The systemic racism spotlighted over the past year in the wake of the death of George Floyd has long pervaded much of American society. One enduring dimension is the neighborhood residential segregation of people of color from white residents due to a well-known history of discriminatory practices imposed by government and private sector forces.
As I note in my book, Diversity Explosion, Black-white neighborhood segregation has decreased (albeit modestly) since its peak in the 1960s. Still, more than 50 years after the passage of the 1968 Fair Housing Act, substantial levels of neighborhood segregation persist for Black residents and—to a sizable, though lesser extent—for Latino or Hispanic and Asian Americans. This high level of racial segregation is part and parcel of continued housing discrimination based on race and ethnicity, and has prompted the Biden administration to propose new efforts to reduce both formal and informal forces that allow it to endure.
The analysis presented here draws from the most recently available Census Bureau American Community Survey data to examine neighborhood residential segregation over the 2015-2019 period. It shows that despite the fact that people of color account for the vast majority of recent U.S. population growth, white residents almost everywhere— including those in the nation’s most diverse metropolitan areas—continue to reside in mostly white neighborhoods. At the same time, Black and Latino or Hispanic Americans in most metropolitan areas reside in neighborhoods that are disproportionately comprised of members of those same groups. The analysis also maps geographic variations in these segregation patterns.
White people still live in mostly white neighborhoods
America’s increased diversity over this century is reflected in the rapid population growth of Latino or Hispanic Americans (the nation’s largest minority), Asian Americans, and persons identifying as two or more races, along with smaller gains in Black and Native American populations. All together, these groups increased by 53% between 2000 and 2019, compared with less than a 1% increase in the white population.
The broader growth of race-ethnic minorities compared to the white population should, by itself, lead to greater diversity at all levels of geography. Yet at the neighborhood level, long-standing patterns of segregation persist.
This is evident in the combined populations of the nation’s 100 largest metropolitan areas. As displayed in Figure 1, the metropolitan race-ethnic profiles for these areas shift between the 2000 census and the 2015-2019 period, such that the white share of their populations is reduced from 64% to 54%. However, the white population share in the neighborhood in which the average white person resides remains much higher: 79% in 2000 and 71% in 2015-2019.1 In other words, even though both the metropolitan area and the “white-resident neighborhood” population became less white since 2000, the racial gap between the two had not closed.
The white population share in white-resident neighborhoods is even larger in smaller metropolitan areas and outside metropolitan areas: 79% and 85% white, respectively. This demonstrates that the neighborhood experience of the average white U.S. resident is far different than the national demographic profile would suggest.
Because metropolitan areas differ in their racial diversity profiles, the neighborhood exposure of white residents to other white residents and racial minorities will differ across individual metropolitan areas. To illustrate, Figure 2 displays the white share of the metropolitan area population along with white shares of its average white-resident neighborhoods for selected highly diverse metropolitan areas.
In all cases, the average white-resident neighborhoods possess higher shares of white people than their metropolitan areas. For example, while less than half (47%) of the Atlanta metro area is white, white people comprise nearly two-thirds (64%) of the population of white-resident neighborhoods. In Los Angeles, where white people comprise just 30% of metropolitan residents, they comprise 51% of white-resident neighborhood populations.
Among the nation’s 53 metropolitan areas with populations exceeding 1 million, all display higher white shares in the populations of their average white-resident neighborhoods than for their larger metropolitan populations. This is the case in even the least diverse metropolitan areas, such as Minneapolis-St. Paul, Providence, R.I., and Pittsburgh. (Download Table A)
While all of these metro areas showed decreases in the white shares of both their total populations and in their white-resident neighborhood populations since 2000, the latter did not decrease as much as the former in the vast majority. For example, the white share of Phoenix’s metropolitan population was reduced by 10% (from 66% to 56%), but the white share of its average white-resident neighborhood population was reduced by just 6% (from 75% to 69%).
It is also worth noting that when white-resident neighborhoods saw a decrease in their white population share, it was less likely due to an increase in Black residents and more likely from an increase in Latino or Hispanic residents, Asian American residents, and persons of two or more races. Hence, areas where white neighborhoods became more diverse tended to be those with substantial metropolitan-wide gains in their Latino or Hispanic and Asian American populations, such as Miami, San Jose, Calif., Las Vegas, and Orlando, Fla.
