Study of census data finds only slight reduction of blacks' racial isolation

April 10, 1991|By Stephen K. Doig | Stephen K. Doig,Knight-Ridder News Service

The United States has made only marginal gains in the racial integration of its urban neighborhoods, according to a national study conducted by the Miami Herald of data from the 1990 and 1980 censuses.

More than 9.1 million blacks, 30 percent of the nation's black population, still live in virtual racial isolation -- neighborhoods that are at least 90 percent black. That total is almost identical to the comparable figure for 1980, when 34 percent of blacks lived in such isolation.

And 68 percent of the nation's white population lives in similar nearly all-white neighborhoods, down from 76 percent in 1980.

The study did find some apparent evidence of progress in integration scattered around the country, however. For instance, states with large black populations showed at least some improvement in the percentage of racially isolated blacks.

But most sociologists found little to cheer about in those numbers.

"Any way you look at it, blacks are still very segregated," said University of Chicago sociologist Douglas Massey, co-author of a series of urban racial segregation studies. "At this rate, blacks will stay segregated for a long time."

Bill Tidwell, director of research for the National Urban League, agreed with Mr. Massey's gloomy assessment.

"We've known for some time how intractable the residential segregation phenomenon is," Mr. Tidwell said. "We know now that those historical patterns haven't been broken."

On the positive side, 44 of the nation's top 50 metropolitan areas showed at least some diminution of black isolation.

The Rev. Benjamin L. Hooks, executive director of the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People, was

guardedly optimistic that the study had found evidence of slow improvement.

"For the foreseeable future, segregation is a way of life in residential living," Dr. Hooks said. "There will be no dramatic change quickly, but there are some positive seeds being planted."

Florida is a prime example. Although 31 percent of Florida's black population still lives in nearly all-black enclaves, the isolation figure for 1990 is 11 percentage points better than 1980's mark of 42 percent.

But sociologists warn that some of the apparent improvement may not be real. Rather, it may be caused by an influx of poor Hispanics, most of whom are white, into once predominantly black neighborhoods.

If the neighborhoods remained mixed, the sociologists said, that would be real integration. But too often, a "mixed" neighborhood is simply one in transition from being entirely black to entirely Hispanic.

Given the heavy Hispanic influx in many big cities in the 1980s, the study may be a snapshot of neighborhoods in the throes of ethnic displacement, not in the early stages of integration.

Indeed, the metropolitan areas that showed the most apparent improvement are in Florida, Texas and California, where most of the Hispanic immigration of the 1980s occurred.

The Miami Herald study found strong evidence of continued racial segregation in many other areas of the country.

Among the nation's largest metropolitan areas, a majority of both blacks and whites lives in racial isolation in greater Chicago, St. Louis, Cleveland, Detroit, Baltimore, Philadelphia and Memphis, Tenn.

Considering the situation for both blacks and whites, St. Louis and Cleveland are arguably the most segregated large metropolitan areas in the country. In each, at least two out of every three blacks and four out of every five whites live in racial isolation.

And in the seven-county Greater Detroit area, where 61 percent of blacks are now isolated, black isolation grew 4 percentage points worse since 1980.

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