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Diversity grows, but segregation is still with us

The United States is becoming steadily more ethnically diverse. But it's also as segregated as ever.

America's urban neighborhoods remain largely dominated by one group or another. Even recent moves by minorities into the suburbs have failed to breach the color barrier. At least, that's the preliminary finding based on new figures coming out of Census 2000.

"We're not more integrated — that's the bottom line," says John Logan, director of the Lewis Mumford Center for Comparative Urban and Regional Research. The center, at the University at Albany in New York, has conducted a study based on the handful of state figures released so far by the U.S. Census Bureau.

If the results hold up across the country, the implications could prove enormous. At a minimum, they suggest that four decades of efforts to integrate communities have largely failed. While other research suggests that racial attitudes with regard to housing have lessened, actual settlement patterns remain rooted in the past. Children of the early 21st century will likely grow up isolated from people of other ethnic groups.

These findings have been obscured somewhat by other census numbers indicating America's rapid diversification. For example, the nation's Hispanic population grew a surprising 58 percent from 1990 to 2000. .

"The nation is much more diverse in the year 2000 than it was in 1990," says Jorge del Pinal, chief of special population statistics for the Bureau. "And that diversity is much more complex."

The complexity comes from two factors. First, the census doesn't consider Hispanics a racial group (since they're differentiated by language). So the census puts Spanish-speaking blacks both in the "black" category and the "Hispanic" category. This overlap makes exact comparisons difficult. Should all Hispanics be compared to all blacks or just non-Hispanic blacks?

Further complicating matters, Census 2000 for the first time allowed Americans to put themselves in more than one racial category. Some 98 percent chose only one race. But the slight overlap again makes comparisons difficult.

Demographers will have to sift through this statistical stew to reach clear conclusions. Yet despite this evidence of America's increasing ethnic variety, the view from neighborhoods remains stubbornly segregated.

Take greater Jersey City, N.J., a community of some 610,000 people. As a whole, the city and its suburbs have become more diverse over the past decade. Its Asian population has nearly doubled. Hispanics now represent its largest racial grouping, while non-Hispanic blacks have held their own and non-Hispanic whites have seen their numbers dwindle.

But at the neighborhood level, integration remains a distant dream. Using a "dissimilarity index," which compares the distribution of racial groups over neighborhoods, researchers at the Mumford Center found that it stood at 69 percent for whites and blacks last year. (Any reading over 60 is considered very segregated.) The number had barely moved from the 72 percent recorded in 1990.

Segregation remains less of a problem for Jersey City's whites and Hispanics — as well as its whites and Asians (48 percent for both pairings). But it actually increased over the decade. That increase doesn't necessarily suggest more prejudice, researchers say. Housing segregation often rises when rapidly expanding immigrant groups move into an area.

There is some evidence such barriers are breaking down among minorities themselves. But for whites and these groups, the ratings have barely budged in 10 years.

The housing data don't necessarily mean racial attitudes are hardening, says Tom Smith of the National Opinion Research Center at the University of Chicago. When the survey asked nonblacks in 1990 if they would object to living in a half-black neighborhood, 47 percent of respondents said yes. By 2000, that share had dropped to 32 percent, he says. And Hispanics and Asians saw even larger drops in housing prejudice.

But buying a home "depends on a lot of practical considerations," Mr. Smith adds. So for reasons of economics, comfort, school and family considerations — and sometimes because of race — Americans continue to live, by and large, among people who look much like themselves.

© 2001. The Christian Science Monitor