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U.S.: Census Shows Wide Ethnic Mix, But Also Persistent Segregation

  • Robert McMahon

The U.S. population is more diverse than ever according to the latest census figures, but there are indications that the residential segregation of minority groups remains common in U.S. cities. RFE/RL correspondent Robert McMahon talked to urban experts about the degree of segregation in U.S. cities and its impact on society as part of our series on U.S. census trends.

New York, 18 April 2001 (RFE/RL) -- An examination of U.S. population trends during the past 10 years shows that the largest minority groups in the United States still tend to live separately from the majority white population in the country's most populous urban areas.

Research conducted by the State University of New York at Albany found that New York, Detroit, and Milwaukee were among the metropolitan areas with the highest level of segregation, especially between blacks and whites.

The study, released this month, shows segregation was also high in cities such as Houston, Los Angeles, St. Louis and Cincinnati, the site of recent racial violence after white police officers shot and killed a black man. The findings are largely corroborated in a separate analysis of 61 major metropolitan areas conducted by The Washington Post. Both studies are based on an analysis of U.S. census data.

The director of the university study, sociologist John Logan, tells RFE/RL that a comparison of neighborhoods between 1990 and 2000 shows little change in the level of segregation among whites, blacks, Hispanics, and Asians.

"The overall picture is one of pretty high levels of separation among these racial and ethnic groups in the United States and not much change over time."

The United States has traditionally been successful in incorporating large numbers of diverse people into the same society, without a great deal of conflict. Logan says this diversity is not accomplished by integration but mainly through creating residential boundaries between major racial and ethnic groups.

Such boundaries, he says, could help sustain a functional, multiethnic society. But Logan says they can also serve as barriers to advancement for some minority groups. A predominantly white suburb of New York City, for example, typically has better schools and services than a mostly black area, Logan says.

"The trick in multiethnic America is not that ethnicity has been overcome and that ethnic boundaries aren't important in our society, but rather that we accept the levels of separation among groups and then we work around that.

Urban affairs experts say the causes of segregation are complex and change with each generation. Minority groups in the United States generally have lower incomes than whites, limiting their choices of where to live. Some experts caution against reaching the conclusion that segregation is being enforced in U.S. cities.

Emanuel Tobier, a professor of economics and urban planning at New York University, tells RFE/RL there is much more mingling of the races and ethnic groups than studies of segregation may indicate.

"What looks like residential segregation isn't that air-tight or sealed. It's a lot more open than it used to be."

Tobier and other researchers also say there is a large degree of self-segregation taking place, especially among Hispanic-Americans and immigrant groups. New York City's large immigrant population from the Dominican Republic in the 1990s, for example, has been naturally drawn to neighborhoods where other Dominicans reside.

Logan, of the State University of New York at Albany, says his study also found signs that segregation is declining in some parts of the United States. He said in southern metropolitan areas, where fewer Asians reside than in northeast cities, there is greater integration of Asian-Americans with the majority white population. The Washington Post survey found that the lowest levels of black-white segregation are in the high-growth areas of the southern and western United States.

But in major urban areas with the largest minority populations, the findings on segregation remain disturbing to researchers such as Gary Orfield of the Civil Rights Project at Harvard University. He headed a research team that analyzed the 2000 census data on segregation.

Orfield tells RFE/RL that despite the prosperity enjoyed by all ethnic groups in the 1990s, minorities remain isolated in urban neighborhoods through a mixture of intimidation and discrimination. Orfield says discrimination is still common in real estate sales and rental markets, preventing minorities from living in better conditions or getting access to better schools.

Logan says such residential patterns can also contribute to continued problems between blacks and whites. A number of the most segregated U.S. cities are also currently dealing with problems connected with the police practice known as "racial profiling."

In a number of cases under investigation by state and federal authorities, police have been found to be targeting blacks for traffic violations or other infractions based on their race. Logan says:

"We take for granted the existence of black and white and Hispanic and Asian neighborhoods and it's only when something so publicly unacceptable as racial profiling or particular incidents of police brutality or overreaction, those are the times when we're shocked into accepting that, well, maybe there's something else that we need to be aware of."

Public policy makers in the United States still maintain the goal of integration, in part to promote the American ideal of equal opportunity as well as to dispel the sentiments that can lead to racial profiling.

Researchers like Logan and Orfield say the effort hasn't gone far enough.

But Tobier, of New York University, points to the progress made since the 1960s, when segregation was still enforced as law in some states. He says the country's recent absorption of immigrants is a major success story.

"It's been a remarkable decade in the United States, not just because of the dynamism of the stock market, now fading, or the economy, but because of its intake of so many people from so many different parts of the world, legally and illegally, without seeming to strain the society that much."

The U.S. Census Bureau says the population of the United States grew by 32.7 million people between 1990 and 2000, the largest 10-year population increase in the country's history. The growth was fueled in part by a major influx of immigrants as well as the robust birth rate of Hispanics. The census bureau says Hispanics have equaled or surpassed blacks as the largest minority in the United States at 35 million, or about 13 percent of the total population.