*A slightly modified version of this commentary appeared in the Dallas Morning News on May 14, 2004.
With the presidential election six months away, journalists and consultants are having a field day painting the electorate red and blue.
The funny thing is, their primary colors mask almost completely the increasing intermixture of people in metropolitan America—and especially in Dallas.
The pundits, for their part, talk constantly about “Red Blue America,” evoking state by state maps of the 2000 election returns, which highlight in red the southern and inland regions President Bush won and in blue the “cosmopolitan” coastal states captured by Al Gore.
Over and over, these commentators depict a nation that appears to have fissured—from Congress to the best seller lists to its neighborhoods—into two homogeneous, politically segregated camps, increasingly identified with the two political parties.
“We have two parallel universes,” is the way John Kenneth White, author of “The Values Divide,” put it in a recent article in the Washington Post.
And to White, the lines—and colors—are only sharpening between the white bread, church going Red zone and the ethnically diverse, sophisticated Blue areas.
Declares White: “The reds get redder and blues get bluer.”
And yet, before the notion of a new political segregation hardens irrevocably, the commentariat should consider that in many places —like Dallas—the truth of “Red Blue America” is not quite so black and white as some pundits suggest.
Witness a new analysis of neighborhood level census data from the Brookings Institution, which reveals that a striking degree of racial and ethnic mixing occurred in at least the nation’s 10 major metropolitan areas during the 1990s.
According to the study by researchers at Wayne State University, many fewer Americans in large cities today live in the sort of homogeneous, predominantly white neighborhoods that supposedly populate Red America than did in 1990.
Overall, the number of such white neighborhoods fell by 30 percent during the 1990s in the 10 biggest metro areas. That means that by 2000 fewer than one in four neighborhoods in those areas were predominantly (at least 80 percent) white.
Dallas, meanwhile, epitomizes this trend. Nearly three in four neighborhoods in the region today contain a mix of two or more racial or ethnic groups. Meanwhile, the number of predominantly white neighborhoods in the Dallas area fell by an astonishing 58 percent during the 1990s, far outpacing the overall diversification of big metros and reflecting “hyper growth” of the Latino population and Dallas’ new status as major “immigrant gateway.”
Nor are these big cities a small piece of the pie. Together, these metropolises contain 20 percent of the electorate. And not all of them lie in supposedly “cosmopolitan” Blue coastal areas that vote Democratic. The Dallas, Houston, and Atlanta areas are all in solidly Red territories, and Detroit and Philadelphia dominate crucial swing states. Yet even so all shared in the trend towards increasing integration at the neighborhood level.
Indeed, reading a recent article portraying Sugar Land, Tex. as an epicenter of “Red America,” one might infer from the characters profiled that the city is overwhelmingly white. But like most of metropolitan Houston, Sugar Land’s residents are a racially varied bunch that includes significant numbers of Asians, Hispanics, and blacks. As in Dallas, about three quarters of the Houston area’s neighborhoods are mixed race.
In sum, the facts belie in at least one set of places the pundits’ picture of an increasingly segregated nation sliced up into a patchwork of same thinking islands.
In the big metropolitan areas where demographic change happens first, a nation that is supposedly engaging in a voluntary political segregation with a frequently racial tinge turns out—at the neighborhood level—to be mixing and changing in a surprisingly dynamic fashion.
Which is not to suggest that the supposedly polarized communities getting all the press attention right now—like Sugar Land—won’t vote homogeneously come November. But the reality is that in a nation with rapidly diversifying neighborhoods, racial segregation looks less typical all the time, and political predictions trickier and trickier.
In that sense, the true future of the nation may well be Red and Blue in some places, but it will also surely be brown and beige and black and many other colors unanticipated.
Free speech shouldn’t be a partisan issue, but it has been drawn into the larger dynamics of polarization in this country.