Expert Commentary

End of the segregated century: Racial separation in America’s neighborhoods, 1890-2010

2012 report by the Manhattan Institute on the historical evolution in the racial segregation of neighborhoods in the United States.

Diverse U.S. population (iStock)

In the first half of the 20th century, a convergence of social attitudes, market forces and government policy in the United States contributed to significant increases in racial segregation. While segregation continues to be seen as a significant problem, a 2012 analysis of historical U.S. Census data indicates that racial separation has diminished significantly since the 1960s.

The report, from Harvard and Duke University and published by the Manhattan Institute, “The End of the Segregated Century: Racial Separation in America’s Neighborhoods, 1890-2010,” analyzed data from 13 consecutive census administrations since 1890 to plot long-run trends of racial segregation across American cities. Two metrics of segregation were utilized: the dissimilarity index, which is the extent to which races are distributed evenly; and the isolation index, or the extent to which neighborhoods are racially homogenous. The authors are Edward Glaeser and Jacob Vigdor.

The report’s findings include:

  • The dissimilarity index has declined in all 85 of the nation’s largest cities. In all but one of the nation’s 658 housing markets, the separation of black residents from other races is now lower than the national average in 1970. Segregation continued to drop in the last decade, with 522 out of 658 housing markets recording a decline.
  • The isolation index has declined in the nation’s 30 largest metropolitan areas and 516 of the 658 housing markets. All housing markets have lower racial-isolation rates than the national average in 1970.
  • As recently as 50 years ago, 20% of America’s urban neighborhoods had no black residents. Today, African-Americans can be found in 99.5% of neighborhoods nationwide.
  • In 1960 nearly 50% of the black population lived in neighborhoods with an African-American share above 80%. Today, only 20% of the black population lives in a neighborhood where the African-America population is above 80%.
  • “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.” Other factors include the reform of government practices and shifts in racial attitudes.

Despite the decline in segregation, the authors caution that challenges remain: “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.”

Keywords: African-American, race, ethnicity and community, civil rights

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