The End of Nothing: Segregation Is Still a Problem in the United States

March 30, 2012

Boston Review:

A new report from the Manhattan Institute, a conservative think tank, has declared “The End of the Segregated Century.” Unfortunately, this is an overstatement: segregation has declined, but it is not at an end. And the significance of the decline is up for debate.

The report, by economists Edward Glaeser and Jacob Vigdor, has garnered substantial media attention, including a write-up in The New York Times. It rightly claims—as is widely known, in a large part thanks to Glaeser’s and Vigdor’s work—that the segregation of African Americans in the United States is down from its all-time peak in 1970.

But segregation remains remarkably present. Calling the decline a “success story,” as Glaeser has elsewhere, implies a tragically low standard for success. As Jonathan Rothwell of the Brookings Institution has reported, a majority of African Americans still live in “hypersegregated” metropolitan areas (such as Detroit), where at least 60 percent of the African American population would have to move in order to be evenly spread in the metropolitan area. Ninety-five percent of African Americans live in at least a moderately segregated metropolitan area (such as Kansas City), where 40 percent of blacks would have to move to achieve integration.

So we are not at the “end of the segregated century,” even though segregation has substantially declined.

What is more, the changes that have occurred likely seem of little consequence to blacks living in ghettos that, while smaller than 40 years ago, are still massive.

In evaluating the level of segregation, we need to think about why we sought to end segregation in the first place—that is, we have to consider whether the reduction is having an impact on the negative outcomes of segregation. And it turns out segregation has declined in a manner that is unlikely to reduce its pernicious effects.

There are at least three reasons why the United States, as a matter of public policy, was and should continue to be committed to ending segregation.

First, segregation was built by denying a group of people the fundamental freedom to choose where to live. In this respect, the decline in segregation is at least a partial success story. The state-sanctioned discrimination that helped construct the American ghetto has largely been eliminated. Restrictive covenants are long dead and strict government oversight of the real-estate industry has curtailed practices reinforcing segregation. Moreover, as Glaeser and Vigdor argue, it appears that the economic forces that contributed to segregation, such as unequal access to credit, have diminished as well.

While the isolation of African Americans has declined since its peak, very little of the decline has been caused by integration with whites.

Second, diversity builds a better society and rears better individuals. There is a good deal of evidence that people raised in diverse, tolerant communities are more likely to be tolerant when they grow up. And, importantly, organizations such as schools and businesses are more efficient, innovative, and profitable when comprising a diverse body of individuals. Neighborhoods and cities, too, benefit from a diverse population, as Glaeser has persuasively argued elsewhere. Segregation denies cities the advantages of diversity. In this respect, the decline in segregation is far from a success. As I noted last fall, the exposure of whites to African Americans in their own neighborhoods still lags far behind the population share of African Americans in the nation as whole. The same is true for the exposure of African Americans to whites—especially for the large portion of African Americans living in hypersegregated cities…

Read it all.

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