The D.C. Region Has Become More Diverse — But Also More Segregated, Study Finds New research from the University of California-Berkeley calls residential segregation "the taproot of systemic racial inequality."
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The D.C. Region Has Become More Diverse — But Also More Segregated, Study Finds

The Washington region has become more brown and less white, but that doesn't mean it's more integrated, a new study shows. erin m/Flickr hide caption

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erin m/Flickr

A sweeping new study of racial segregation across the U.S. shows that the Washington region, like much of the country, has become more segregated since 1990.

Paradoxically, geographical division has deepened while the region has become more diverse, according to Census data analyzed by researchers at the Othering & Belonging Institute at the University of California-Berkeley, and released today. Since 1990, the Washington area has become less white and more Brown, as the share of Latinx and Asian residents has increased and the share of white residents has decreased. The Black population has remained relatively stable across the region. In 1990, the D.C. area was about 65% white, 27% Black, 6% Hispanic origin, and 5% Asian, according to 1990 sample data. Today, the breakdown is 45% white, 25% Black, 16% Hispanic origin, and 10% Asian, per 2019 estimates.

But most communities remain starkly segregated, with few exceptions.

"Segregation persists despite the nation's growing diversity, and also despite the fact that there are fewer and fewer places that are racially homogeneous," researchers say in the study.

Overall, the D.C. area is the country's 15th most segregated metropolitan area, with Baltimore-Towson ranked No. 14, according to the analysis. More than 80% of the nation's metropolitan regions with at least 200,000 residents were more segregated in 2019 than they were nearly 30 years earlier, the study shows. The most segregated metro area is New York/Northern New Jersey; the most segregated city is Detroit, Michigan.

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A close view of the study's local data shows that large swaths of the city's central core, upper Northwest, and Northeast around Brookland have become more racially integrated since 2000, around the time the city began to rebound economically from a long period of decline and population loss. But those areas may not stay integrated, says Samir Gambhir, a co-author of the report.

"At some point in time, you might see that neighborhoods that are becoming seemingly more integrated could be at the tipping point of becoming more gentrified," Gambhir says.

That trend shows up in the study's detailed segregation map. For example, the data indicate that one Census tract in the District's U Street neighborhood became more racially segregated between 2010 and 2019, a period of intense economic development in the area. While the neighborhood was considered "integrated" in 2010, by 2019 it had "low-medium segregation" as it lost Latinx and Black residents and gained white and Asian residents.

Much of the city's Northwest quadrant — including swaths of Ward 3, the city's wealthiest section — have also become less racially segregated over the last 20 years, but few are deemed "integrated."

Segregation in the Washington metro region, according to 2019 ACS estimates UC Berkeley Othering & Belonging Institute/ hide caption

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UC Berkeley Othering & Belonging Institute/

The study uses multiple definitions of segregation, but its default (and preferred) measure is called the "Divergence Index." It compares the racial makeup of individual Census tracts to that of a larger area, like a county or CBSA. It's difficult to find local Census tracts that mirror the region's overall racial composition; most are either highly white or highly Black and/or Brown, generally falling along a west-east divide that reflects the region's history of legal and de facto segregation.

Gambhir says that the nature of racial segregation has changed over time. For example, it now plays out between cities more often than neighborhoods within a city.

"Inter-city segregation has actually increased over the years, more so than the intra-city," the researcher says.

In other words, people of color today have more freedom to live in a variety of communities across a region, but "those neighborhoods and communities are more likely to be struggling, either declining urban areas or struggling inner-ring suburbs or far-flung exurbs," the study says.

The biggest problem with this growing divide is that residential segregation is strongly correlated with certain life outcomes, the report's authors write. Black children raised in integrated neighborhoods go on to earn almost $1,000 more per year than adults raised in deeply segregated communities of color. Poverty rates are also lower — 14% compared to 21% — in integrated neighborhoods compared to segregated communities of color, the study says.

Meanwhile, the best life outcomes are found in highly segregated white neighborhoods, "consistent with a theory of 'opportunity hoarding' that predominately white cities and communities have greater resources and often have the fewest people of color living in them," the analysis says.

"Racial residential segregation is associated with harmful impacts in terms of health, educational attainment, employment, income, and wealth," the report says. "This evidence supports our view that racial residential segregation is the mechanism that sorts people into advantaged or disadvantaged environments based upon race, and therefore is the taproot of systemic racial inequality."

The report offers important data to inform the regional debate over housing development. Local governments across the D.C. region have committed to building or preserving more affordably priced housing as land values have increased, threatening to displace workers and deepen racial inequity.

The study makes clear that communities of people with a shared racial or ethnic identity aren't harmed by simply living among each other. But when segregation "leads to the inequitable distribution of resources or access to life-enhancing goods or networks, then it is a source of great harm," it says.

This story is from DCist.com, the local news website of WAMU.

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