A while ago, in one of his dumber moments, the urban economist Ed Glaeser wrote a report for the Manhattan Institute called “The End of the Segregated Century.” The headline came from the finding that all-white neighborhoods – meaning, literally, neighborhoods in which there existed not a single non-white person – were basically extinct for the first time in American history. Glaeser admitted that, of course, there were a good deal of the opposite type of neighborhoods – ones in which there were literally, or virtually, no white people – but minimized them by pointing out that most had declining populations. The emphasized takeaway was “the end of segregation.”*

Many people at the time pointed out that this conclusion was exceedingly silly. More recently, though, Dan Keating at Wonkblog took Glaeser’s data and drew a much more insightful, and important, conclusion: Segregation still exists, but “The End of the Segregated Century” does show that it’s changed in a really dramatic way over the last 40 years. Where once residential segregation was more or less symmetrical – over here we have overwhelmingly white neighborhoods, and over here overwhelmingly black ones – contemporary segregation is asymmetrical. White neighborhoods are increasingly mixed with Latino and Asian families (and a handful of African-American ones), while black neighborhoods are still basically all-black.

Keating illustrates that change by highlighting neighborhoods that are more than 85% white or 85% black in various cities around the country:

Screen Shot 2015-01-05 at 2.39.03 PM Screen Shot 2015-01-05 at 2.39.14 PM Screen Shot 2015-01-05 at 2.39.25 PM

I had actually made a very similar series of maps before this was published, although I think Keating’s are easier to read. In mine, every neighborhood is colored according to a “segregation index,” which is just the percentage of residents who belong to the area’s largest racial/ethnic group. As a result, you can’t directly see which areas are mostly white and which are mostly black, but you can see a bit more detail in changes over time.



Every decade since 1980 has seen the gradual integration of neighborhoods all over Cook County, turning the heart of the Chicago metro area from a place where the typical neighborhood was 90-95%, or more, of a single ethnicity, to one in which those kind of communities are relatively rare.

Except for black neighborhoods.

Which have remained almost uniformly 95%+ black.

Ironically, this shift is partly explained by another Glaeser paper. In “The Rise and Decline of the American Ghetto,” he and another economist named Jacob Vigdor use data on housing prices, levels of segregation, and legal context to suggest that the forces that built and sustained black-white segregation from the early 20th century until about 1970 are different than the forces that sustain it today.

The theory goes that up until 1970, segregation was enforced through what Glaeser and Vigdor call “collective action racism”: that is, white people got together and decided to, say, legally prohibit the sale of homes in white neighborhoods to blacks, or use the housing finance system to keep blacks in certain communities, or build public housing in such a way that it maintained segregation. Outside of the legal system, whites organized formally and informally to intimidate blacks who moved into their neighborhoods. Sometimes, that looked like racist signs and vandalism. Sometimes, it looked like bombings, beatings, and riots.

This is the polite version.
This is the polite version.

But the Civil Rights era eviscerated a lot of the legal and financial systems that kept blacks and other non-whites out of white neighborhoods. (Even if it didn’t create new systems to reverse those wrongs.) Outright discrimination on the part of realtors or home sellers became much more risky. (Although it’s still quite common.) Slowly, it became unacceptable – from the point of view of both white peers and the police – to respond to a black person in your neighborhood by throwing a bomb through their window. (Though high-profile segregatory violence continued through the 1970s and beyond, especially around the issue of school integration.)

What didn’t change, however, was whites’ overwhelming preference not to live around black people. So segregation has declined only very slowly, thanks to what Glaeser and Vigdor call “decentralized racism.” By “decentralized racism,” they mean essentially shunning: whites won’t move to black neighborhoods, and they will flee their own neighborhoods if too many black people move into them. One result is that while in the pre-Civil Rights era, blacks paid more for housing than whites – because they were forced into relatively small, overcrowded neighborhoods with an inadequate supply of homes – today, whites pay more than blacks, in part because whites bid up prices in the limited number of communities with a sufficiently small number of black people. (Raising the possibility of racial arbitrage – a possibility which, as we discussed, has so far gone unfulfilled, because non-blacks apparently really don’t want to live around black people.)

Another way to visualize this is to show the change in the “segregation index” from 2000 to 2010.


Despite noticeable shifts all over Cook County – from the desegregating suburbs in the southwest, west, northwest, and north, to the increasingly-segregated (white) North Side, (Latino) far Southwest Side, and (white-becoming-black) south suburbs, the established black ghettos on the city’s West and South Sides are almost totally unchanged.

Why does this matter? There are a number of things, but one in particular, I think, is that it suggests one of the problems with segregation: the issue is not just that white and black people live in different neighborhoods, but that black neighborhoods are shunned in a way that other ethnic enclaves – from Pilsen to Chinatown to the Indian-Pakistani Devon Avenue – are not, and in a way with really powerful negative consequences for successful businesses, schools, wealth building through homeownership, and so on. This is one reason that I’m so allergic to the rhetoric around violence in Chicago: treating the entire black South and West Sides as if they were “war zones” – places where you take your life in your hands just visiting – is one of the main ways that the shunning of black neighborhoods is openly justified among whites and other non-blacks. It’s why a bunch of ten-year-olds wrote an open letter to the rest of the city begging you not to be afraid of them.

There are, however, a handful of places where black neighborhoods are integrating in Chicago. I’ll go over them in more detail in a future post.

* It’s a pattern that recurs with some frequency: Glaeser does excellent empirical work, and then draws odd conclusions from the very useful numbers he finds.