Using tract-level census data for 24 large metro areas, my co-authors and I examined whether neighborhood race conforms to the traditional 20th century pattern of non-white (largely black) city centers and white suburbs. We also observed to what extent a neighborhood’s racial and economic makeup matches its surrounding neighborhoods, independent of distance to city centers. Results show substantial sorting across neighborhoods by race and income. The maps below illustrate some of these patterns for four metropolitan areas: Atlanta, Detroit, Los Angeles and Washington D.C. These metros differ in their underlying spatial structure – notably the share of metro jobs located in the central city versus suburbs and natural geographic features – as well as racial composition. While specific patterns vary across metro areas, and by ethnic group within metro areas, some common themes emerge.
On average, neighborhoods near their city’s central business district (CBD) have larger shares of poor and black residents, and in some cities, larger shares of Hispanics. Asians tend to live farther from their CBD. But distance doesn’t tell the whole story: the maps reveal asymmetric patterns of location by race. For instance, in Atlanta neighborhoods just south of the CBD are more heavily black than neighborhoods just north of the CBD. A similar pattern exists throughout the city of Atlanta and the surrounding suburbs. In Washington D.C., the divide is east-west, with blacks dominating the eastern side of the District of Columbia as well as the adjacent suburb of Prince George’s County, Md.
Geographic scale matters: How far must you walk to meet someone of another race?
The most commonly used racial segregation metric, the dissimilarity index, measures the concentration of races within small geographic areas, typically census tracts (approximately 5,000 residents). Tract-level dissimilarity indices tell us what share of how one racial group would have to move to another tract in order to achieve a uniform distribution of races across a metro area. But the maps reveal that racial concentration exists across census tracts, as well as within them: census tracts form larger clusters of racially similar areas. Two different larger scale spatial patterns are apparent. Heavily black census tracts tend to form a few very large blocs within metro areas: the southern half of Atlanta, a central chunk of Detroit, South Central Los Angeles, and the eastern half of Washington D.C. By contrast, while largely Hispanic and Asian tracts also cluster with similar tracts, they tend to form smaller clusters scattered across the metro areas. An exception is Los Angeles, where majority Hispanic tracts form a large bloc in the center/northeast of the metro.
And while one might argue that residential racial uniformity is not 100 percent about prejudice, obviously at the core it is very much about prejudice, historical and contemporary. But hey, I’m sure that liberal whites moving their kids to the suburbs because the schools are “better” and just happen to also be nearly all white will totally lead to racial justice going forward!