Study of Census Data Finds a Segregated America, Especially for Blacks

Diversity is up, but "post-racial" America nowhere to be seen.

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While some have called the 21st century the end of segregation in American society, new research comes to a very different conclusion.

 Researchers at Dartmouth, the University of Georgia, and the University of Washington decided to look at neighborhood data from the U.S. Census in 1990, 2000, and 2010 to compare trends in racial diversity. They then created "cartographic visualizations" of 53 large metropolitan areas and every state in the United States. What they found might--or might not--surprise you.

While the census data did show an increase in racial diversity in the country's largest cities over the past 20 years, several other trends are also evident--African-Americans remain concentrated in segregated neighborhoods; highly diverse neighborhoods are actually rare; and newly arrived immigrants continue to settle in concentrated racial residential patterns.

Their research, recently published in the Professional Geographer, clearly showed patterns and changes in neighborhood racial configuration in major cities by examining the degree to which groups share residential space in each of the neighborhoods (or "census tracts," a unit of analysis that the U.S. Census uses to define a neighborhood).

And what they found in major cities is that, while there are no longer neighborhoods that are all black or all white, segregation still exists. In short, the researchers found that segregation has declined, but not nearly as much as most people generally believe.

"It's clear from our research that we still have problems…with segregation," said one of the researchers, Dartmouth geography professor Richard Wright.

And while the neighborhood tract comparisons from 1990 to 2010 showed changes, a number of cities still showed very little overall movement for some. "We can celebrate diversity, we can find neighborhoods and identify them, but we should be very cautious about celebrating the end of any form of segregation," he said.

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In a video explaining the research, Wright uses Atlanta as an example of what the research showed. The city has changed dramatically in the past 20 years--and, yet, segregation remains.

In 1990, the city was predominantly white and black. Of a total of 658 tracts (neighborhoods) in 1990, 398 neighborhoods were classified as low-diversity, white-dominant, while 112 were low-diversity, black-dominant tracts. "Atlanta was archetypically white suburbs and an African-American central city, something you would see in Detroit, Pittsburgh, or Cincinnati today," Wright said.

Over the next 20 years in Atlanta, the generally all-white neighborhoods shrank dramatically, according to the research by Wright, Steven Holloway at the University of Georgia, and Mark Ellis from the University of Washington. The 116 remaining low-diversity, white-dominant neighborhoods in Atlanta in 2010 now represent just 17 percent of all neighborhoods in Atlanta, compared to 60 percent 20 years ago.

However, the number of low-diversity, black-dominant neighborhoods in Atlanta actually increased from 112 in 1990 to 123 in 2000. And while the number decreased slightly to 115 in 2010, that still means that, over the past two decades, the number of generally all-black neighborhoods increased overall in Atlanta over the past 20 years.

Meanwhile, there were no Atlanta neighborhoods where Latinos were numerically dominant 20 years ago--but by 2010 there were 31 such neighborhoods.

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"The trend we've seen is for predominantly white tracts to become more racially diverse," Wright said. "We've also seen an increase in the number of tracts that are Latino-dominated and un-diverse, and a greater count of Asian-dominated tracts that are un-diverse.

"And this is because of immigration. African-Americans have a longer history of settlement in the United States. And while the number of low-diversity African-American neighborhoods has declined a little, it's nowhere near the same rate as low-diversity, white-dominated tracts. So old histories are getting rewritten in these metropolitan areas, but African-Americans remain segregated," he said.

Scholars have published quite a bit of research in the past two decades to show that segregation in America has declined. But this data is hard to ignore. America may be changing--both in terms of diversity in some neighborhoods as well as attitudes--but segregation persists nevertheless.

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