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Where We Live Now Immigration and Race in the United States

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Chapter 1


Racial and ethnic diversity is a fact of life in a growing number of American cities and communities. A short twenty-minute ride (depending on the traffic!) along Fort Hamilton Parkway in Brooklyn, New York—where some of my family lives—illustrates this. Along some portions of the trip one can catch sight of a significant number of Chinese-owned stores; in others one sees Orthodox Jews going about their business in traditional black attire; and in yet others different ethnic groups appear to work and reside. For example, in one of the neighborhoods that abuts the parkway, 47 percent of the residents are foreign-born. Of that 47 percent, 40 percent are from Europe, 36 percent from Asia, 20 percent from Latin America, and the rest from other countries, mainly Canada and Australia.

New York City has been a traditional immigrant destination. Recently, however, neighborhoods in other cities have emerged as immigrant destinations as well. In the Mt. Pleasant neighborhood of Washington, D.C., Salvadoran immigrants live adjacent to African Americans and whites , with sections of the neighborhood occupied by all groups. Silver Spring, Maryland—just outside the Washington, D.C., limits, where I recently resided—is also a mixing bowl: close to 40 percent of the population is non-Hispanic white, with blacks, Asians, and Hispanics well represented among the rest.

Although immigrants remain relatively concentrated in certain areas, such as Los Angeles, Washington, D.C., and New York City, racial and ethnic concentrations declined in the 1990s and 2000s, and diversity has increased in most parts of the United States. For instance, states such as Georgia and North Carolina, which certainly do not have reputations as immigrant destinations, were in the top ten among states with the highest net increase in immigrant residents between 2000 and 2003, with each receiving more than 100,000 in that period.

To a cosmopolitan person, the increasing diversity of many American metropolitan areas may be a source of stimulation. It can afford the opportunity to eat a variety of foods, observe different customs, and share in others' celebrations, such as Cinco de Mayo or Chinese New Year. With these opportunities, however, also comes the potential for conflict. Groups often compete for scarce local resources, such as municipal jobs or funds for community organizations and activities. Cultural and political differences can lead to clashing viewpoints.

A Newark, New Jersey, newspaper ran an article in 2006 on the vast demographic changes in northern New Jersey. "At the start of this decade," wrote the Star Ledger, "northern New Jersey was one of the most diverse, yet one of the most segregated, regions of the country, according to demographic studies. As it becomes even more diverse, sociologists and others are watching to see if it becomes more integrated residentially—or whether segregation persists." The article goes on to tell the stories of several residents. For example, after a divorce Maria Guareno, a physical therapist from Colombia, moved to Wharton, New Jersey (where her cousin already lived) with two children. The article quotes her daughter, Paola, a senior at Morris Hills High School, who says she likes school, but often feels socially isolated: "I don't fit in with the white kids because I'm Spanish, but I don't fit in with a lot of the Spanish kids because I speak English." The Guarenos add that although they haven't faced any overt discrimination, they sometimes sense the distrustful stares of store merchants and non-Latino neighbors.

Roger Smith, an African American, moved his family from Newark to Union Township in 2002. Smith is a youth worker for a nonprofit agency in Essex County. "The education I got growing up wasn't the best," he told the paper. "That's why we moved to Union.... I wanted a multiracial community.... In Union, everybody is getting along with each other. Neighbors talk to each other. You won't find neighborhoods dominated by one ethnic group any more. Them days are winding down." His daughter, who is in second grade, has Indian, Brazilian, African, and African American classmates. Smith added, "It's an amazing sight to see, and the best part is, you see them all getting along with each other."

One of the central goals of this book is to examine whether neighborhood-level segregation persists and what role immigration is playing in changing residential patterns in the United States. In general, it is unsurprising that different racial, ethnic, and immigrant groups often display distinct residential patterns. Some forms of segregation may be quite benign, because people of similar backgrounds often prefer to live near each other. Nevertheless, high levels of segregation, particularly if resulting from discrimination, can exacerbate racial and ethnic inequality. Historically, high levels of black-white segregation served to limit the residential choices of African Americans as well as constrain their economic and educational opportunities. This situation led many people to support the Supreme Court's 1954 Brown v. Board of Education finding, which invalidated "separate but equal" treatment.

