Press Release: Most metros in the US have become more segregated since 1990

UC Berkeley project mapped every US census tract to show level and harms of segregation

Press Release

June 21, 2021

BERKELEY, CA: More than 80 percent of metropolitan regions in the United States have become more segregated in recent decades despite policy efforts aimed at promoting integration, with the most highly segregated areas located in midwestern and mid atlantic states, according to a new study from UC Berkeley's Othering & Belonging Institute.

"The Roots of Structural Racism: Twenty-First Century Racial Residential Segregation in the United States," shows that between 1990 and 2019, 169 out of the 209 metropolitan regions in the United States with populations above 200,000 people have increased in their levels of segregation, which correlated with poorer life outcomes, particularly for people of color, in terms of health, educational attainment, economic mobility, and much more.

Just 40 regions have become less segregated, according to the analysis, which was based on official US Census data.

"These findings were as startling as they were disturbing," said Stephen Menendian, the institute's assistant director and lead author of the project.

"Although the American public has much greater awareness of the reality of systemic racial inequality, too few people understand that racial residential segregation lies at the heart of this inequality," Menendian added. "This is evidenced by how residential segregation determines access to schools, healthy neighborhoods, jobs, and surveillance by police."

This new analysis, which studied census tract data covering every inch of the country, flies in the face of prevailing perceptions that the US has become less segregated since the Civil Rights era, when discrimination in housing was outlawed by the 1968 Fair Housing Act.

The project also provides first lists ever compiled of all major US cities and metropolitan areas ranked by their levels of segregation using a relatively new measure called the divergence index, which is far more accurate than the more traditional, commonly used measures.

The report compares the differences in income and poverty levels, home values, life expectancy, and rent prices between highly-segregated communities of color, highly-segregated white neighborhoods, and integrated areas. Across the board, highly-segregated white regions fared best while segregated Black and Brown neighborhoods fared the worst.

But, when Black or Hispanic people grow up in segregated white neighborhoods, their incomes are substantially higher than people in segregated communities of color. For Black people, their incomes are annually about $4,000 higher, and for Latinos, incomes are $5,000 higher, when they live in white neighborhoods. People of all races fared worse in segregated Black and Brown neighborhoods.

The takeaway from these findings is that race itself appears not to be the determining factor in an individual's life outcomes. Rather, the more consequential factor for life outcomes is the environment in which that individual is immersed.

The report is part of a large project that includes various tools released as a package to help inform the public of the breadth and depth of segregation and its consequences in the United States, and provide resources to housing reform advocates and lawmakers required to design remedies to segregation.

A central component of this project is an interactive national segregation map which shows the levels of segregation in hundreds of cities and metropolitan areas across the country, and allows users to toggle between different decades to show changes in segregation.

Using the map, users can zoom in on different regions of the country to see how a metropolitan region which may be thought of as diverse is actually highly-segregated when inspected at a city level. This is revealed by the different colors assigned to different cities based on their levels of segregation.

If clusters of neighboring cities are shown in different colors, it suggests a high-degree of inter-municipal segregation, where different racial groups are isolated in different areas within the same region.

“We believe that this is one of the most sophisticated and powerful tools for understanding the nature and extent of racial residential segregation in the United States. Users can go as deep as they want using our tool to understand this problem,” explained Samir Gambhir, report co-author and head of the institute's Equity Metrics program.

The map view can be switched between cities and neighborhoods (census tracts) to show segregation in more granular detail, or it can be set to metropolitan view to compare larger regions. Users can also switch between different measures of segregation to observe different aspects of the problem.

The report and map rely primarily on a measure called the divergence index, which offers a far more precise illustration of a city or region's racial dynamics. Many other popular maps that purport to show a region's segregation actually show racial composition, which is misleading, as they only show the racial makeup of a location in isolation to the larger region.

By contrast, the divergence index compares an area's racial demographics compared to the makeup of the larger region, which reveals the neighborhoods and cities where certain groups are isolated.

The divergence index and many other approaches to measure segregation are described in detail in the appendix of the report. Older, less sensitive measures of segregation often show that cities are becoming less segregated, not more.

Another important finding from the report was that segregation levels correlate strongly with levels of political polarization, which was based on an analysis of 327 metropolitan regions. The significance of this finding lies in existing data that shows how political polarization facilitates gerrymandering.

This bears significance in the context of the current concerns over political representation and voter suppression targeting communities of color.

Other pieces of this project include a collection of tables which list cities and metropolitan regions by their levels of segregation, the regions in which segregation levels have changed most decade-to-decade, the most politically polarized regions, a comparison of Black-white segregation across the country, nine profiles of cities noteworthy for their levels of segregation or integration, and a list and summaries of resources on segregation in different cities.

This project grew out of a multi-part report series on segregation published in increments over the past few years by the Othering & Belonging Institute that focused on the San Francisco Bay Area, which was well received by local housing advocacy groups, and informed efforts by the Berkeley city council in February 2021 to reconsider exclusionary zoning.

The national project released today contains a wealth of tools and resources for city councils, state governments, and federal agencies to study and adopt appropriate measures to facilitate racial residential integration in their jurisdictions.

Media contact
Marc Abizeid