Man walks into a column, no.43: Segregated

The typical US neighbourhood is much more ethnically mixed than it was a decade ago. Last week the Washington Post published a two part analysis of the United States 2010 Census, which revealed a sharp decline in the number of residential areas that are ‘highly segregated’ or, to put it rather less technically, almost entirely full of people of the same race or ethnicity (85 per cent or more from one ‘group’ – there’s also an interactive map).

This is unsurprisingly the result of massive growth in the number of Hispanic and Asian residents: Hispanics accounted for more than half of the growth in the US population between 2000 and 2010. There’s been a steep rise in the number of what some researchers are calling ‘global neighbo[u]rhoods’. In Washington DC, for example, just one in three neighbourhoods is highly segregated, compared to more than half ten years ago. The biggest drop has been in Northern Virginia, where only one in 20 neighbourhoods is almost exclusively racially similar.

One of the things I find especially interesting about this analysis is how heavily focused on race and ethnicity it is. Despite, or maybe because of, decades and decades of immigration, Americans obsess about race often, it seems, at the expense of the many other ways in which people and communities can be segregated from one another. (Okay, I expect the centuries of oppression have something to do with it too, and indeed the picture is not a universally rosy one of consistent diversification: the analysis also shows that whilst places that were predominantly white are becoming less so, many majority black neighbourhoods are remaining that way.)

I remember many years ago, as a fledgling researcher at OPM, conducting a study on behalf of the then Office for the Deputy Prime Minister (remember that?) looking at future trends in segregation and polarisation. Amazingly, thanks to the benign indifference of web managers at the Department for Communities and Local Government, the report from the study is still available online (links to a Word doc).

Now I wouldn’t for a minute want to pretend that this research met the lofty standards of academic studies, but it did at least openly acknowledge that segregation is a complex and contested concept, especially when one expands the meaning of the term to include social as well as residential/spatial overlap.

So for example ‘communities’ can be internally segregated (for example by age) just as much as they can be segregated from one another. As for what causes segregation: well, how long have you got? Structural factors – income, housing, education – mix with (some degree of) personal choice.

With all this said, it would be interesting to know how recent trends in the UK compare to those in the US, wouldn’t it, but unfortunately we’ll have to wait until September next year for the first findings from the 2011 Census. For the moment there’s Nissa Finney and Ludi Simpson’s seminal myth-buster ‘Sleepwalking to segregation?’ published in 2009. To my shame I haven’t read the full thing but the freely-available summary (PDF) is packed with facts.

Time to return to my middle class enclave, where we’re blessed with people of every colour and creed, enjoy all the world’s cuisines on our doorstep, and respect every system of belief known to man. And where everyone works in the ‘creative sector’, is inordinately wealthy by national (let alone global) standards, and has free-range children with far too much hair.

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