Brentin Mock is a staff writer at CityLab. He was previously the justice editor at Grist.
Residential segregation in major U.S. metros continues to decline significantly. But mixed neighborhoods are hardly an endpoint for equality.
Cities on average are getting a lot better at breaking up racial segregation. More African Americans and whites are sharing neighborhoods than we’ve seen in almost a century. But that could create static for civil rights protections writes the University of Chicago Law School professor Nicholas O. Stephanopoulos.
In his forthcoming article for the University of Chicago Law Review, “Civil Rights in a Desegregating America,” Stephanopoulos pulls together a collection of recent research showing that race relations in housing patterns are certainly improving. He points out that in 1970, 80 percent of African Americans would have needed to move to a different neighborhood in order for them to be evenly spread across most metropolitan areas. By 2010, though, writes Stephanopoulos, only 55 percent would have needed to move to make this true (which is roughly where America was in 1910). He also points out that the average African American lived in a neighborhood that was over 60 percent black in 1970, compared with 30 percent today.
No matter how it is computed, then, black segregation no longer qualifies as high for the first time in a hundred years. In fact, as David Cutler points out, it is about the same as the spatial separation currently experienced by immigrants from Greece, Hungary, Ireland, Italy, and Russia.
Stephanopoulos calls this decline in residential segregation “one of the most important sociological developments of the last half-century,” but he warns not to read too deeply into it. The segregation of African-American and white households is still “severe” in Midwest and Northeast cities, notably in Chicago, Cleveland, Detroit, Milwaukee, Newark, New York City, Philadelphia, and St. Louis. Also, while segregation is declining when looking at Census tracts within cities, segregation is still very real when comparing different cities and suburbs.
This also is not a cause for celebrating gentrification, which seems like the natural culprit to take credit for decreasing segregation since it often entails white residents moving into predominantly African-American communities. Stephanopoulos writes that gentrification is mostly “a trend of modest bite” when considering its role in reducing segregation, given that it occurs, as Edward Glaeser and Jacob Vigdor once wrote, “primarily at the fringe of the ghetto.”
What truly accounts for the drop in segregation is less discrimination in the housing market, writes Stephanopoulos (though there are plenty of recent cases that would prove otherwise).
If all this integration is happening, why are people rioting and rallying in the streets lately, forcefully reminding the nation that black lives matter?
Well, Stephanopoulos acknowledges that ”discrimination also can occur in a more integrated society”—and that income inequality is worsening. Since people’s incomes are still a strong driver of segregation, it’s no surprise that race relations are still unsettled and we still find urban unrest. He also acknowledges what our own recent coverage of such disparities has pointed to: That wealthy households are most likely to segregate themselves from other income groups.
In other words, we seem to be moving from segregated communities to simply gated communities. And those unable to access these gated enclaves are not faring better economically or politically, even if they live in more racially harmonious neighborhoods. This leads to the larger point in Stephanopoulos’ report—which isn’t just to point out an improvement in racial residential patterns, but rather to show how racial integration might complicate how civil rights laws are enforced in America.
Despite whatever progress we’ve made racially in the housing market, African Americans still “remain politically powerless relative to whites, at both the federal and state levels,” writes Stephanopoulos. This holds true even in the South, where the percentage of black legislators serving in the majority party of their legislatures fell from 99.5 percent to 4.8 percent between 1990 and 2010.
U.S. Supreme Court Chief Justice John Roberts espoused a racial progress narrative in his 2013 decision to neutralize the Voting Rights Act. Roberts cited statistics about improved racial symbiosis in that opinion, and also shared data on how more African Americans are registered to vote than in past decades, especially across the South. But he invested too much stock in these figures, as if decreased segregation and increased black voter registration were fulfilled destinies.
Neither have added up to an equal or fair distribution of power among the races. There are plenty of other problems presented by integration that could further weaken the Voting Rights Act’s powers, especially if people in power interpret de-segregation trends as evidence of realized racial equality. Stephanopoulos explores those problems, as well as other potential unintended consequences of integration when reconciled with civil rights laws.
A very clear case of racial regression arose over this past weekend in Mississippi. In speaking to a Republican group about a school-funding ballot initiative, State Representative Lester “Bubba” Carpenter got caught by a local blogger expressing his concerns in franker terms than polite society would normally allow, telling the group that if the initiative passed then "a judge in Hinds County, Mississippi, predominantly black—it's going to be a black judge—they're going to tell us where the state education money goes."
For some context, Hinds County is about 70.8 percent African-American. The fear Carpenter is projecting is that a black judge from a black county could end up redistributing state funds from predominantly white counties to majority African-American districts across the state. The Cottonmouth blogger who caught the state legislator making these comments said that when Carpenter said “black judge” he “meant it as a cuss word.”
Carpenter has since apologized, but such retractions are like a drunken Tweet—even if deleted, the words are already screen-captured and circulated, and the sentiment behind them continues to haunt and follow both the user and its subjects.
Stephanopoulos argues that as integration increases, it will weaken the standing of people of color who try to bring civil rights lawsuits. But Carpenter’s comments are evidence that people of color still need strong civil rights protections—and that those protections don’t arise merely because black and white people are living closer to each other.