Racial integration in US cities

This post was contributed by Mayur Suresh, an intern at the Birkbeck Institute for Social Research.

How racially integrated are US cities today? Are they more integrated today than previously? An insightful presentation at Birkbeck by John Logan, Professor of Sociology at Brown University, paints a complex picture.

Using New York City as an example, Prof Logan argued that cities in the United States have always been segregated to some extent. While in the early 1900s only 1% of the city was African-American, other recent immigrant communities such as Russian Jews and Italians were confined to specific parts of the city. By the 1920s, poverty and the persistence of Jim Crow laws in the southern US forced many African-Americans to seek better lives in urban centres in the north. This “great migration” of the 1920s saw the creation of “black ghettoes” such as Harlem in New York city.

In the 1920s, New York City’s index of dissimilarity for African-Americans was about 0.7 (0 being the most integrated, 1 being the most segregated). This index hovered between 0.8 and 0.9 for most of the 20th century, and this level of segregation of the African-American community continues today. The civil rights era and the passage of fair housing laws did little to change this level of segregation.

Prof Logan then compared this level of segregation of African-Americans with the Italian and Russian Jewish communities. In the early 1900s both these communities lived in specific areas – Italians in Greenwich Village and Russian Jews in Lower East Side. Many of the African-Americans who migrated to New York City were from different social classes – while some did blue collar jobs, others could be identified as middle class. Italians, by and large, performed manual labour and many dropped out of school. Similarly, the Russian Jewish population mostly did working class jobs, and came to be closely associated with the garment industry. Both these communities had higher indices of dissimilarity than African-Americans in the 1920s but the indices for both communities fell rapidly to about 0.3 by the 1990s. Prof Logan argued that both these communities were able to integrate rapidly by virtue of gradually being identified as “white”.

Moving on to segregation today and its relation to class, Prof Logan looked at the social and racial make up of neighbourhoods today. While it’s assumed that African-American people lived in African-American neighbourhoods because they were poor, what Prof Logan’s data shows is that racial segregation occurred regardless of class. Meaning that poor white people lived amongst other poor white people and poor African-American people lived in poor African-American neighbourhoods. Comparing the data across classes presents an even more complicated picture: the average poor white neighbourhood had less poor people than the average rich African-American neighbourhoods.

Switching to segregation in education, Prof Logan’s data showed that schools were even more segregated than neighbourhoods. The majority of African-American children went to African-American majority schools while the average white student went to white majority schools.

According to Prof Logan, the traditional model of viewing changes in racial composition of neighbourhoods has been the “Invasion and Succession” model: African-Americans enter a neighbourhood resulting in an exodus of white people (white flight) until there is a majority African-American population. Recent demographic data about immigration of Asian and Hispanic population reveals a different pattern. It was found that in neighbourhoods that start off as all white and into which Asian and Hispanic populations begin to settle, and then into which the African-American population migrated, there was no white flight. These neighbourhoods resulted in what was referred to as “global neighbourhoods” in urban areas. According to Prof Logan this is having an impact on the meaning of race for white populations in the United States today.

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