A number of studies have shown that during the past few decades there have been moderate declines in black-white residential segregation in U.S. metropolitan areas. However, this has been accompanied by small increases in the segregation of Asians and Hispanics from whites. What explains these patterns? On the one hand, we might expect that in the post-1960s Civil Rights era, racial and ethnic polarization would decline for all groups. On the other hand, some have argued that continued high levels of immigration bolster Hispanic and Asian ethnic enclaves, in part because of the immigration process itself and also as a result of socioeconomic differences between the foreign-born newcomers and the native-born white population.

This book delves into these issues by examining how immigration has reshaped the metropolitan landscape and how the interplay between the racial, ethnic, and class composition of both the native and immigrant populations further molds residential patterns. Much of the analysis is based on my own examination of data from multiple decennial censuses and other household surveys. I also review and incorporate findings from other studies on these issues. The Washington, D.C., metropolitan area is at times invoked as a case study, as it embodies recent ongoing social processes, such as population growth via immigration and momentous changes in racial, ethnic, and class diversity.

In short, the questions tackled in the following chapters are: Is there evidence that immigrants are becoming residentially assimilated? Does the incorporation process look different for immigrants of different racial and ethnic backgrounds? How do other characteristics of immigrants, such as English-language ability and socioeconomic standing, affect the extent of residential segregation? What has been the impact of immigration on the segregation patterns of native-born blacks and whites? How stable are diverse neighborhoods, and what is the quality of group relations in diverse areas?

In this book I show that immigrant groups and their descendants are by and large becoming residentially assimilated in American metropolitan areas. For example, native-born Hispanics, Asians, and blacks are all less segregated from whites than are the foreign-born of these groups. Immigrants who have been in the United States for a longer period of time are also generally less segregated from other groups than new arrivals. Socioeconomic differences play an important role in explaining these patterns and trends for all racial and ethnic groups—especially for Hispanics and Asians. Those of higher socioeconomic status are substantially less segregated from whites than lower socioeconomic status individuals. Over time we may see greater integration if members of these groups move up the socioeconomic ladder in the coming years.

A second finding is that in many cases we see multiple forms of assimilation and incorporation. For example, some analyses in this book indicate that native-born Hispanics are less segregated from both Anglos and African Americans than foreign-born Hispanics. Moreover, Hispanic race groups also show particularly low levels of segregation from native-born Hispanics not of their own race, indicating the salience of pan-Hispanic identity across country of origin and also self-identified race groups. In diverse societies, it is important to recognize that different immigrant groups can become integrated with multiple other groups.

A third finding is that extent and pace of spatial assimilation among immigrants is nevertheless still substantially shaped by race and ethnicity. For example, levels of segregation from native-born non-Hispanic whites are highest among black immigrants and lowest among white immigrants. Hispanic and Asian immigrants fall in between. Moreover, "assimilation" does not always suggest the same process for all groups. For example, among racially diverse Hispanic immigrants, those who identify themselves as "white" or "other" race are considerably less segregated from non-Hispanic whites than those who report being "black." Conversely, for black Hispanic immigrants, assimilation may mean slight declines in segregation from whites over time and across generations, but even larger declines in segregation from non-Hispanic blacks. In fact, the very high overall levels of segregation between Anglos and black Hispanics and black immigrants more generally to a large extent overshadow the slight generational convergence. Some of the findings herein are thus as consistent with the segmented assimilation perspective (describe in more detail in chapter 2) as with spatial assimilation. In other words, immigrant groups to some extent experience divergent patterns of incorporation in the United States depending on their race and ethnicity.

