New numbers from the Urban Institute require some context.

The Urban Institute just released rankings of the U.S.’s 100 largest metro areas by black-white and Latino-white inequality. Using Census data, they gave scores for five factors: residential segregation, neighborhood affluence (for the average black, Latino, and non-Hispanic white), public school quality (for the average black, Latino, and non-Hispanic white student), employment (among working-age adults) and homeownership.

Each of these factors was weighted equally, and each metro area was given a letter grade of A through F, as well as a numerical rank. Let’s take a look at the rankings for black-white equity and you tell me if you notice the pattern I do. The 10 best metros for black-white equity are:

1. Albuquerque, NM
2. El Paso, TX
3. Lakeland–Winter Haven, FL
4. Palm Bay–Melbourne–Titusville, FL
5. Oxnard–Thousand Oaks–Ventura, CA
6. Santa Rosa–Petaluma, CA
7. Tucson, AZ
8. Modesto, CA
9. Honolulu, HI
10. Greenville–Mauldin–Easley, SC 

And the 10 worst:

91. Philadelphia–Camden–Wilmington, PA–NJ–DE–MD 
92. Rochester, NY 
93. Albany–Schenectady–Troy, NY 
94. Toledo, OH 
95. Bridgeport–Stamford–Norwalk, CT 
96. New York–Northern New Jersey–Long Island, NY–NJ–PA 
97. Syracuse, NY 
98. Buffalo–Niagara Falls, NY 
99. Chicago–Naperville-Joliet, IL–IN–WI 
100. Milwaukee–Waukesha–West Allis, WI

Just a cursory glance is enough to see that this ranking has nothing to do with the particulars of social policy in any of these regions or their various composite jurisdictions. Rather, the best cities for black-white equity are all in the Sun Belt, and they are mostly in the West.

The worst are all in the Northeast or Upper Midwest. Broadly speaking, the metro areas in the better performing regions also tend to have smaller populations, while the worst include some of the biggest cities in the country, such as New York, Philadelphia and Chicago. This data is really comparing regions rather than specific cities or metropolitan areas.

That alone would seem to have major policy implications: if the Rust Belt suffers from worse racial inequality, then it is a macroeconomic problem, probably best addressed at the national level, rather than something Syracuse or Toledo can be expected to solve on its own.

That’s not the only problem with this blunt measurement. As study author Margery Austin Turner concedes, it’s easier to have higher rates of black-white equity if your area has very few black people. Imagine, for example, a wealthy and exclusive suburb. To the extent that black people live there, they will be wealthy, like everyone else who can afford to live in the town. So you’d find low black-white inequality. But that hardly means the town is doing any better at improving equity, much less addressing the related but distinct task of lifting disadvantaged populations out of poverty.

As Turner says, "when the African-American population is below 5 percent, that’s an irrelevant result, so I throw those out." But they were not, in fact, thrown out of the study. Nor were they ejected from the press releases promoting the top and bottom rankings. (Numbers 1 and 2 in the black-white equity rankings, Albuquerque and El Paso, both have fewer 5 percent black residents, with 2.1 percent and 3.1 percent, respectively.)

It’s not as if Albuquerque has struck a blow for racial or socioeconomic equality by managing to have hardly any black residents. So it hardly seems fair, much less illuminating, to give Albuquerque an A grade for black-white equity, while cities with vastly larger black populations get an F.

A look at the Latino-white equity rankings turns up much the same pattern. The cities with low scores blanket the Northeast and Midwest, while high scores are found across the South and West, with a few notable exceptions, such as Denver, Phoenix, and various areas in California, which receive Ds and Fs. Again, it appears that the grades favor smaller cities and disfavor the Rust Belt cities that are destined to do badly thanks to the decades-long flight of manufacturing jobs.

One confounding factor that isn’t examined: whether high inequality can actually be evidence of a more dynamic economy. Consider, for example, how Texas Governor Rick Perry brags that the economy in his state has done so well even as national unemployment has risen. As Texas creates jobs more quickly than the country as a whole, immigrants from the U.S. and abroad arrive seeking work.

Similarly, might the Denver region’s inequality between whites and Latinos reflect the fact that it is getting more Hispanic immigrants than, say, Pittsburgh? Denver County is 31.8 percent Hispanic, while Pittsburgh is only 2.3 percent Hispanic. The Denver region gets an F and Pittsburgh an A, but is that really because Pittsburgh is an honor student and Denver a slacker?

There’s always the problem of comparing apples to oranges when you look at cities of such vastly different sizes, development patterns and histories. It’s impossible to fairly rank New York City, population 8,175,133, against Modesto, California, population 201,165.

Case in point: the Urban Institute study measures residential segregation. One is frequently surprised to see famously diverse New York City fair worse in rankings of residential integration than places like San Jose. But the shape of segregation is not uniform across the country. Manhattan’s Upper East Side may be overwhelmingly white and rich, with neighboring East Harlem overwhelmingly non-white and poor. So residential segregation data might show a very segregated set of Census tracts.

But rich Upper East Siders and poor Harlemites alike take the subway. They live on the same subway line, and even share a stop at their neighborhoods’ border on East 96th Street. New York City public school students regularly attend schools outside their neighborhood, and most New Yorkers walk or take mass transit to shopping and entertainment outside their immediate surroundings.

All of this - which one does not get in a city with gated communities and total auto-dependence - may integrate and diversify the experience of many people living in New York.

Residential segregation is an important topic. But many of the lifestyle questions regarding integration are immeasurable. Likewise, inequality in general is worth examining, but comparisons should be made carefully, so as to clarify rather than distort our understanding. Perhaps only ranking metro areas within a certain size category and region, for example, would compare like with like. There’s no question that racial inequality, as well as economic inequality across the whole population, is a topic that deserves the scrutiny it is finally getting.

The Urban Institute deserves credit for trying to bring the data into focus. But the focus should be carefully contextualized.

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