At press time, the free-market Manhattan Institute released a cheerful report stating that the rate of racial segregation in the American landscape is in steep decline. The report, “The End of the Segregated Century: Racial Separation in America’s Neighborhoods, 1890-2010,” by Harvard economist Edward Glaeser and Duke economist Jacob L. Vigdor, abounds with rosy statements. The executive summary’s major bullet points suggest a country moving away from a century’s urban ills: “The most standard segregation measure shows that American cities are now more integrated than they’ve been since 1910”; “All-white neighborhoods are effectively extinct”; “Gentrification and immigration have made a dent in segregation”; “Ghetto neighborhoods persist, but most are in decline.”
Even a cursory reading of the report, which is full of fascinating information and deserves to be widely debated, suggests some persistent problems, especially as they relate to spatial segregation and struggling urban neighborhoods. While the report, which is based on census data, includes a lot of encouraging news—the integration of white neighborhoods by an influx of Latinos and Asians; the return of middle class whites to urban neighborhoods—it also shows that integration is not happening equally across all areas. Predominantly African American neighborhoods are, in fact, emptying out. The report reduces extremely complex demographic and geographic reorganization to somewhat breezy statements like this: “Restrictive covenants and ‘red-lining’ are a thing of the past, and the Fair Housing Act of 1968 made discrimination illegal. More recently, the demolition of large-scale housing projects has accelerated a long process of population decline in former ghetto neighborhoods.” In Midwestern cities, which grew and were built to accommodate the Great Migration of African Americans seeking work in the industrial North, these declining “former ghetto neighborhoods,” represent much of the city of Detroit, as well as vast swaths of cities like Cleveland and St. Louis, as well as Chicago’s South and West Sides. Abandonment, displacement, and so-called Black Flight to the suburbs, have left these areas fragmented and dangerous for remaining residents, and a drain on cities overall. Strengthening these areas remains the biggest challenge Midwest cities face.
Chicago, according to the report, showed the second biggest drop in segregation after Houston, an encouraging sign by any account. But Chicago, Detroit, Cleveland, and St. Louis all still rank highest on the so-called “dissimilarity index,” which measures the amount of people who would need to relocate in order to achieve perfect integration (which is itself of somewhat limited usefulness as an indicator). Overall integration was strongest among newer cities with growing populations and less history of segregation. Chicago’s population fell slightly during the last census count, so its improving segregation figures may in fact represent a decidedly less rosy reality.