Nonwhite race and ethnic groups live in far more diverse neighborhoods
Just as white neighborhoods continue to remain “whiter” than their surrounding metropolitan areas, it’s also the case that neighborhoods where the average Black, Latino or Hispanic, and Asian American populations reside continue to include overrepresentations of those groups (see Figure 1).
In the case of Black residents, two items should be stressed. First, the Black share of the overall population in the 100 largest metropolitan areas is similar in both 2000 and 2015- 2019. Second, the Black share of average Black-resident neighborhood, while higher than the metropolitan Black share, decreased between 2000 and the 2015-2019 period.
A closer look at the change in Black-resident neighborhoods in Figure 1 reveals that this decrease is almost entirely counterbalanced by an increase in the neighborhood’s share of Latino or Hispanic residents, Asian American residents, and residents of other races. The increase in the white share of these neighborhoods—from 30% white to 31%—is minimal. Thus, it appears that “integration” in these Black-resident neighborhoods is attributable to gains in other racial and ethnic minorities.
This picture is also replicated in a large number of metropolitan areas with populations over 1 million (Download Table B). In nearly all of these 53 areas, the Black share of the population in Black-resident neighborhoods declined since 2000. In more than half of the metro areas, the white population share in Black-resident neighborhoods also declined. This means that Latino or Hispanic residents, Asian American residents, and residents of two or more races are responsible for the increased diversity in Black-resident neighborhoods.
Yet even as diversity increases in Black-resident neighborhoods, the Black shares of their populations are larger—generally much larger—than Black shares of the metropolitan population. This is illustrated for selected metropolitan areas in Figure 3.
The biggest disparities in Black representation between Black-resident neighborhoods and their metropolitan areas tend to be in older metro areas with stagnating Black populations, including Chicago, Detroit, and Philadelphia. Smaller—though still large—disparities are evident in areas with recently rapid-growing Black populations, such as Houston, Atlanta, and Charlotte, N.C.
The story of the Latino or Hispanic population differs from Black or white populations due to the group’s substantial metropolitan-wide growth. The Latino or Hispanic share of the population increased in most metropolitan areas since 2000, as well as in most Latino or Hispanic-resident neighborhoods. In those neighborhoods, the rise in the Latino or Hispanic share of the population is mostly accompanied by a decline in the white share of the population. (Download Table C)
Nonetheless, the average Latino or Hispanic-resident neighborhood typically houses a greater Latino or Hispanic population share than the larger metropolitan area. This is the case even in Los Angeles, where Latino or Hispanic residents comprise 45% of the metropolitan population, but 63% of the population of Latino or Hispanic-resident neighborhoods.
The Asian American population is typically smaller than those of Latino or Hispanic and Black Americans in large metropolitan areas. Yet as a rapidly growing population, it has increased its population share in all large metropolitan areas since 2000, as well as its population share in neighborhoods where the average Asian American resident lives. (Downloadable Table D). Moreover, as with both Black and Latino or Hispanic residents, the Asian American population share of Asian American-resident neighborhoods exceeds the Asian American share of their metropolitan areas. This is especially the case in the large immigrant gateway metro areas of New York and Los Angeles.
New migration patterns are altering metro area segregation
Another way to look at neighborhood segregation is with a segregation index, sometimes known as a dissimilarity index. This index measures the extent to which two different groups, such white and Black populations, are unequally distributed across neighborhoods in a single metropolitan area. The index can range from zero (complete integration) to 100 (complete segregation), where its value represents the percent of one group (e.g., Black residents) which would need to relocate to be distributed across neighborhoods equally with the other group (e.g., white residents).
Map 1 displays these patterns for Black-white segregation among metropolitan areas for the 2015-2019 period.2 Segregation values range from 41 in Las Vegas to 79 in Milwaukee. Thus, in Milwaukee, nearly eight in 10 Black residents would need change neighborhoods to be distributed similarly to white residents; in Las Vegas, it is only about four in 10.
