Where emerging adults live tends to perpetuate residential segregation

A new study suggests mobility patterns of emerging adults tend to reinforce existing patterns of residential segregation:

“We were interested in this idea that this stage of the life-course could be a potentially really important juncture for breaking down these kinds of very long-established patterns of residential segregation and all of the inequalities that go with them,” says Marcus Britton, a sociologist at the University of Wisconsin-Milwaukee who has studied the question. “Unfortunately, our results are not tremendously encouraging on that score.”

Britton and Pat Goldsmith, a sociologist at Texas A&M, examined records from the National Education Longitudinal Study of more than 7,000 students who were eighth-graders in 1988. That study followed these students through 2000, when most of them were 26. Britton and Goldsmith, in research published in the journal Urban Studies, compared their home zip codes and other characteristics at various points along this timeline with census data collected in 1990 and 2000 about the racial makeup of those neighborhoods.

Blacks and Hispanics who migrated to new metropolitan areas were, in fact, more likely to live in zip codes with greater exposure to whites, unlike minorities who moved within their own city. But few minorities actually made such long-distance moves. This means that segregation persists in part because many minorities have limited exposure to integrated neighborhoods as children, but also because they have limited mobility as they age to relocate somewhere entirely new.

Britton has conducted other research that suggests that minorities are also much more likely to live at home as young adults than whites are. And given patterns that we’ve seen more recently during the recession ā€“ when young twentysomethings of all races have been stuck at home ā€“ these trends bode particularly poorly for integration.

This is a clever research design: emerging adults, who may be more interested in diversity compared to older generations and who are also in a period of transition where they can try out some new kinds of places, might break out of patterns of residential segregation. But, this description of the research findings suggests it is difficult to move beyond past residential segregation patterns. This sounds like a basic sociological finding, people are strongly influenced by past conditions, but also adds the element that even a younger generation who has heard more about diversity and may be more interested in living in urban areas is also not willing or able to move in large numbers to more diverse places.

This would be something interesting to keep track of in the future: could we envision a United States in several decades where most people support diversity and fighting inequality based on race/ethnicity, class, and gender but few people are willing to actually change where they or others live?

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