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The Stubborn Whiteness of White Neighborhoods

Even in the diversifying big cities, the average white person’s neighborhood is whiter than the metropolitan area he or she is in.

A home in a white suburb of Philadelphia in 1959. The town denied a repair permit and condemned the structure after a black homeowner purchased it. (Sam Myers/AP)

People of color have driven almost all the population growth in the largest U.S. metros since 2000. But, if you live in the kind of neighborhoods where the average white person lives, you might not have noticed.

That’s according to a fresh analysis of newly released Census data by Brookings Institution demographer William Frey. In it, Frey describes how Blacks, Asians, Hispanics, and other minority groups filtered into the 100 largest metro areas in the last 15 years, settling down in their cities and the suburbs. Overall, these places became less white—from 64 percent in 2000 to 56 percent, per 2011 to 2015 estimates. But that influx of diversity only made a modest dent in those neighborhoods most likely to have white residents: Their share dropped from 79 percent in 2000 (which was high to begin with) to a 72 percent in recent years. In other words, white neighborhoods stubbornly remain whiter than the larger areas they’re in.

The following chart shows the change in racial make-up of metros (two bars on the left) to that in neighborhoods where white people tend to live (two bars on the right):

The largest U.S. metros have become more diverse. But in the neighborhoods where white folks live? Not so much. (Brookings Institution)

This diversity gap varies between metros. Although all white neighborhoods are getting at least a little less white, the shift is “especially noticeable” in the largest 51 with over a million residents, Frey notes. In already-diverse metros with larger minority populations, like Los Angeles and Houston, white residents had—and continue to have—more exposure to other races in their neighborhoods compared to, say, Pittsburgh and Milwaukee. Others, like Las Vegas and Orlando, have seen influxes of people of color, resulting in a double-digit drop in the share of white residents in neighborhoods where they’re likely to live.

Still, most large metros—diverse or not—continue to experience high levels of black-white, and black-Hispanic segregation. Milwaukee is the worst in that regard, measuring 81 on the dissimilarity index. That means that “81 percent of blacks would have to change neighborhoods to be distributed equally with whites,” within the metro, Frey explains.

Away from big cities, white neighborhoods get whiter. White folks in small metros tend to live in places that are now at 80 percent white, which is down from 84 percent in 2000. Outside metro areas, such locales are 85 percent white.

The tendency of white people to self-segregate has been something of a theme throughout American history, from early white flight between 1900 and 1930 to the subsequent government-subsidized white settlement of the suburbs to today’s less obvious discriminatory practices that keep neighborhoods separate and unequal. The realms in which Americans live, work, and attend school continues to be divided, driving apart public opinion on immigration, policing, welfare and really, every other policy that shapes the nation. As Frey concludes:

Neighborhood integration is not keeping pace with the declines that occurred during the decades that immediately followed the Civil Rights Era. Whites continue to reside in predominantly white neighborhoods, even in large, highly diverse metropolitan areas. And both blacks and Hispanics continue to be most segregated in areas that contain large numbers of these groups, and where concentrated poverty has risen. While macro demography broadly shapes our destiny, these new numbers indicate that additional forces must be involved to achieve more fully integrated living at the local level.

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.