The Washington PostDemocracy Dies in Darkness

Why whites don’t understand black segregation

Over the past 20 years, whites and blacks have experienced opposite trends in segregation. Asians, Hispanics and blacks are moving into historically white neighborhoods. Vastly fewer whites live surrounded by just other white people. Whites look around and see multi-ethnic neighbors. They perceive expanded opportunity and integration because that is what they see. And they think everyone else is experiencing the same things.

But a Washington Post analysis of Census data shows that the experience in historically African American neighborhoods of major cities has been far different, as they have remained heavily isolated.  Whites, Asians and Hispanics are not moving into those neighborhoods, and blacks who remain there experience persistent segregation.

Indeed, nearly all-white neighborhoods in big cities are now virtually extinct. Nearly all-black neighborhoods, on the other hand, are still commonplace.

So, while others see expanded opportunities and greater equality, African Americans in those places experience ongoing isolation -- and the challenges that come with it. Those different life experiences yield different perceptions about racial equality and inclusion in a fair system of government.

National Trend

In the county's 100 largest cities, blacks and whites two decades ago were equally likely to live in neighborhoods where more than 85 percent of their neighbors looked like them. 

Since then, the share of whites living in isolation has dropped much faster than for African Americans, the Post analysis found. African Americans in those cities are now almost twice as likely to be racially isolated. In several large cities, the situation is much worse.

Chicago and Cook County, Ill.

For example, in the city of Chicago, the share of whites in nearly all-white neighborhoods dropped from 45 percent in 1990 down to 12 percent as of 2010. But for African Americans, it has hardly changed. The share living in racial isolation declined from 79 percent only down to 70 percent over those two decades. The vast majority are still in isolated neighborhoods.

And the pattern is little better in the surrounding suburb of Cook County.  The share of whites living in nearly all-white neighborhoods  plummeted from 59 percent down to 20 percent. But, once again, black isolation barely budged. It dropped from 70 percent only to 55 percent, with still a vast majority of African Americans in segregation. In fact, a map of nearly all-black neighborhoods (the blue color below) shows that they expanded across the city line into the county over those decades. The overwhelmingly white areas (in red) mostly disappeared.

St. Louis City and County, Mo.

The trend is worse in St. Louis city and county, including Ferguson. In the city, the share of whites living in nearly all-white areas dropped from 64 percent to 29 percent. But for blacks, that number dropped from 69 percent only to 54 percent. Large (blue) segregated zones remain.

In the surrounding county, the number of predominantly black neighborhoods (shown in blue) expanded significantly. The population grew and the share of African Americans living in segregation increased from 16 percent to 29 percent. Meanwhile, a majority of whites in the county still live in all-white enclaves, a far worse situation than in Cook County.

Washington, D.C. and Prince George’s, Md.

That expansion of suburban segregation also exists on the border of the District of Columbia in Prince George’s County. Nearly all-white neighborhoods within the District virtually disappeared over the past 20 years, with the white population living in such places dropping from 22 percent down to three percent. But a majority of blacks in the District still live in racial isolation -- with the limited opportunity it produces.

White flight led to the disappearance of nearly all-white neighborhoods in Prince George’s County. Meanwhile, the map shows a vast expansion of the African American segregated neighborhoods, now stretching the entire width of the county. The share of blacks living in segregation in Prince George’s grew.

That combination of expanding suburban black segregation and persistent urban black segregation around the nation’s capital very closely resembles the pattern in St. Louis.

Other cities

The cases described here are not outliers or accidents. Many major cities have great disparities between the trend of whites living in more diverse neighborhoods and blacks living with persistent segregation. Detroit is one of the few cities that actually has increasing black segregation.

Here are some other cities where a majority of blacks still live in racial isolation: