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America Has Half as Many Hypersegregated Metros as It Did in 1970

That’s the good news. The bad: U.S. cities aren’t necessarily more integrated.

A city is “hypersegregated” if it meets four of the following five criteria:

  1. Black residents are “unevenly distributed,” geographically; that is, the percentage of blacks within residential areas doesn’t mirror their citywide population share.
  2. Black residents are isolated—they predominantly live in African American neighborhoods and don’t tend to have that much contact with white residents.
  3. These neighborhoods are clustered together in certain parts of town as “one large, contiguous ghetto” as opposed to being scattered across the city.
  4. The black population is highly concentrated these small, geographically compact areas.
  5. These residents tend to live in the urban cores of the city.

The concept of hypersegregation was developed in 1989 by Douglas Massey, currently a sociologist at Princeton and director of the university’s Office of Population Research. Its social effects are predictably terrible: poverty, crime, and bad schools among them. But as Massey reports in a new paper in the journal Demography, the number of U.S. metro areas suffering hypersegregation seems to be on the decline—down from 40 in 1970 to 21 in 2010.

Hypersegregated metros, shown in red, declined in number between 1970 and 2010. (Courtesy Douglas Massey)

For the new study, Massey and his team analyzed Census data from almost all U.S. metros between 1970 and 2010. While it’s definitely good news that the number of hypersegregated cities roughly halved during this time, it doesn’t signal as much progress as you might think. Here’s what Massey writes in the abstract of his paper:

The number of hypersegregated metropolitan areas declined by about one-half, but the degree of segregation within those areas characterized by hypersegregation changed very little.

Discriminatory housing and lending policies are, as we know, the root cause behind the hypersegration of African Americans. So legislation such as the 1968 Fair Housing Act, the 1974 Equal Credit Opportunity Act, and the 1977 Community Reinvestment Act have helped address the problem. In 1980, the number of hypersegregated cities came down to 35, and then slightly more to 33 in the following decade. From 2000 to 2010, that number came down to 21.

This reduction in number of hypersegreagated metros has, in turn, decreased the number of African Americans exposed to the disadvantages that come with the territory. Back in 1970, nearly half of the country’s black population was hypsersegregated; this fell to 26 percent by 2010.

But the average segregation score, which measures the degree of segregation of blacks compared to whites across the hypersegregated metros, fell only 8 percent over the last four decades. By 2010, the score was 70 (on a scale of 1 to 100), which is still “a very high level of segregation by any standard,” according to Massey’s new report.

The line graph below shows this small decline in average segregation score (solid line), and the large decline in the numbers of hypersegregated metros (dotted):

The progress itself has also been uneven. Segregation didn’t decline across the board in this period; it actually rose enough in some cities to get them placed on Massey’s list. Rochester, New York, is one such city that wasn’t on the list back in 1970, but is on the list today.

The hypersegregated cities that have retained a spot on the list from 1970 to 2010 are ones with the nation’s largest urban black populations: New York, Chicago, Cleveland, Milwaukee, and Philadelphia. Here’s how Massey describes the current situation via a Princeton news release:

"We've made clear progress, but there's still a lot of work that needs to be done and that integration isn't going to happen simply of its own accord in places with large urban black communities," Massey said. "It will require more action to promote integration and to remove the barriers of discrimination in rental and sales markets for housing and in lending markets for mortgages."

Check out the maps showing the hypersegregated metros in red, for all four decades, here.

About the Author

  • Tanvi Misra
    Tanvi Misra is a staff writer for CityLab covering demographics, inequality, and urban culture. She previously contributed to NPR's Code Switch blog and BBC's online news magazine.