Segregation Is Getting Worse in the US. The Bay Area Is No Exception

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 (Deborah Svoboda/KQED)

More than 80% of large metropolitan regions in the United States,  including the Bay Area,  have become more racially segregated in recent decades, with detrimental economic, health and educational outcomes for many communities of color.

That’s according to findings from a UC Berkeley housing study and map released Monday that uses a new methodology to determine the degree of racial segregation in local and regional areas throughout the country. The report goes on to identify vast disparities in income and poverty levels, home values, rent prices and life expectancy between highly segregated communities of color and white communities.

Across the board, segregated white neighborhoods fared the best while segregated Black and Latino neighborhoods fared the worst.

In the Bay Area, for example, life expectancy in largely white neighborhoods (84 years) is more than five years greater than in highly segregated Black and Latino neighborhoods (79 years), the report notes, citing figures from a separate 2019 study, while household incomes and home values are more than double.

But the new report also emphasizes that when Black or Latino people grow up in largely segregated, wealthier white neighborhoods, their life outcomes often improve significantly, underscoring that environment, not race, is in most cases the key determinant of success.

“All of the visible forms of racial inequality that we now recognize — wealth disparities, health disparities, abusive policing, all the disparities in the criminal justice system — they all map to and function because of racial residential segregation,” said report lead author Stephen Menendian, assistant director of the UC Berkeley Othering & Belonging Institute.

A screenshot of the project's interactive segregation map, showing segregation "scores" by census tract in the Bay Area, based on 2010 data. Scores can be viewed by metropolitan area, city or census tract. See the full map here. (Courtesy of the Othering and Belonging Institute)

COVID-19 brought that into stark relief, he noted. The pandemic disproportionately impacted people in highly segregated communities of color, who are more likely to be low-income front-line workers living in crowded housing conditions.

“If you didn't have racial residential segregation, most of those forms of racial inequality could be pretty straightforwardly dealt with,” added Menendian, who is white. “It’s something that has persisted and really not gone away for 50 years.”

That finding flies in the face of the prevailing narrative that the United States has grown increasingly less segregated since the civil rights era, when discrimination in housing was technically outlawed by the Fair Housing Act of 1968. And while the U.S. has grown significantly more racially diverse in the last half-century — largely due to the rapid growth of Latino and Asian populations — it has also become more racially segmented, Menendian said.

“And so, what we have basically in almost every metropolitan area is a sort of balkanization patchwork of enclaves,” he said, noting that political polarization also tends to increase in more segregated regions. “What's different from the 1960s is that there are very few single-race neighborhoods anymore. There are almost no all-white or all-Black neighborhoods. But what has happened is that because of our increased diversity, it's masked the persistence of segregation.”


The report uses a new measurement called the “divergence index,” based on U.S. Census Bureau data, to compare the racial makeup of a small geographic area, like a census tract, with that of a larger surrounding region, like a county or metropolitan area. Applying that methodology, the study ranks all major U.S. cities and metropolitan areas by their levels of segregation.

That approach, Menendian argues, yields a much clearer illustration of racial segregation at the local level than more commonly used measurements that typically compare only a few racial groups within a single larger isolated geographic area.

“It's more accurate because it captures more racial groups and gives you a better sense of the actual level of segregation in a region. And it's more precise because it's more granular. It can give you [segregation] scores in a much smaller level of geography,” Menendian said.

Oakland for instance, is among the most racially diverse cities in the country. But zoom in on the map to specific neighborhoods, and a much different picture emerges of racial isolation in many communities, making it the 14th most segregated city in the country based on the study’s metric.

With the accompanying mapping tool, users can view segregation rates throughout the country between 1980 and 2019 by state, metropolitan region, city, all the way down to census tract.

Contrary to common perceptions of the United States, the report finds the most segregated regions in the country are in the Midwest and mid-Atlantic, followed by the West Coast — most typically in Democratic strongholds like Detroit, New York, Los Angeles and Philadelphia. By contrast, segregation rates are more often lower in more conservative, less urban regions like the Plains, the Mountain West and parts of the South.

“This is not a red state or red metro or red city problem exclusively,” said Craig Gurian, a long-time civil rights lawyer and executive director of the Anti-Discrimination Center. “In fact, blue areas of the country in terms of political affiliation come out quite vividly in terms of high segregation. It's just about everywhere.”

Interestingly, cities with nearby military bases — like Colorado Springs and Killeen, Texas — tend to be the most racially integrated areas in the country.

“These are places where people are brought together in a sustained, deliberate way,” Menendian said. “Because the structures of segregation and racial inequality are so deeply rooted in our society that it takes a sort of deliberate effort.”

The report stops short of directly explaining the underlying causes of residential segregation or proposing specific solutions. It also does not mention certain unintended consequences that have resulted from some integration efforts, such as gentrification and displacement.

But in explaining his findings, Menendian repeatedly alludes to the more than a century of local and federal exclusionary housing policies that have made racial segregation such a deeply entrenched aspect of America’s landscape. In the first half of the 20th century, he said, racial covenants and government-promoted discriminatory bank lending practices, known as redlining, emerged largely in reaction to the rapidly growing Black population in many northern cities during the Great Migration.

And once those blatant forms of discrimination were ostensibly outlawed by the Fair Housing Act in 1968, scores of state and local governments adopted subtler but equally restrictive policies like land preservation ordinances and exclusionary zoning laws, Menendian said. The measures tamped down development, often barring the construction of affordable housing projects. In the Bay Area alone, he added, more than 80% of residential land is zoned exclusively for single-family homes.

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"After the enactment of the Fair Housing Act, municipalities had to find other ways to maintain their racial and economic exclusivity because they could no longer simply permit discrimination on the basis of race,” Menendian said. “So you have all of these alternative mechanisms that have been affirmed by the courts that screen people on the basis of socioeconomic status and perpetuate previous patterns of segregation.”

Unlike the initially successful (but ultimately fleeting) effort to integrate schools in the decades after the U.S. Supreme Court outlawed school segregation, “there was never really the same concerted effort to desegregate neighborhoods,” he added.

The report also notes that in recent decades many people of color have moved out of cities and into suburban communities that were previously largely off limits to them. But that transformation has taken place as the much of the white population of those places has also relocated, leaving many of those communities — places like Ferguson, Missouri, and Antioch in the East Bay — racially segregated and under-resourced.

“So there's been a tremendous evolution in what racial residential segregation looks like,” Menendian said.

America’s sharp racial inequalities won’t be remedied by simply pouring resources into disadvantaged areas, he said, underscoring that the only real fix is more integration.

“You wouldn't have these resource disparities in the first place,” he said. “And instead of concentrating people who have lots of needs, you would intersperse them and they would have more resources."

Menendian said the report is intended to “arm” policymakers and advocates, in the hopes they push for more inclusive housing policies.

“What matters is whether the policies and politicians we support are making decisions that may even unintentionally perpetuate segregation,” he said. “The uprisings of the last few years are not going to die down as long as we have a deeply racially unjust and racially segregated society.”