Study Sees Dip In Black-White Segregation

More than half of the country's 100 largest metropolitan areas have shown some decline in black-white segregation, according to new data by the U.S. Census Bureau and the Brookings Institution. The findings suggest that Milwaukee is the most segregated city in the U.S., when it comes to blacks and whites living together. Atlanta, on the other hand, has made significant strides in racial integration. Host Michel Martin talks to Bill Frey a demographer with the Brookings Institution, who studies urban areas and race.

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MICHEL MARTIN, host:

I'm Michel Martin and this is TELL ME MORE from NPR News.

Coming up, a reversal of roles on Capitol Hill, with Democrats criticizing the president over the deal to extend the Bush era tax cuts and unemployment benefits. An African-American columnist asks, should Democrats be called out for their racial attitudes? Just asking. We'll hear from that columnist, Lenny McAllister, in just a minute. Also, from Courtland Milloy. He's another African-American columnist who's taken a very tough line on President Obama, of late. That's coming up.

But, first, we are continuing to assess progress and addressing long-standing racial divisions both here and abroad. We just talked to two people in South Africa about where they stand on this national day of reconciliation there. Back here in the U.S. we want to take a look at new figures just released by the U.S. Census Bureau. An analysis by the Brookings Institution suggests that, finally, historic patterns of segregation, particularly between blacks and whites, is finally breaking down.

Joining us to tell us more is William Frey. He's a demographer at the Brookings Institution. He works on issues involving urban populations and race. Thanks so much for joining us.

Mr. WILLIAM FREY (Demographer, Brookings Institution): Thank you for having me, Michel, it's good to be here.

MARTIN: Now, we don't have time to get into all the details of how you did the analysis, but just to set the table, you created an index and the analysis showed that more than half of the 100 largest metropolitan areas have shown some decline in black/white segregation. How significant is this, do you think?

Mr. FREY: Well, I think it's significant in the sense that it's a continuation of a pattern that we saw last decade. I don't want to put on rose colored glasses here. We still have a lot of segregation in the United States. And there are 12 of the big hundred metropolitan areas where the segregation index is 70 or more. That means seven blacks out of ten would have to move to a different neighborhood to be living in the same place that whites are.

But nonetheless, 61 of the top 100 metropolitan areas showed a decline in segregation since 2000. And these tend to be areas that are in the growing parts of the country, that have been attracting a lot of middle class blacks for a couple of generations. A good example is Atlanta. And it's also, I would say, a legacy, many decades later, of the civil rights legislation, the Fair Housing Act of 1968. It's a slow and gradual process, but it's going in the right direction, I think is the best way to characterize it.

MARTIN: So, give me three of the cities that are showing the most integration. Let's use the positive word, integration - less segregation.

(Soundbite of laughter)

Mr. FREY: Well, I would say, on the list of the ones that have shown big declines are Tampa, Orlando. There's a slew of cities in Florida, in addition -Atlanta, which I mentioned before, Houston, Dallas. They tend to be a lot of the cities in the South and the South continues to attract a lot of blacks. This is, in some way, an untold story in the United States. The great migration of the last century has been in reverse, especially in the last two decades. And I think this is helping to fuel the growth in these areas. And people are moving to more integrated neighborhoods in these growing areas.

MARTIN: At the other end of the scale, you identified Milwaukee, Detroit and Syracuse, New York, as among the most segregated. Now, why would that be?

Mr. FREY: Well, yeah, among the most segregated, really, the top group includes Milwaukee, Detroit, New York, Chicago, Cleveland. Syracuse is in that mix too. These are older cities that have not grown a lot, really, since the Fair Housing Act. And it's since then that discrimination, in terms of the selling and renting of homes, has become illegal and it's taken a while to really take hold. But these are cities where those older established segregated neighborhoods still are a large part of what's going on.

So it takes a long time to change. And when you don't have a lot of new migration coming into these areas, in fact, you have an out migration of young blacks who are moving to these sunbelt areas, it's hard to change those old patterns. You need the people moving around and shifting around to change those residential segregation patterns.

MARTIN: I want to hear about other groups, too. I'd like to hear about Hispanics and Asians. But just to focus on African-Americans for a minute, one of the reasons we're focusing on African-Americans is because these are the two groups for which the situation has seemed the most intractable, right? If I have that right. So the question I have for you, is this less in segregation or more integration resulting from African-Americans moving to areas that previously they were excluded from or didn't live in, or are whites also moving into areas that they previously were not living in?

Mr. FREY: Well, I would say that it would be the former. That is, that that there are - it's more blacks moving out to these new places. We've had a big increase in blacks moving to the suburbs, really, for the last two decades. And, you know, whites have always been moving to the suburbs. So I think it's really more of a dominant black integration initiative. A black initiated integration than having to do with whites taking the initiative.

MARTIN: And before we let you go, what about the situation with Hispanics and Asians?

Mr. FREY: Well, Hispanics are in a whole different situation. I mean, Hispanics are still churning in this country and they're moving to new parts of the country. So, about half of the large metropolitan areas in the U.S. have actually increased their segregation of Hispanics. But they're not the places you normally think of. These are places like Scranton, Pennsylvania or Nashville, Tennessee. Places that are kind of a new destination for Hispanics.

They come there and they want to live in communities with people like them who can give them advice about where the jobs are, help take care of their kids, speak both Spanish and English with them - and that's hard to do in some of these places where there haven't been a lot of Hispanics before. So they tend to segregate in these neighborhoods.

But I think this is a process in flux. And, you know, further down the road, as they become more integrated in the community, we're going to see that go down a little bit. And there's about 40 of the top 100 metro areas are showing a decline in Hispanic segregation and that's a mixed bag.

For Asians, it's also a mixed bag. I mean, overall, the indexes show that segregation is either the same or even going up a little bit. And, again, it's in these newer areas where we haven't seen Asians before, where we see a little up tick in segregation.

MARTIN: And, finally, I do have to ask this question, and we don't hear as much of this these days for all kinds of reasons. But, initially, upon the election of President Barack Obama in 2008, our first African-American president, a lot of talk about whether this is a post-racial society or not. And I just wondered if you had an opinion about that, based on these numbers. Which these numbers -you've been looking at numbers like this for a very long time. So I'm interested in your point of view on this.

Mr. FREY: Well, I would say, to answer that question, we're probably not there yet. I mean, the numbers are going in the right direction for blacks and whites, but they're still pretty far apart. About 46 percent of blacks in the United States live in - the average black lives in a neighborhood that's about 46 percent black. And that's come down a little since the last census, but as long as we have that going on, it's a trajectory and a long-term trajectory, but it's going in the right direction.

MARTIN: William Frey is a demographer. He specializes in issues involving urban populations and race. He's with the Brookings Institution. That's the research institution - a think tank here in Washington, D.C. And he joined us from his office there. Thank you so much for joining us. Happy holidays.

Mr. FREY: Thank you. Happy holidays to you. Pleased to be with you again, Michel.

MARTIN: And to see a link to the Brookings findings on race and segregation, you can go to our Web site. Just log onto NPR.org. Go to the Programs page and then click on TELL ME MORE.

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