows that the neighborhood environments of minorities remain unequal to those of whites, at least for blacks and Hispanics. Blacks and Hispanics continue to live among more disadvantaged neighbors, to have access to lower performing schools, and to be exposed to more violent crime. Further, these differences are amplified in more segregated metropolitan areas. In contrast, we find little evidence of neighborhood disadvantages for Asians.

Keep in mind they are looking mostly at the difference between white neighborhoods, which are supposedly the most advantaged, and minority neighborhoods, which in most cases are not. They are not looking at absolute numbers. A neighborhood not doing as well as a white neighborhood (or increasingly an Asian neighborhood) is not doing as well as we know can be achieved at the moment.

Some measures have gotten better. “While still quite high, white-black segregation continues to decline, as does the centralization of blacks in urban cores,” they note, echoing the findings that started this story. And the connection between greater poverty and segregated, non-white neighborhoods has grown weaker since the 1980s, although the decline has stalled since 2000 in black and Hispanic neighborhoods.

Other measures are stagnant or have gotten worse compared to white neighborhoods. In segregated black neighborhoods, for example, you’re less likely to have neighbors who are employed or went to college than you were in 1980. Violent crime is also worse. In the cities the researchers sampled, “the average poor white person lived in a neighborhood with a lower violent crime rate than the average non-poor black person.” Exposure to property crime is less divergent, although the authors wonder if that has to do with there being less stuff worth stealing and a greater reluctance to report a theft than with an actual narrowing of the gap.

Segregation is generally accepted as bad, at least when it’s caused by discrimination, and integration, or at least the possibility of it, remains a national goal, whether we’re talking about Alabama fraternities or nice neighborhoods. While housing discrimination may have become less blatant, it’s no less real, as HUD pointed out in the report cited above.

So while the Manhattan Institute may have trumpeted the end of the “segregation century” with the 20th, that didn’t herald a new “integration century” in the 21st.