View all Articles
Commentary By John H. McWhorter

Segregation Is Down. Great News, Right?

Culture, Economics, Economics Race, Immigration

But was it ever really a bad thing that black people lived together?

When Newt Gingrich says that housing project people don't work, our job is to show that they do. When he says that Obama is the "food stamp" president, our job is to show that most food stamp recipients are white. When Ron Paul writes that we're about to start rioting again, we are to make sure that everybody knows we're not.

In other words, although this isn't the lesson usually taken from these recent episodes, it would appear that we are getting more comfortable admitting that progress happens for us. Real progress, even if racism still exists, as it always will. And not just symbolic progress, such as having a black president. When we get angry at whites depicting us as poster children, we are saying that being black is less of a problem in 2012, even if it occasionally still is one.

Well, now there's more good news. We need to trumpet it to the skies as eagerly as we do the news that not so many of us use food stamps. It's about segregation: This new report by Edward Glaeser and Jacob Vigdor shows that black Americans are living under less of it than at any time since William Howard Taft was president.

As Glaeser and Vigdor, writing for the Manhattan Institute for Policy Research, show, "As of 2010, the separation of African-Americans from individuals of other races has stood at its lowest level in nearly a century. Fifty years ago, nearly half the black population lived in what might be termed a 'ghetto' neighborhood, with an African-American share above 80 percent. Today, that proportion has fallen to 20 percent."

Indeed, I used to work for the Manhattan Institute and am proud of it. But I am hardly the only one who will be writing about this report this week, and I would be shouting it to the heavens even if I used to work for Burger King. This is important news.

So often we are told that despite the civil rights revolution, black America's big problem is segregation. Black people live together too much, we are told. And when everybody is black and poor, then we have to understand that the neighborhood must fall to pieces. Not enough middle-class role models, we are told. About twice a year the New York Times runs a story on segregation that pings around the country madly for weeks, in which assorted people are quoted spinning variations on "We've come a long way, but we have a long way to go."

Here, then, is a story about the way we've come. From 1970 to 2010, segregation declined for black people in all 85 of the nation's largest metro areas. From just 2000 to 2010, segregation declined in 522 out of 658 housing markets. By 2010, out of 72,531 census tracts, only 424 had no black people in them. And as recently as 2000, that number had been 902. In 1960, there were 4,700 all-white neighborhoods in America. Today there are 170. We're everywhere!

Skepticism will be natural -- and quickly relieved. Many, wary of news like this, will check out the stats in Glaeser and Vigdor's report and come away having to process what is, quite simply, good news backed up by solid, simple math. For example, nota bene, social scientists: Yes, the report does measure both isolation (the extent to which black people live only with other blacks) and dissimilarity (the percentage of blacks or whites who would have to move to make a neighborhood perfectly integrated).

Did segregation decrease everywhere? Of course not. But only in 95 districts did dissimilarity and isolation increase over the past 10 years. Notably, they are places where this would neither surprise nor much bother anyone, largely because so few blacks live in them. For example, black people are less than 4 percent of all but one of the 10 biggest cities with small black populations. Plus, the segregation levels in these cities are themselves quite low.

Quite frankly, race relations in Boise, Idaho; Sioux Falls, S.D.; and Burlington, Vt., are not exactly at the top of anyone's list of urgent issues of the day. What interests us are places of more sociological interest in terms of race than burgs like those. Segregation has plummeted in Chicago, Los Angeles, Cleveland, Detroit and Kansas City, Mo.

In cities like these, black ghettos are even depopulating, and not just in that Latinos are changing a neighborhood's profile. Black people are getting away. Much of the change is due to the destruction of housing projects like the Robert Taylor Homes in Chicago.

One might take in a film like one running now, The Pruitt-Igoe Myth, about how sad it was that this complex of housing project buildings was destroyed rather than fixed. However, another side of the argument is that it decreased the segregation that we are taught is such an obstacle to black success, such as depriving poor blacks of role models.

This news ties into a question: How will we write the history of post-civil rights black America? Did you ever notice how a certain drama is lost after 1968? What, after that, is the story until Obama's election in 2008? Jesse Jackson? Afros? Roots? O.J.? Clarence Thomas and Anita Hill? The Million Man March? Tyler Perry?

Well, here's something, highlighted in the report. There were two eras when it came to residential segregation. From 1910 to 1960, it increased for black people as whites corralled migrants from the South into ghetto districts. But the story from 1960 to 2010 has been one of decreasing segregation. It's still going on. A lot, and fast.

This report is not designed to shut people up about injustice. Its final words are "While the decline in segregation remains good news, far too many Americans lack the opportunity to achieve meaningful success."

However, there is a crucial implication of this and the report. As the authors put it, "The persistence of inequality, even as segregation has receded, suggests that inequality is a far more complex phenomenon." That is, while black America does suffer from overall socioeconomic inequality with the mainstream, addressing that will not be a matter of worrying about whether black people live in neighborhoods with too many other black people in them.

We should welcome this news. It means that we no longer have to put up with smart people telling us that when too many black people live in one place, you have to expect all hell to break loose. It is rather striking how this insult to black dignity is so warmly received as kindly wisdom.

In any case, the upshot is simple. Black residential segregation is at its lowest in more than 90 years. It's good someone decided to find that out. We should keep it in mind the next time someone tells us that blackness is a pathology -- be it Newt Gingrich or a social science professor who says he or she is doing the right thing by warning black people about the pitfalls of poor black people hanging out only with other poor black people.

This piece originally appeared in The Root

This piece originally appeared in The Root