These findings have implications for racial stratification in the United States. They suggest that we may see racial and ethnic boundary "blurring" or "shifting" among some groups in the coming years. Boundary blurring refers to a process by which the social boundary between groups becomes less distinct over time. This occurs when there is frequent contact, such as daily interactions and, ultimately, intermarriage between groups. If such contact occurs on a large enough scale, boundaries can shift, where a population once on one side of a boundary moves to the other. This is precisely what occurred among many immigrant groups from southern and eastern Europe in the early twentieth century. At the time of their entry, such immigrants were considered racially distinct from the native-born white population (which was largely from northern and western Europe), but over time became accepted as whites. In this book, I provide evidence of boundary blurring, especially between some non-black Hispanics and non-Hispanic whites. Segregation between whites and Asians is also moderate, and patterns observed are generally consistent with residential assimilation.

Interestingly, the growing diversity in metropolitan America, fueled by immigration, has had important implications for the most rigid of color lines—that between whites and blacks. In the last major book on residential segregation, American Apartheid (1993), Douglas Massey and Nancy Denton effectively argued how the problem of the twentieth century was indeed, as foreseen by W. E. B. Du Bois at the dawn of the century, that of the color line. Massey and Denton documented how the extremely high levels of residential segregation between whites and blacks (which they termed "hypersegregation") were reinforced by racism and discrimination in the real-estate industry, banking institutions, and the everyday acts of individuals. One of the themes in my book, however, is that—in concert with broader political, economic, and cultural shifts—immigration has softened the black-white divide. In particular, black segregation from other groups, including whites, tends to be lower in multiethnic metropolitan areas. Although the reasons for this are not entirely clear, some researchers have hypothesized that Hispanics and Asians may serve as "buffers" between whites and blacks. The presence of multiple minority groups may moderate the stark black-white divide that dominated in the past, thereby helping reduce—if even moderately—the tension in black-white relations. Multiethnic metropolitan areas are also often newer urban areas in the South and West, which experience less historically entrenched black-white divisions.

Because of immigration, whites are also considerably less likely than in the past to live in all-white neighborhoods in many metropolitan areas. While the sharing of residential space can lead to conflict over local governance and use of community resources, such exposure has also led to multiracial coalitions built on shared interests. For example, groups often share the goal of living in safe neighborhoods, with satisfactory housing and good public education, and work together toward these ends.

Despite these trends, I remain cautious about drawing firm conclusions concerning the effects of immigration on black-white segregation and the inevitability of spatial assimilation of immigrants in American neighborhoods. First, despite some declines in black segregation in recent decades, blacks and black immigrants continue to be more segregated from whites than other groups. Black-white racial polarization and the continued—albeit declining—discrimination against blacks in the housing market still play important roles in shaping residential patterns. Whether the long-run trend of moderate declines in black segregation continues and eventually translates into greater integration for black immigrants and their children will be an important issue to track in the coming years.

Second, that acculturation indicators (such as English-language ability) and socioeconomic characteristics often help explain relatively high levels of segregation among some groups—and Hispanic immigrants in particular—also has important implications. On the one hand, these indicators suggest that spatial assimilation processes are at work that could reduce Hispanic-white segregation over the longer run as Hispanics achieve economic upward mobility. On the other hand, high levels of Hispanic immigration, largely consisting of people of lower socioeconomic status—precisely the characteristics associated with high levels of segregation—suggest that we will in fact witness increasing levels of segregation for Hispanics in the short and medium term. If negative economic, political, or social trauma served to either inhibit future Hispanic socioeconomic mobility or heighten tensions between Hispanics and other groups, then diminishing levels of segregation would be far from assured. It is not difficult to envision a future in which Hispanic distinctiveness is reinforced by continued immigration and, over the long term, is reflected in higher levels of residential segregation and social distance from other groups.

What Is Residential Segregation?

