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Segregation of blacks at record low, think tank report says

January 30, 2012 |  2:33 pm

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Segregation of African Americans in the United States has declined to its lowest point in more than a century, but social and income disparities persist, according to a Manhattan Institute report released Monday.

The report, coming days before the nation prepares to observe Black History Month, tracks how housing has changed over time. It was written by two fellows of the conservative think tank: Harvard University economics professor Edward Glaeser and Duke University professor Jacob Vigdor.

The research looked at every census since 1890 and found a range of factors -- such as changes in law, better access to credit, blacks' movement into formerly white suburbs and even some gentrification of formerly all-black ghettos -- that have played a role in the decline of segregation.

But that decline hasn’t brought the kind of opportunities and social healing that once seemed implicit, particularly in the 1960s civil rights movement. “The 1960s were the heyday of racial segregation,” the pair say in their report.

“During those years, segregation seemed a likely cause of many of the troubles afflicting African Americans. Segregation was so enormous, and so unfair, that it seemed to create a separate and unequal experience for African Americans everywhere. During those years, the fight against housing segregation seemed to offer the possibility that once the races mixed more readily, all would be well.

“Forty years later, we know that this dream was a myth. There is every reason to relish the fact that there is more freedom in housing today than 50 years ago and to applaud those who fought to create that change. Yet we now know that eliminating segregation was not a magic bullet.”

“The difficult lesson of these decades is that society is complicated and single solutions rarely solve everything,” the authors write. “While the decline in segregation remains good news, far too many Americans still lack the opportunity to achieve meaningful success.”

While there has been improvement for African Americans on many fronts, the most recent census also paints a picture of how much further there is to go. For example, the annual media income of black households in 2010 was $32,068, a decline of 3.2% from 2009. More than one in four African American households, or 27.4%, remained below the poverty level.

Anyone who has studied the history of the 20th century recognizes how much more integrated American culture has become, whether on television, in newspapers or just everyday life. One such measure is voting participation.

The share of eligible blacks who voted in the 2010 congressional election increased to 12%, compared with 11% in 2006. On the presidential level, the successful bid by Barack Obama to become the first African American elected to the White House energized voters of all groups, but especially blacks. The turnout of African Americans of all ages was up about five percentage points.

About four out of five, or 82%, of African Americans 25 and older had a high school diploma in 2010, while just 18% had a bachelor’s degree or higher. Education is often a way of measuring upward mobility, since more education translates into better jobs.

Although not all-embracing, housing statistics do indicate some trends.

“The most standard segregation measure shows that American cities are now more integrated than they’ve been since 1910,” the academics write in their findings. “Segregation rose dramatically with black migration to cities in the mid-twentieth century. On average, this rise has been entirely erased by integration since the 1960s.

“All-white neighborhoods are effectively extinct,” they stated. “A half-century ago, one-fifth of America’s urban neighborhoods had exactly zero black residents. Today, African American residents can be found in 199 out of every 200 neighborhoods nationwide. The remaining neighborhoods are mostly in remote rural areas or in cities with very little black population.”

In part, segregation was changed by government and courts eliminating, for example, restrictive covenants that prevented African Americans from moving into certain neighborhoods. Looser credit, fostered by government policies, some of which have been under attack during the current economic downturn, made it easier for lower-income African Americans to get mortgages.

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-- Michael Muskal

Photo: The Rev. Martin Luther King Jr. leads a 1965 protest march in Boston against slum housing conditions and racial segregation of the schools. Credit: Bettmann / Corbis

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