America is diversifying, but Rust Belt cities lag
The number of areas in the United States that are almost totally occupied by members of one racial or ethnic group decreased dramatically over the last decade, a sign that diversity in the country is spreading far beyond urban cores.
At the same time, many American cities remain segregated between racial groups, according to data from the decennial U.S. census, an indication of stagnant population growth and a legacy of racist laws, some overturned almost 60 years ago, that echo in population trends to this day.
Northern cities, especially in the Rust Belt and the Northeast, remain the most racially segregated, according to data compiled by William Frey, a senior demographer at the Brookings Institution, while Western and Sun Belt cities are the least segregated.
Milwaukee is the most racially divided city in America, Frey’s research shows. The city earned a segregation score of 78 out of 100 — meaning that 78 percent of the city’s African American and white populations would have to move to be distributed equally across neighborhoods.
New York, Chicago, Cleveland, Detroit and St. Louis all showed segregation scores higher than 70. Buffalo, Philadelphia, Cincinnati and Pittsburgh rounded out the top 10 cities most segregated.
Many of the same cities appear among the cities most segregated between Hispanic Americans and whites, though Sun Belt cities with historically large Hispanic or Latino populations are also among the most divided. Los Angeles is the most segregated American city between whites and Hispanics, and Miami lands at No. 5 on the list.
The scores are a sign that minority populations, relegated long ago to certain neighborhoods by racist “red-lining” practices and laws, are still highly concentrated in those areas. Frey said many Northern and Rust Belt cities have stagnated or lost population since those practices were outlawed in 1968, meaning the populations that remain are largely older and more likely to stay in their existing homes.
“In the northern metros, those old neighborhood patterns are much more stuck in place,” Frey said in an interview. “It has to do with where people grow up, it has to do with old patterns of discrimination.”
On the other hand, cities that have attracted new residents in recent years are adding people of all ethnic groups without the stigma of those past racist practices.
Honolulu is the least racially segregated metro area in the nation for both Black and Hispanic residents. Black residents are most likely to be integrated among white neighbors in Tucson Ariz.; Las Vegas; Raleigh, N.C.; Riverside, Calif.; and Phoenix, all cities that have boomed in recent decades.
Hispanic residents are most likely to be spread evenly between neighborhoods in Jacksonville, Fla.; Seattle; Portland, Ore.; St. Louis; and Virginia Beach, Va.
“If it’s growing rapidly, that may make a difference,” Frey said of the most diverse metro areas.
More broadly, the changing nature of the economy, long before the pandemic, has attracted workers from Northern cities back to the South and the Sun Belt, said Cynthia Buckley, a sociologist and demographic expert at the University of Illinois Urbana-Champaign. The availability of jobs — from livestock processing and manufacturing to technology and white-collar work — has enticed minority populations to other parts of the country.
“Urban areas used to be the place you would go for diversity,” Buckley said. “There is much more diversity of destination available across racial and ethnic identifiers. Urban centers suddenly are not the only safe place for population diversity.”
In the last U.S. census a decade ago, 565 of America’s 3,143 counties and county equivalents were home to populations that were more than 90 percent dominated by one ethnic group — usually whites, almost entirely in small rural areas. In the intervening decade, that number fell to just 133 extremely racially homogenous counties, Buckley said.
Many of the counties that fell off the list are not suddenly utopias of racial diversity and harmony, but the signs of progress in diversification are widespread.
“There’s a new geography of diversity, and rather than thinking about it as something that is threatening or problematic, we need to be considering what’s enabling this, what’s positive about this and how can we harness the potential of regional diversity as a way of strengthening democracy,” Buckley said. “As opposed to thinking it’s some sort of challenge to cultural traditions that never really existed to begin with.”
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