Washington, D.C. — A recent report by the Manhattan Institute about the extent to which segregation may have declined in the last century has triggered a heated debate, with many social justice advocates rejecting its finding that segregation has virtually ended in U.S. cities.
The controversial study, “The End of the Segregated Century: Racial Separation in America’s Neighborhoods, 1890-2010,” has exposed sharp division among these advocates, scholars and researchers over whether the country has reached a major racial milestone or the study merely uses its data to mask disparities still plaguing people of color, especially African-Americans.
Edward Glaeser and Jacob Vigdor, fellows at the institute and authors of the report, contend that “American cities are now more integrated than they’ve been since 1910.” They also say that all-White neighborhoods have mostly vanished and that so-called “ghettos” populated by Blacks are in fast decline. Several experts on race and segregation, including researchers and academics, say these developments indicate change, even welcome progress, but certainly not the end of segregation.
“Yes, all-White city neighborhoods are increasingly rare, as are monolithic African neighborhoods, and middle-class families of color have far more choices than they did 40 years ago, in spite of continuing housing market discrimination,” Philip Tegeler, president and executive director of the Poverty & Race Research Action Council in Washington, D.C., said in an email. “These are positive developments, but it does not mean that segregation has gone away. In fact, in some disturbing ways it has intensified, particularly when one examines the confluence of racial and economic segregation.”
According to Glaeser and Vigdor, segregation in American cities declined steadily from 1910 to 2010 “with significant drops in every decade since 1970.” Using U.S. Census data, they reported that “the separation of African-Americans from individuals of other races stood at its lowest level in nearly a century.
“Fifty years ago, nearly half the Black population lived in what might be termed a ‘ghetto’ neighborhood, with an African-American share above 80 percent,” they write in their report. “Today, that proportion has fallen to 20 percent.”
Dr. Roderick J. Harrison, an urban sociologist at Howard University and former head of the Racial Statistics Branch at the U.S. Census Bureau, says conclusions drawn by the report’s authors are “almost intellectually dishonest.”
Harrison notes that much of the decline in segregation since the 1970s occurred between Blacks and Whites. However, he says, some of the decrease is also attributable to the arrival of Hispanic immigrants and growth of the Hispanic population, especially Hispanics moving into neighborhoods that were previously Black.
“What that does to the statistics is that it starts to look like Blacks are less likely to be segregated from non-Blacks,” Harrison says. “But measuring Black segregation against an increasing melting pot or a growing mosaic of diverse populations moving into cities in neighborhoods that were previously occupied by Blacks tells us nothing about Black segregation from Whites.” It merely shows that people of color are less segregated from each other, he says.
Harrison, also a senior research fellow at the Joint Center for Political and Economic Studies in Washington, says segregation has historically been tracked by measuring whether the non-White population, 95 percent Black until 1965, was becoming more integrated with the White population.
“Blacks now integrating with Hispanics, and to a lesser extent Asians, just means you have a more diverse population of poor people in some areas that are also resource poor,” he says. “The problem is socioeconomic, not racial. There’s nothing to really celebrate unless you have some means of addressing the social and economic disadvantages of these populations.”
Furthermore, Rolf Pendall, director of the Metropolitan Housing & Communities Policy Center at the Urban Institute in Washington, characterized conclusions drawn in the report as “insidious misdirection.” In a recent blog post about the report, he credited official desegregation of public housing in the 1960s and passage of the Fair Housing Act of 1968 for helping to decrease residential segregation, contributing factors also acknowledged in the Manhattan Institute report.
The Fair Housing Act “prohibits discrimination in the sale, rental, and financing of dwellings, and in other housing-related transactions, based on race, color, national origin, religion, sex, familial status (including children under the age of 18 living with parents or legal custodians, pregnant women, and people securing custody of children under the age of 18), and handicap (disability).”
“Shouldn’t the real story be that in the nation’s second-largest metropolitan area, Chicago, over 70 percent of African-Americans would have to move to a predominantly non-Black neighborhood (or the same proportion of Whites would have to move to mostly non-White areas) to achieve an even racial distribution?” Pendall wrote. The same goes for Detroit, Cleveland and St. Louis. In New York, Baltimore and Philadelphia, which Pendall describes “a continuous band of urbanization … with well over 25 million inhabitants,” 60 percent to 65 percent of residents would have to move to achieve racial parity in housing.
“The heart of the northeast corridor still lives in a segregated century, as does the fringe of the Great Lakes,” Pendall wrote. “Even ‘less segregated’ metropolitan areas still have levels of racial segregation far higher than the Fair Housing Act promised.”
According to Urban Institute research, concentrated poverty among African-Americans and Latinos has intensified since 2000, with one-fourth of Blacks and nearly one in six Latinos living in metropolitan area census tracts with poverty rates above 30 percent. By comparison, just one in 25 non-Hispanic Whites live in a high-poverty tract.
“Startlingly, a non-poor African-American is more likely to live in a high-poverty tract than a White American with a family income below poverty,” Pendall wrote.
In a four-page rebuttal to the Manhattan Institute report, the Chicago Area Fair Housing Alliance (CAFHA), a consortium of fair housing and advocacy organizations, government agencies, and municipalities, says the report “overstates and oversimplifies the gains made in integration over the last century” and “does not reflect the complexities of racial segregation, particularly in housing, that arise out of multi-faceted forces including public policies, private sector investment, and public perceptions about race.”
