The Manhattan Institute recently released a report that concluded that racial segregation in U.S. metropolitan areas is at its lowest in a century. Examining the period of 1910 to 2010, the authors analyzed neighborhood patterns and concluded that segregation has hit an historic low. Using a common measure of analyzing segregation called the dissimilarity index, they noted that racial groups are more evenly distributed in our neighborhoods and suggest that all-white neighborhoods no longer exist or are limited to a few areas, such as the South Side of Chicago or the East Side of Cleveland or Detroit.
I do not quibble with the data. As optimistic as I tend to be about race relations, I consider this to be good news. Sharing the same geographic space is the first step to crossing racial lines in friendship and building inclusive communities. However, I do not believe that the demographics have shifted because of an intentional desire for racial integration. Given the current economy and the growing numbers of middle class blacks and browns, it is just harder for spatial racism to exist. Spatial racism is a form of racism that depicts a pattern of housing development in which whites create racially and economically segregated suburbs or gentrified areas of cities. The report only tells us that white flight has decreased when blacks and browns move into middle class neighborhoods. Why this is so, is left for further investigation.
My early experiences, when my family moved to an all-white, rural area, taught me that whites flee from circumstances that bring them into proximity with blacks (and browns). In 1964, when my nine-member family outgrew our three-bedroom home in the city of Cleveland, my parents decided not to "pioneer any causes" by moving into one of the rapidly integrating suburbs bordering Cleveland. Instead, they decided to build a home on a six-acre lot they had purchased years before in a rural area 30 miles outside of Cleveland. Our next-door neighbors were very angry that blacks had moved, not only into town, but right next door to them. They immediately erected a barbed-wire fence that stretched the length of our adjoining properties. On each post of the fence they placed "No Trespassing" signs. They went so far as to fly a Confederate flag.
In 1964, there were a lot more neighborhoods to which whites could flee. It was ironic that our neighbors moved from the East Side of Cleveland because blacks were moving into that area and just happened to pick the same all-white neighborhood to move into that my black family did. Although the metropolitan areas may be more racially integrated, there are still places, most likely in every state, where whites can flee. In Massachusetts, where I currently live, there are five towns that are 100 percent white. What the study tells us is that it is less likely that fleeing to these towns will happen as a result of racism.
We have a long way to go before we turn desegregation into integration. Decreasing white flight is a good start.