Before delving into residential segregation patterns, it is important to define what residential segregation means. The term generally refers to the differential distribution of groups across space and is usually thought of in terms of the degree to which various groups reside in different neighborhoods. People are residentially segregated across a number of socioeconomic and demographic characteristics, including age, income, and—the focus here—race, ethnicity, and nativity. It is commonly thought that differences in residential patterns across racial and ethnic groups reflect social distance. Researchers at times look at regional patterns of settlement to gauge to what extent immigrants are spatially assimilating in the United States. While exploring regional patterns can be informative, an analysis of neighborhood-level patterns of settlement—the focus of this book—likely provides a better barometer of various groups' residential assimilation because it measures social distance within housing markets (this issue is discussed in more detail in chapter 2).

The residential patterns of minority groups have been studied for many decades. W. E. B. Du Bois, for example, documented the residential patterns of blacks in Philadelphia's Seventh Ward in his 1899 book, The Philadelphia Negro. Louis Wirth's The Ghetto, published in 1928, compared the similarities between the Jewish ghettos in Europe with those in Chicago. Karl and Alma Taeuber noted in 1965 that new immigrants to the United States in the nineteenth and early twentieth century were by and large poor and poorly educated. They often lived in ethnic enclaves in low-rent areas.

While the term residential segregation clearly denotes some level of physical separation, there are actually many ways to measure segregation, and the measures themselves tap into different dimensions of this separation. Throughout this book I rely on a number of complementary measures to provide a nuanced view of how residential patterns have changed over time.

Consequences of Segregation

Studying segregation is important in large part because of its consequences. A number of studies have documented the strong link between black-white segregation and black disadvantage. Massey and Denton effectively argued that segregation helps perpetuate and reinforce concentrated African American poverty. David Cutler and Edward Glaeser, in a rigorous statistical analysis of these issues, found that black-white segregation is specifically linked to lower high-school graduation rates among blacks, higher joblessness, lower earnings, and greater levels of single parenthood. They also found only a slight positive effect, at most, of segregation on outcomes among whites. For example, whites in cities with high and low levels of black-white segregation fared similarly. Overall, black-white residential segregation has been found to constrain the residential choices available to African Americans, limit their access to good schools and jobs, negatively impact their health and academic performance, and contribute to their social exclusion and alienation.

That many immigrants and their children today are segregated from other groups does not in itself signal an immense social crisis or indicate that immigrants are facing discrimination and disadvantage. New immigrants often settle in ethnic enclaves because these areas provide a familiar environment filled with other people who share a common culture and view of life. Ethnic economic networks also attract newcomers to ethnic enclaves. Immigrants therefore often draw strength from their ethnic communities.

Nevertheless, residential segregation could also cause and reflect divisions across communities. Residential segregation becomes particularly problematic if it concentrates disadvantage and is associated with overlapping inequalities. For example, if spatially concentrated immigrants face multiple problems, such as high rates of joblessness, underrepresentation in government, and social stigmatization, this could reinforce social distance and increase alienation among later generations.

The 2005 immigrant riots in France illustrate how social, economic, and spatial isolation can lead to conflict. Many low-income immigrants in Paris, for example, live in isolated suburban public-housing communities where levels of unemployment are high and hopes for the future are low. The sense of alienation is often stronger among the second and subsequent generations. They may see the economic promise of their adopted country, but are unable to attain it. Their national communities provide the sense of belonging that is otherwise lacking in the wider culture, thus reinforcing residential segregation and heightening the potential for conflict.

One need not look as far as Europe to see the potential for conflict. Douglas Massey has argued that Mexican Americans are at risk of becoming a new urban underclass because of their relatively high levels of segregation from other groups, coupled with relatively low levels of educational attainment and wages. About a fifth of Mexican Americans are also undocumented immigrants and thus vulnerable to exploitation and exclusion. These factors, he holds, spell trouble for the long-run incorporation of Mexican Americans in the United States. It is therefore essential to take a closer look at the extent of and recent changes in the segregation experienced by immigrants and their children to discern what patterns of incorporation we may expect in the future.