The report also grouped non-Hispanic Whites, Latinos, Asians and other racial groups into the non-Black category, a move the alliance found troubling for its implication that housing segregation is an issue only for African-Americans.
“Other minorities experience segregation, and combining all non-Black populations together glosses over the existence of segregation and discrimination faced by Asians, Latinos, and Native Americans,” wrote Patricia Fron, a CAFHA public policy fellow and building programs administrator for the Lawyers’ Committee for Better Housing in Chicago, and Morgan Davis, a fair housing policy analyst at the Oak Park Regional Housing Center there.
“The progress reported can be partially attributed to the integration of two or more minority groups. While inter-minority integration is something to be applauded, this methodology avoids the true segregation between Black and non-Hispanic White residents.”
Vigdor counters, “Yes, there are still segregated places, as segregated as they’ve ever been, but there are many fewer people living there. Chicago has lost a million people. Detroit has lost a million people. They have moved from Rust Belt to Sun Belt cities that are less segregated. The major point we wanted to focus on was the extent of suburbanization of African-Americans.”
Richard Rothstein, a research associate at the Economic Policy Institute in Washington and a senior fellow of the Chief Justice Earl Warren Institute on Law and Social Policy at the University of California School of Law at Berkeley, believes that the Manhattan Institute report misses important demographic and economic trends.
That just 55 percent of African-Americans nationally, compared with 70 percent in 1980, would now have to move to neighborhoods with more non-Blacks in order to desegregate neighborhoods in their metropolitan areas, is nothing to celebrate, he wrote in a recent commentary.
What’s more, he says, measurements used in the report “do not describe what most people mean when they think of a segregated society, and they don’t point policymakers to the most critical problems facing the country which, by more relevant measures, is becoming more segregated, not less.”
The national foreclosure crisis will only make things worse because it has disproportionately affected African-Americans, Rothstein says. “Many Blacks who were able to move to predominantly White neighborhoods in the last decade will undoubtedly relocate back to poorer and more racially isolated Black neighborhoods.”
The Manhattan Institute report suggests that policy prescriptions should now be focused on closing racial gaps in educational achievement and employment.
“But we haven’t won the fight against racial residential segregation and we’ve scarcely begun a serious fight against the concentrated poverty that remains the most toxic legacy of American apartheid,” Pendall wrote. “Racially exclusionary zoning practices persist. Public housing authorities perpetuated segregation well into the 1990s. Such practices have not ended just because they are illegal. Illegal discrimination against Black and Hispanic renters and owners goes on. … And Whites still seek out and are steered to predominantly White neighborhoods.”
Vigdor, co-author of the report and a professor of public policy and economics at Duke University, insists that continued discriminatory housing practices do not change the fact that residential segregation is at an all-time low.
“The end of a segregated century is not the same thing as the end of a segregated society,” he says. “We’re making a factual statement that segregation is lower than it was since 1910. No one has disputed that fact. It’s a fairly uncontroversial statement. To say that we’ve come a long way and still have a long way to go, that’s not a contradiction.”
Tegeler’s response: “They’re claiming that segregation is not the driving force behind inequality, but most of the research shows that segregation is the key driving force in inequality.”
Not so, says Vigdor, who is also a faculty research fellow at the National Bureau of Economic Research in Cambridge, Mass. He cites research showing that neighborhood integration by itself doesn’t solve entrenched economic inequality.
“We think discrimination is a bad thing, so if there are easy ways to fighting it and enforcing laws, we should,” he says. “We should be against discrimination because it’s wrong, not because we think ending housing discrimination is going to solve all these other problems in one fell swoop.”
Tegeler says he believes that the report’s overriding theme is fundamentally flawed.
“It says we don’t need to worry about segregation anymore, and that’s not the case,” he says. “It seems that the reason to do that was to dissuade policymakers from doing anything else to combat segregation.”
On the contrary, Vigdor says, policymakers should continue focusing resources on combating racial inequality but the best way to do so is by expanding and improving educational opportunities for poor people of color and “by helping families and investing in kids at an early opportunity and instilling a love of education in them while their young. I don’t think that switching them to a different neighborhood is going to accomplish that.”
Tegeler and others say proactive federal policies to undo the legacy of segregation would have a greater impact.
One conclusion on which both sides agree is that the Fair Housing Act has been effective in addressing racial segregation and government policies that increase segregation.
Tegeler applauds steps by the Obama administration to address segregation in federal housing programs. For example, the U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development is restructuring its rental assistance program, commonly known as Section 8 and administered by local public housing agencies.
The move is designed to make the program more “opportunity oriented” by exploring ways that families receiving assistance can move to safer neighborhoods with better schools, by making it easier to move among different public housing agencies and by pursuing a regional planning initiative called “Sustainable Communities.”
Another program called “Choice Neighborhoods” provides “competitive grants to transform neighborhoods of extreme poverty into sustainable, mixed-income neighborhoods with well-functioning services, schools, public assets, transportation and access to jobs.”
All are welcome steps, Tegeler says, “But there’s a lot more work to be done.”
America’s Wire is an independent, nonprofit news service run by the Maynard Institute for Journalism Education and funded by a grant from the W.K. Kellogg Foundation. For more information, visit www.americaswire.org or contact Michael K. Frisby at firstname.lastname@example.org.