Are ethnic neighborhoods the same as segregation?

We had a discussion in about how these maps show “segregation” within cities. Apparently they are somewhat shocked that there isn’t a perfect ethnic mix within each neighborhood and we discussed if the government should do something to make some sort of ethnic outreach/integration policy.

What do you think about the maps? Is this ethnic neighborhood thing even a bad thing?

Certainly no informed person could be surprised to learn that large cities in America have black ghettos. Many of them have distinct neighborhoods for those of Mexican or Chinese descent, or other ethnic groups. It has always been thus; there has never been a time in American history when all ethnic groups mixed together without paying any attention to ethnicity.

It is a bad thing when governments force members of one race to live in a certain area. Also a bad thing when members of one race are afraid to visit other neighborhoods or areas, because of the fear of ethnic violence. But that is not the situation we live in now.

The situation we live in now results from economic decision-making. 50 years ago, the percentage of white people living in America’s big cities was higher. Bad leadership and decision making lead to high crime, high drug use, lousy schools, and other problems. In many cities, almost everyone who could afford to do so fled. This would include both whites and blacks and all other races. But whites on average were the richest, and blacks the poorest. So the population that fled the cities tended to be white, while those who got trapped in the decaying interior cities tended to be black.

In the past generation, many cities have had success with “gentrification”. (Pushing the poor, mostly minority population out of an area and bringing wealthy, mostly white people in.) However, that process tends to reclaim only small portions of a city. Vast black ghettos still exist, and politicians show little interest in acknowledging the problems that poor blacks face, much less fixing those problems.

I find it more surprising that anyone is surprised by this lack of integration, and I’m kinda horrified that anyone would want the government to get involved to fix this non-problem.

It seems to me it is basic psychology and sociology that people are attracted to folks similar to them and want to be in places where similar people are attracted. It’s not strictly racism fueling these desires – they may be drawn to those people and places because of a shared culture, cuisine, friends and family, or language, and the pleasure and comfort that come from these pocket communities. Such company and places are great cures for homesickness or times gone by. To have perfect ethnic mix, you would have to devalue all these things. Why would anyone do this, especially when this ideal of a perfect ethnic mix has fewer benefits?

To be clear, I’m not opposed to ethnic neighborhoods. I think that many of them are great. I once visited the family of my freshman-year roommate, who lived in a Vietnamese neighborhood in the L.A. suburbs. While the standard of living was clearly lower than the national average, the people there seemed quite happy and I see no reason to oppose the existence of such a place.

I am opposed to the existence of black ghettos because life there is so dismal. I’d like to see the residents have the opportunity to escape. Whether they escaped to a black neighborhood or to an ethnically mixed neighborhood would not matter.

Broadly speaking there are two types of segregation throughout the history of the United States. Segregation du jure is backed by law. i.e. Laws requiring separate facilities for whites and blacks is an example of segregation du jure. Next we have de facto segregation which occurs when custom dictates behavior rather than any official mandate. If you walk into an American high school you’ll typically see people sitting at tables with others of the same race. This is de facto segregation. So, yes, separate neighborhoods are certainly a type of segregation. I don’t think it’s the same as du jure segregation though.


First a pedantic point - a wealthy area that is all one minority group is just as much a ghetto as poor neighborhood.

Second, it seems your issue is more self-segregation or de facto segregation by class than by race or ethnicity. Correct?

Segregation of blacks in American cities was more severe than than
any other ethnicity. This is measured using the dissimilarity index, which runs from perfectly evenly mixed at 0.0 to completely segregated at 1.0. According to a paper by Douglass Massey (here quoted by Ta-Nehisi Coates):

You’re leaving aside all sorts of ways in which blacks actually couldn’t flee to the suburbs, regardless of their ability to afford it. It’s rather amazing that we’ve gone this far into the thread with no mention of the long history of racist lending practices by banks, such as redlining and blockbusting, or the mob violence against any attempts by blacks to move into towns like Cicero, IL. Just because there’s no law keeping blacks segregated, doesn’t mean that it’s “the black kids sit at the same cafeteria table” benign.

As further evidence that it wasn’t just a case of blacks having less money on average, I turn again to Ta-Nehisi Coates, this time quoting a Pew Charitable Trusts report by Patrick Sharkey:

Our society has done a lot to keep black people even middle-class ones, surrounded by poverty to a much greater extent than white people.

There’s also the problem of all the poor people who lived there and who can no longer afford the neighborhood they’ve lived in for years. They have to go somewhere. And they lose the social networks they rely on when they have to uproot themselves and find a new home in a neighborhood that hasn’t yet been gentrified.