Editorial: 21st century segregation

Published 12:00 am Monday, April 4, 2011

Which do you think is the most segregated city in America? Birmingham, Ala.? Jackson, Miss.? Columbia, S.C.? Richmond, Va., or some other bastion of the old South?
Not even close.
The most segregated urban area in the United States, according to one study of 2010 Census data, is Milwaukee, Wisc. In fact, of the 10 most segregated cities, none is in the South. The other nine are: New York, Chicago, Detroit, Cleveland, Buffalo, St. Louis, Cincinnati, Philadelphia and Los Angeles. Peruse a list of the largest 100 metro areas ranked from most-segregated to least, and the first Southern city to appear is Birmingham, at No. 16. Atlanta is ranked 41, while the Charlotte-Gastonia-Concord area comes in at 62 and Raleigh is way down the list at 87.
The rankings were compiled by CensusScope.org and the University of Michiganís Social Science Data Analysis Network. They are based on a sociological measure called a ědissimilarity index,î which calculates the number of people from one race who would have to move for races to be equally distributed across a particular demographic area.
In an interesting commentary on the rankings at salon.com, writer Daniel Denvir notes: ěWe may think of segregation as a matter of ancient Southern history: lunch counter sit-ins, bus boycotts and Ku Klux Klan terrorism. But as the census numbers remind us, Northern cities have long had higher rates of segregation than in the South,î where whites and blacks tended to live in closer proximity, even during the Jim Crow era of separate and unequal.
Thatís not to argue that race relations are more harmonious in the South than elsewhere, and the study is looking at one particular way of crunching the numbers. Urban demographics reflect many different factors such as the local economy, education and income levels, historic migration and immigration trends as well as the impact of recent inflows of Latinos and Asian-Americans. Cities like Milwaukee and Detroit also have seen population changes as manufacturing losses left deep pockets of poverty in the central city, while higher paying jobs moved elsewhere. And as weíve seen with the recent battle over busing in Wake County (and past conflicts in our own community), racial tensions often surface over school districts and educational opportunities.
The most important conclusion isnít that the North ó or Midwest or West ó is more segregated than the South, but that race continues to define ó or limit, some would argue ó where many of us live, work, worship and attend school. Such boundaries are slowly dissolving, but race continues to be a stark dividing line in many parts of America.