Black school children pose with their teacher outside a segregated one-room school in South Carolina, 1916. Shutterstock

Racial segregation doubled between 1880 and 1940 all across the country, in rural areas as well as cities.

The United States—and Americans—has long been divided along racial lines, divisions that date back to the legacy of slavery, the bloody Civil War, the horrors of the Jim Crow South, and now to the persistent poverty of so many black urban neighborhoods.

But how has segregation really evolved in this country? We like to believe that our evolution away from slavery and to a modern, industrial nation has made us a less segregated, more racially integrated society.

An important new study suggests that is not the case. The work, by economists Trevon Logan of The Ohio State University and John Parman of the College of William and Mary, and released as a working paper this month from the National Bureau of Economic Research (NBER), takes a detailed look at the experience of racial segregation in the United States and finds that there are many flaws in our conventional understanding of racial segregation.

Their painstaking research goes back to the detailed manuscript files of the 1880 and 1940 U.S. Censuses to determine how and why racial segregation changed during that period, and if it got better or worse.

The researchers use these original census documents to develop an intriguing new measure of segregation. For a long time, census takers collected detailed and sequenced information about who lived next door to whom. Using these papers, the authors are able to zoom in on those who lived next door to neighbors of different races. By tracking segregation this way—on a household-by-household level, rather than by neighborhood—they are able to identify segregation in any kind of community, rural or urban, large or small, without having to worry about the way neighborhood boundaries or definitions have changed over time.

The researchers track racial segregation across rural and urban areas, from North to South but also across other regions of the country. They do so for two key moments in the history of U.S. segregation and race relations: 1880 and 1940. In 1880, some Reconstruction-era Civil Rights legislation was still being enforced, but the Jim Crow period was not yet in full swing. The 1940 census figures capture the large-scale migration of blacks from the South to the North, but they come before the great American move to the suburbs and of white flight. In between these two time periods, the black U.S. population went from being largely rural to largely urban. As the authors point out, roughly 90 percent of black U.S. households lived outside of cities in 1870; by 1940, more than half lived in urban areas.

The work’s key findings are as startling as they are troubling, and recast what we think we know about segregation.

Residential segregation happened all over the country

For one, instead of simply increasing as America industrialized, modernized and became more urban, Logan and Parman find that segregation as measured by their neighbor analysis actually doubled across the U.S. between 1880 and 1940. This dramatic change was not due to national population or racial composition shifts, the authors show. As the map below from the study demonstrates, the change actually occurred throughout the country, in areas not limited to the urban context in which we often discuss residential segregation.

(Logan and Parman)

As Logan and Parman write, “segregation was equally likely to exist in rural communities as in urban ones." In fact, as they point out, “the focus on urban segregation has told a partial story about segregation in the United States."

The analysis finds that black households were 25 percent less likely to live next to a neighbor of another race in 1940 than they were in 1880. And rather than simply being a function of the Great Migration to the North or of white flight, this increase in racial segregation occurred all over the United States. Areas that both gained black residents (like the urban North) and lost them (the rural South) saw increased racial segregation over this period.

But racial sorting was most pronounced in the South

Second, the economists find residential segregation to be consistently higher in the South versus the North. This conclusion comes from the researchers’ novel approach to the census, which looks at neighboring households. As they write, “while blacks and whites occupied the same wards and districts in southern cities, they were the least likely to be neighbors.” Their research in this area focuses on the East, Midwest and South, by far the most populated regions of the U.S. during the period. According to this measure, black households experienced the most segregation in the East South Central and West South Central regions, including states like Mississippi, Louisiana, Tennessee, Missouri and Kentucky. This was true in both 1880 and 1940. Additionally, Logan and Parman find that urban areas in the South were actually more segregated than Northern cities, "a new finding that runs counter to the conclusions reached using traditional measures."

This finding may be key to understanding racial segregation today and in the future. “The strong persistence of our segregation measure suggests that the roots of contemporary segregation may be more varied that previously thought,“ write the authors. “Both rural and urban areas had different levels of segregation that were highly persistent over time.”  

This new segregation measure may not only be useful for developing new insights into the history of racial segregation, but also to developing a more nuanced understanding of racial segregation today. The neighbor approach can be applied to modern data sets to capture the more "nuanced aspects of modern residential segregation that traditional measures fail to capture,” the economists write.

Segregation remains one of the most pressing economic and social problems of our time. Sociologists like Harvard’s Robert Sampson and my NYU colleague Patrick Sharkey have documented the persistent disadvantage of black urban neighborhoods today. As I noted earlier this week on this site,

Where cities and neighborhoods once mixed different kinds of people together, they are now becoming more homogeneous and segregated by income, education, and occupation. … It is not just that the economic divide in America has grown wider; it’s that the rich and poor effectively occupy different worlds, even when they live in the same cities and metros.

Our racial divides, as this new study points out, are not new at all. They have been a disturbing constant through the history of the United States, its North and its South, its cities and its rural areas.

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