Residential segregation is a persistent feature of American life (a few earlier posts here, here, and here). Yet, economist Edward Glaeser argues that things are improving on this front:
As the figure shows, as of 1970, almost 80 percent of either whites or blacks would have had to move neighborhoods in order to achieve an even distribution of whites and blacks within the average metropolitan area. By 1990, that dissimilarity measure had dropped to 66 percent; it is 54 percent today. We are very far from living in a perfectly integrated society, but our nation is far more integrated than it was 40 years ago.
The progress over the last decade has been particularly dramatic. Every one of the 10 largest metropolitan areas experienced drops in both dissimilarity and isolation of 3.6 points or more. The isolation index is below 45 percent in every one of those 10 largest areas, except for Chicago. Long among the most segregated places in America, the Windy City has experienced a particularly dramatic decline in segregation since 2000.
The general decline in segregation has also been accompanied by a change in its nature. Before 1968, segregation is best understood as the result of hard, if often informal, barriers against black mobility. There were neighborhoods that were simply off-limits. The effect was that blacks paid more for housing, especially in more segregated cities…
After 1970, however, that pricing pattern switched. By 1990, blacks were paying less for housing than whites, especially in more segregated metropolitan areas. This switch can be explained if segregation, post-1970, reflects white preferences rather than barriers preventing black mobility. If the segregation that remains is the result of whites liking to live in primarily white neighborhoods, then we should expect whites to pay a price for limiting their own choices, and that is exactly what the data show.
The decline in segregation hasn’t been uniform across the black population. Much of the decline reflects relatively well- educated black Americans moving into white districts. While that freedom is something to celebrate, the exodus of the more skilled left many urban neighborhoods behind, and the effect of growing up in a segregated community appears to have gotten worse over time.
A few things to note here:
1. Glaeser ends by suggesting this is a triumph for everyone. While the numbers overall may have improved, there is still a lot of work to do – as he notes, cities like Chicago still have higher levels of segregation and only certain segments of the black population have had the options to move to whiter areas. On one hand, you want to celebrate progress but on the other hand, you don’t want to minimize the fact that this is still a major issue. The issue of where people (can) live is tied to a lot of other concerns including school performance, wealth, and life chances.
2. Glaeser suggests the change in recent decades is due to white preferences rather than the presence of real barriers. Two thoughts on this:
a. Really? There are no barriers for lower-income or non-white residents to move into wealthier areas? Why do we still then have cases about exclusionary zoning (such as an example in Westchester County)? Why there are still big debates about constructing affordable housing (an example from Winnetka, Illinois)?
b. Glaeser seems to suggest these white preferences are okay since they pay for this privilege. This is the appropriate penalty for essentially restricting the abilities of others to live in certain places? I bet a lot of sociologists might have some complaints about this – this is the key difference between de jure and de facto segregation and both have negative outcomes.
Another story on Glaeser’s study has a response from a sociologist who suggests some caution:
“We’re nowhere near the end of segregation,” says Brown University sociologist John Logan, who was not involved in the study. “There are still no signs of whites moving into what were previously all-minority neighborhoods, and there is still considerable white abandonment of mixed areas.”
3. Glaeser also seems to be only looking at the black/white divide in where people live, the widest measure. I would be interested to hear his explanations for the differences between whites and other groups.