Racial segregation is still high in U.S. suburbs

"If segregation is our measure, we have a long way to go before we are truly a post-racial society," says Daniel Lichter. (Credit: Jeremy Brooks/Flickr)

Racial segregation in the United States is declining between neighborhoods, but it hasn’t gone away. It’s just manifesting itself in other ways.

While segregation from neighborhood to neighborhood (micro-segregation) is decreasing within metropolitan areas, suburban communities increasingly are becoming racially homogenous (macro-segregation), a new study suggests.

“We just can’t get too excited by recent declines in neighborhood segregation,” says Daniel Lichter, professor of policy analysis and management and professor of sociology at Cornell University. “The truth is neighborhood segregation still remains high in America, and our study also shows that segregation is increasingly occurring at different scales of geography.

Ferguson, Missouri

“Let’s look at the community of Ferguson, Missouri, for example,” says Lichter, who is also director of the Cornell Population Center. “Whites have left Ferguson mostly for white suburban communities even farther from the urban core that is St. Louis.

“The racial composition of Ferguson went from about 25 percent black to 67 percent black in a 20-year period. Though one would be correct in saying that segregation decreased between neighborhoods in Ferguson, the change simply reflects massive white depopulation.

For the study, published in the American Sociological Review, researchers analyzed US Census data from 1990-2010 and examined micro, macro, and total racial segregation across 222 metropolitan areas.

“One of our major findings is that suburban communities are becoming more segregated from each other,” Lichter says. “Cities and communities—not just neighborhoods—matter. Over the past decade or so, some suburban communities have become more racially diverse, even as whites have moved out to other growing suburbs farther from the city or have moved back to the city as part of the gentrification process.

“In the late 1970s, there was a famous study titled, ‘Chocolate City, Vanilla Suburbs,’ which highlighted that blacks generally lived in large cities while whites lived in suburban communities. Our study shows that minority population growth in the suburbs has fundamentally shifted historic patterns of residential segregation in this country.”


Consistent with previous studies, the new research shows the highest level of macro-segregation is between blacks and whites, the lowest is between Asians and whites, and the level between Hispanics and whites occupies an intermediate position.

“If segregation is our measure, we have a long way to go before we are truly a post-racial society,” says Lichter, who noted that suburban communities use housing, taxation, and zoning laws to include or exclude racial and ethnic minorities.

Researchers from Mississippi State University are coauthors of the study.

Source: Cornell University