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Has America Overcome Segregation?

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On March 31, 2008, Al Gore, the Nobel Prize winning rock star of the public policy world, announced that just as America succeeded in-- putting the first man on the moon, stopping fascism in Europe during World War II, and overcoming segregation-- America can now commit to achieving the same success with tackling problems related to climate-change.  No one challenged Gore on this statement.


Has America really overcome segregation, in the same way as it has put a man on moon? Is it an achievement that is done and over with? In the 21st century, several cities and suburbs in America remain highly segregated. African Americans face, by far, the highest levels of residential segregation, and Latinos, especially lower income Latinos, live in segregated conditions too.  U.S public schools are re-segregating to alarming levels throughout the length and breadth of the nation. Schools are re-segregating most rapidly in the South. In some parts of the country, Latino students today face higher levels of school segregation than even African American students did before the Brown v. Board of Education desegregation decision of 1954.


One measure of residential segregation is the dissimilarity index, measuring how apart whites and non-whites are in a city or region. Chicago city has a dissimilarity index of 87 for African Americans. What this means is that 87% of whites in the city would have to move to another neighborhood in order to achieve an even distribution of whites and African Americans in Chicago.  This reflects an extremely high level of residential segregation of African Americans from their white fellow-citizens.


In New York City, African Americans have a dissimilarity index of 85, and Latinos of 70. In Washington, DC, African Americans face a dissimilarity index of 82.  In Atlanta, this index is 84 for African Americans and 65 for Latinos; in Philadelphia it is 81 for African Americans and 67 for Latinos; in Houston, it is 76 and 62 for African Americans and Latinos respectively; and in Dallas, it is 72 and 65.


In Miami, the dissimilarity index is 80 for African Americans, and in Baltimore, Boston, and Milwaukee it is 75, 76, and 71, respectively. You can look up the levels of segregation for U.S. cities and metropolitan areas from this Census website.


Census data reveal that residential segregation has decreased since 1970. Much of this decrease is the result of there now being a smaller share of neighborhoods that are exclusively white or predominantly white. It is a positive step towards living as one nation, indivisible, that non-whites have started to live in what used to be exclusively white neighborhoods. Many of these pure white neighborhoods had been artificially created by violence, intimidation, statute, and U.S. public policies from around the early part of the 20th century till well into half of the century.


While we can celebrate having overcome intense prejudices and exclusion of the past, it is sobering to learn that between 1970 and 2000, the proportion of neighborhoods in which African Americans were the majority of the residents actually increased. This suggests a greater concentration of blacks in black areas, even as white areas were opening up to a few blacks moving in there. The declines in segregation are most noticeable in communities with small African American populations. In the older Northeastern and Midwestern industrial cities, segregation levels for African Americans have remained high. America’s suburbs have also become highly segregated, with the emergence of suburbs that are predominantly black.

Segregation between Latinos and whites seems to be increasing.  Some studies show that Latino populations—especially recent immigrants--- are now dispersing to newer locations, other than the traditional gateway cities for Latino immigrants. While this is true, a majority of Latinos in poverty live in majority-Latino neighborhoods. Mexican Americans, in particular, face high levels of segregation; and for this group of Latinos, the segregated pattern of living seems to have continued over time, and across generations.

Why is this important? When so many members of the nation’s two largest minority groups live in segregated neighborhoods, they are not connected to the normal economic, social and political opportunities available to other Americans.  When lower income minority families live in segregated neighborhoods, their children must often go to inferior quality schools, their streets are not maintained as well as in other types of neighborhoods, they are exposed to more crime in their neighborhoods, they receive less police protection, they have worse access to public transportation and to jobs, and they lack access to good medical facilities. Furthermore, their concentration in a few neighborhoods makes it easy for predatory operators like payday lenders, predatory subprime mortgage lenders, and retail stores (such as grocery stores) that charge higher prices for the same or inferior products to target these families for their predatory practices which leave these families financially worse off.

It was segregation that made redlining possible, and it is segregation that has made the recent reverse-redlining possible. Under reverse-redlining, predatory lenders have targeted segregated minority neighborhoods for their abusive practices like over-appraisal of property value, exorbitant interest rates and fees, non-disclosure of terms, and not properly recording mortgage payments that the homeowner has made.

When Martin Luther King Jr. said that “we are caught in an inescapable network of mutuality, tied in a single garment of destiny” and that “whatever affects one directly, affects all indirectly,” he was probably not talking about the current subprime meltdown and the global financial crisis it has led to. But that is a powerful example of the network of mutuality, and why segregation and abuses of a segregated minority population affects us all.

Similarly, all Americans pay the price for inferior schools in segregated neighborhoods, the alarming school dropout rates, and poorly educated students. U.S. employers are turning to the labor force of other countries, in the absence of competitively skilled workers within our shores.


The U.S. has the highest incarceration rate in the world today, and segregated minority neighborhoods directly contribute to this. There are few employment opportunities available for residents of such neighborhoods and crime levels are high. Furthermore, youth from impoverished communities, even when they are innocent, are more easily rounded up by the police and sent to prison because they lack access to adequate legal services. With job prospects being so poor for people released from prison, recidivism is high.


The rising level of brutality represented by the growing incarceration rates—brutality of criminals and law-enforcers (police and prison guards) alike—ties our entire society in a single garment of a diminished humanity.

If these trends are allowed to continue, the U.S. could easily become a place like or worse than Brazil, with a severe division between the mainstream and those who live in slums or favelas, and where brutality against poor, minority children is commonplace. Early symptoms of what is in Brazil a full-blown syndrome are already visible in the U.S. Our criminal justice system is increasingly putting children in prisons. The number of juvenile offenders in state prisons more than doubled between 1985 and 1997, at a time when the incidence of serious and violent crimes by youth was decreasing. The Children’s Defense Fund in the U.S. has termed these alarming trends “The Cradle to Prison Pipeline®.

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Nandinee Kutty is and economist and a public policy consultant. She has a Ph.D. in economics from the Maxwell School, Syracuse University. She served as a faculty member at Cornell University for seven years, where she taught courses on policy (more...)
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