Plan of the Book

Chapter 2 provides a historical overview of immigrant settlement patterns and a review of theories of immigrant residential incorporation. The most prominent perspective that arose in the early part of the twentieth century was assimilation theory. Assimilation essentially refers to the reduction in group differences over time and plays out in several dimensions, including in economic, cultural, political, and residential spheres. The last is of course the focus of this book, though at times other dimensions of assimilation are also discussed. In recent decades other theories have challenged the assimilation perspective. Some argue that recent waves of immigrants experience greater ethnic disadvantage (or ethnic retention) than those of past waves, and that we will likely witness relatively little assimilation between new immigrants and the host population. Others have posited that segmented assimilation best explains patterns of immigrant incorporation. While some immigrants, according to this theory, will be readily assimilated with whites along many dimensions in the years after their arrival, others will retain their ethnic distinctiveness, and yet others, due to blocked opportunities, may assimilate downward into what has been a predominately African American underclass.

Chapter 3 begins with a description of the changing racial and ethnic composition of the United States in the post-1965 period, when laws governing immigration were radically changed. I examine general patterns and trends in racial and ethnic residential segregation over the past few decades: how black-white segregation has declined, but Hispanic-white and Asian-white segregation has increased by many measures. I also discuss the importance of socioeconomic differences between groups in shaping residential patterns.

Chapter 4 carefully looks at the association between immigration and segregation. I find that among blacks, Hispanics, and Asians, the foreign-born tend to be more segregated from whites than the native-born, providing support for assimilation theory. For all groups, resources also matter: those with greater income are more likely to share neighborhoods with whites than lower-income immigrants. However, there are significant differences in the extent of segregation from whites, with black immigrants in particular displaying very high levels of segregation.

In chapter 5 I take a closer look at how race shapes residential patterns among Hispanics. For example, are black Hispanics very different from white Hispanics in their segregation from non-Hispanic whites (at times termed Anglos for the sake of simplicity)? I also examine multiple forms of assimilation: not only to what extent various Hispanic subgroups share neighborhoods with Anglos, but also with blacks and other Hispanics. I describe how Hispanic race groups often experience multiple and concurrent forms of spatial assimilation: native-born white, black, and other-race Hispanics are all less segregated from both Anglos and African Americans than are the foreign-born of the respective groups. The one exception is a modest distancing observed between black Hispanics and certain other Hispanic groups across generations. On the whole, the implication of these findings is that assimilation is reducing (though not in all instances) the significance of various color lines in metropolitan America.

Chapter 6 examines a set of related issues concerning the effects of growing diversity on American communities. Whites are less likely to live in homogeneous neighborhoods than they did thirty or forty years ago. For blacks, growing diversity has not only translated into living in neighborhoods with other minorities, but has also been associated with moderately lower levels of segregation from whites. The coexistence of multiple groups may be helping to reduce the historical black-white divide in American society. However, diversity can also increase segregation—certainly in the short run—between Asians, Hispanics, whites, and other groups when diversity is fueled by growing numbers of new immigrants, who are particularly likely to live in ethnic enclaves.

While many metropolitan neighborhoods continue display the traditional pattern of "invasion and succession"—whereby the entrance of minority members results in "white flight"—there are a growing number of stable diverse communities. That is not to say that diversity necessarily translates into harmony. Ethnic conflict is common in diverse areas, and conflict is often exacerbated by class differences between groups. Despite this, ethnic groups that share residential space also at times work together because they share common goals associated with neighborhood improvement. Chapter 6 ends with an examination of the residential patterns of mixed-race individuals, who generally live in more diverse neighborhoods than whites or blacks—a pattern consistent with spatial assimilation.

Chapter 7, the conclusion, reviews the main findings and discusses their implications for the trajectory of the color line. Patterns of spatial assimilation described in the previous chapters, along with trends in ethnic intermarriage, suggest that we may observe a blurring of the color line in the coming years. While we may see an emergence of a "black-nonblack" divide—where blacks are uniquely disadvantaged—we may see a more general attenuation of differences across groups. I note a number of reasons to be cautious about this conclusion, such as continued large-scale immigration to the United States that includes a significant number of low-skill workers whose economic prospects—and the fortunes of their families—are uncertain. I end with a discussion of potentially productive avenues for future research on these issues.