The regional patterns partly reflect recent decades’ Black migration to the South. In the 1960s, segregation levels were high in that region due to blatantly discriminatory practices by lenders, realtors, and government agencies. The 1968 Fair Housing Act outlawed many of those practices, with its biggest impact in the South, where large waves of Black Americans began to move after the law was in place.
Afterward, segregation levels declined in southern metro areas such as Atlanta, Dallas, and Houston, and stayed lower in western metro areas. Today, many metro areas in the South and West register segregation index values below 60. In contrast, many northern areas with long-stagnating Black populations continue to show segregation levels into the 70s, reflecting the persistence of past patterns. These areas have only shown small recent declines in segregation. (Download Table E)
Latino or Hispanic and white segregation, while still substantial, is broadly lower than Black-white segregation, ranging between index values of 31 (Jacksonville, Fla.) to 61 (Los Angeles).3 Areas with higher Latino or Hispanic segregation scores (those above 50) tend to be long-standing immigration magnets or areas in the Northeast with substantial Puerto Rican populations. Less segregated areas tend to be new destinations for Latino or Hispanic residents, located heavily in the Southeast and increasingly in the nation’s heartland. As is the case with Black-white segregation, recently, the segregation levels between Latino or Hispanic and white residents has modestly declined. (Download Table F)
Segregation between Asian American and white residents is also evident, and has shifted even less than that of the other groups of color. Even though Asian Americans tend to comprise smaller shares of metropolitan populations, their segregation levels—which measure how unevenly they are distributed across neighborhoods compared to white residents—are broadly in the range of Latino or Hispanic residents. In 2015-2019, Asian American segregation indices ranged from a low of 31 (Las Vegas) to a high of 61 (Buffalo, N.Y.).4
Between the 2005-2009 and 2015-2019 periods, 20 large metro areas showed increases in their Asian American-white segregation scores, and another 10 displayed no shifts (Download Table G). The areas showing the greatest gains in Asian American-white segregation tend to be southern metro areas with large recent Asian American growth, including Raleigh, N.C., Jacksonville, Fla., Charlotte, N.C., and Atlanta. Metro areas with large Asian American population concentrations such as San Francisco, Los Angeles, and San Jose, Calif. show modest Asian American-white segregation declines.
Despite recent modest declines in the neighborhood segregation of Black and Latino or Hispanic Americans—and steady levels for Asian Americans—segregation levels remain unacceptably high. Large metro area segregation index scores even at the low end (in the 30 to 40 range) mean the life experiences and access to community resources of nonwhite race-ethnic groups are very different from white residents. For Black Americans in many parts of the country, those scores rise into the 60s and 70s.
Persistently high segregation levels require renewed attention
This analysis of recent American Community Survey data suggests that segregation is still quite prevalent in the United States. More than a half-century after the civil rights movement and fair housing legislation, white Americans continue to reside in mostly (and often largely) white neighborhoods, even as the nation’s overall population becomes much more racially and ethnically diverse.
These patterns have changed only modestly since the 21st century began. While measurable progress in closing the nation’s racial divide has been made on many fronts— including in educational attainment, hiring, and the rise in multiracial marriages—race-ethnic segregation in American neighborhoods represents an area where historical patterns are slow to change. Thus, there is good reason for the current administration to place renewed emphasis on ending housing discrimination and the forces which have allowed it to persist.
Report Produced by Brookings Metro
- The neighborhood (census tract) racial makeup for the average white (or Black or Latino or Hispanic or Asian American) resident in the metropolitan area is the weighted average of racial compositions of all neighborhoods in the metropolitan area, where weights represent the sizes of each neighborhood's white (or Black or Latino or Hispanic or Asian American) population. This measure is sometimes referred to as an "exposure" measure, indicating the race-ethnic makeup to which the average white (or Black or Latino or Hispanic or Asian American) resident is exposed.
- The metropolitan areas shown in Map 1 are the 51 metropolitan areas with populations over 1 million and where Black residents comprise at least 3% of the population.
- The metropolitan areas shown in Map 2 are the 52 metropolitan areas with populations over 1 million and where Latino or Hispanic residents comprise at least 3% of the population.
- The metropolitan areas shown in Map 3 are the 46 metropolitan areas with populations over 1 million and where Asian American residents comprise at least 3% of the population.