How slow growth and industrial decline perpetuate racial segregation

As regular readers of City Observatory know, we think that the continuing racial and economic segregation of the nation’s metropolitan areas is at the root of many of the nation’s most persistent problems. We got a fresh reading on the extent and persistence of racial and ethnic segregation in the nation’s large metropolitan areas from a sharp new analysis of Census data prepared by Rentonomics Chris Salviati.

If you want to see where your metropolitan area ranks in racial and ethnic segregation, and judge what progress its made since 2000, you’ll definitely want to have a look at this page.  In it, Chris has used data from the latest 2012-16 American Community Survey to compute dissimilarity indices for major racial ethnic groups in the nation’s metropolitan areas. The dissimilarity index measures how different or similar the residential settlement patterns are for pairs of racial/ethnic groups. The index runs from 0 to 100 and represents the percent of the population that would have to move to a different neighborhood (census tract) in order for the proportionate composition of each neighborhood to match the composition of the larger metropolitan area.  Higher numbers on the dissimilarity index correspond to greater levels of racial/ethnic segregation.

While it’s useful and important to look at rankings, it’s also important to consider trends, and the pattern of relationships over time among metropolitan areas.  There’s a very insightful chart in the Rentonomics analysis which compares the growth rate of metropolitan area population with the level of segregation in the metropolitan area.  The growth rate of the metropolitan area is proxied by the percentage increase in metro area population since 1970.  What this data shows is a strong correlation between recent population growth and lower rates of segregation.  Places that have grown more, recently, are less segregated.

This finding dovetails neatly with several strands of academic research about African-American migration patterns.

A recent paper by Richard Sander of UCLA and Yana Kucheva of CUNY–”Black Pioneers, Intermetropolitan Movers, and Housing Desegregation“–makes a good point about migration. They observe that black inter-metropolitan migrants are much more likely to live in integrated neighborhoods, compared to blacks changing homes within metro areas. This makes sense, as they’re less likely to be bound by preconceptions or family ties. Metros with a higher fraction of black in-migrants should, all other things equal, be less segregated than metros with lots of native born blacks. In general, we would expect faster growing metros to have a lot more migration and be less segregated (i.e. Las Vegas) while slower growing metros (or ones with declining black populations) would tend to be more segregated.

The reasons for this may be complicated, but it’s likely that a new metro area is a kind of clean sheet, one that’s less influenced by family ties or preconceptions. A new book by sociologists Maria Krysan of the University of Illinois, Chicago and Kyle Crowder of the University of Washington concludes that perceptions of neighborhoods had a major impact on whether people even considered moving there. Newcomers to a metropolitan area are less likely to have been exposed to and internalized these preconceptions, and therefore may be more open to a wider array of neighborhood choices.  Conversely, in slow-growing metropolitan areas, a larger portion of residents may be those who are long term residents, and who are more influenced by historical patterns of what constitutes an appropriate neighborhood for them.

Finally, it’s worth noting that this line of thought helps explain the persistent segregation problems of older industrial cities that the Brookings Institution’s Alan Berube explored in a recent commentary. Residents of older industrial cities, he reports,  are 30 percent more racially segregated than the national average. Workplaces are also segregated: workers of color in these older cities are more heavily concentrated in low-paying fields like sales and personal services than their counterparts elsewhere. Finally the income gap between white and non-white households is much greater in these segregated, older industrial cities.

Taken together, these data provide a useful snapshot of the extent and variation of racial segregation across metropolitan areas, and a plausible story about why segregation is so persistent in the nation’s older, more slowly growing metropolitan areas. Despite the disruption caused by migration, rapid growth and economic change, growing cities seem to create a more fluid environment in which patterns of segregation are more quickly eroded.