Census: Segregation hits 100-year lows in most American metro areas

New Census figures released Tuesday shows that 75 percent of US metro areas – most of them in the South and West – saw racial segregation drop to levels not seen for more than a century.

A drive through Atlanta's older "intown" residential areas quickly bears out new Census findings: That segregation by race in the US is fading in many, though far from all, American neighborhoods.

Atlanta is one of several predominantly Southern and Western cities that showed a noticeable integration trend over the last five years as both middle-class blacks and whites moved into each other's neighborhoods, according to the Census Bureau's American Community Survey of 10 million Americans, released Tuesday. The ACS is the largest demographic survey ever done in the United States.

The shift is part of a "complicated story with lots of nuances" that includes changes in social attitudes, the emergence of new housing and economic opportunity, and an age gap that shows young America is dramatically more diverse – and open to diversity – than older generations, says Kenneth Johnson, a demographer at the University of New Hampshire, in Durham.

"Whether you like it or not, [the new figures] show that change is coming," says Mr. Johnson.

Seventy-five percent of the largest 100 US metro areas showed neighborhood segregation rates slipping to levels not seen for more than a century. That's an important finding as race looks to figure in upcoming Congressional redistricting battles.

"Milwaukee, Detroit, and Syracuse, N.Y., were among the most segregated, all part of areas in the Northeast and Midwest known by some demographers as the 'ghetto belt,'" according to the Associated Press. "On the other end of the scale, cities that were least likely to be segregated included Fort Myers, Fla., Honolulu, Atlanta and Miami."

Judging by one of the ultimate arbiters of race relations – where people decide to live – the prominence of racial differences in society appears to be subsiding in a dramatic way, the new Census figures suggest. Ethnic integration failed to show the same kind of gains.

It isn't that the North, which has lagged behind the South and West in integration rates, has dramatically different attitudes on race. Rather, new housing and job opportunities in the South and West have helped to spur integration there.

"The geographic landscape of race suggests the emergence of two Americas – an increasingly racially diverse one and a largely white one," says a new report from the University of New Hampshire's Carsey Institute.

Another factor playing into the overall integration trend is a yawning social divide between young and old, a point highlighted by the fact that 48 percent of babies born in 2009 came home to non-white families. Even in New Hampshire, which has only a 5 percent minority population, 10 percent of births last year were minority children.

Overall, in 500 of 3,100 US counties most of the under-20 population belongs to a minority group. In total across the US, 79 percent of whites live in predominantly white neighborhoods, 44 percent of blacks live in predominantly black neighborhoods, and 45 percent of Hispanics live in predominantly Hispanic neighborhoods, according to the new ACS data.

"This data shows us that there's still a lot of segregation in the country, but it is going down slightly," says William Frey, a demographer at the Brookings Institution.

"It's taken a civil rights movement and several generations to yield noticeable segregation declines for blacks," Mr. Frey adds in an AP interview. "But the still-high levels of black segregation in some areas, coupled with uneven clustering patterns for Hispanics, suggest that the idea of a postracial America has a way to go."

Moreover, a more integrated America makes upcoming redistricting battles, especially in the growing South, more complicated. Federal courts have a civil rights mandate to protect minority voting power, which tends to help Democrats, but such court orders may become more difficult to enforce in places such as urban Atlanta, where blacks and whites increasingly live next door to one another.

Yet growing residential proximity between whites and blacks also contains the potential for exponential progress in bridging America's long-standing racial divide, especially as families from different racial backgrounds share schools and grocery stores.

"All of a sudden these people, even if they live in different social worlds, are going to have issues that are of interest to both of them, new places where their interests overlap," says UNH's Johnson.

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