Monday, January 28, 2013

Segregation Lives On

Not forced segregation, mind you. Like so many reactionary ideas (some of which were good, some of which, like this one, were not) it's gone and not coming back. You can measure how much it's not coming back by the infinitesimal number of Americans who would rate its absence as anything other than a clear indication of social progress.

So people like the idea that the government no longer forces people to segregate by race. So far, so good - the government certainly has no business enforcing such a policy.

People will also tell you that they don't like the idea of segregation in and of itself, even if it's not being imposed by government fiat. That, too, is a perfectly defensible and reasonable position.

But what's all the more puzzling is that notwithstanding the large number of Americans who would express such an opinion, geographically America is incredibly segregated by race. And nobody seems much bothered by it, as long as they don't have to talk about it.

Don't believe me? Check out this fascinating New York Times website that lets you visualise the demographic breakdown of each area.

Here's Chicago.

The green dots are white people, the yellow dots are Hispanics, the blue dots are black people, and the red dots are Asians.

Amazing, no? There are some parts where there's a gradual gradient across racial lines, but others where it's an incredibly sharp division.

Some of this can be explained as an effect of sorting on income. But if you look at the sharp divides between some of the black and Hispanic areas, it's hard to see much in the way of economic difference between them. Compare say zip code 60604 (94.8% black, median household income $26,930) with, say, zip code 60623 (62.9% Hispanic, median household income $28,203) or zip code 60608 (62.7% Hispanic, median household income $28,026) and it's hard to explain this as a rich area/poor area phenomenon.

This isn't just a Chicago thing, either. Go here and type in 'New York', 'Cleveland', 'St Louis', 'Los Angeles' or 'Las Vegas'. Everywhere you go, it's there.

So if this isn't an income thing, and it isn't a legislatively coerced thing (and I imagine it's not a 'provision of government services' thing), then what exactly is it? Do people actually just prefer to live around people of the same race, all other things equal? If you find the idea uncomfortable, don't blame me, I didn't make the city of Chicago look like that. Neither did the government. Millions of individuals, freely choosing where to live, created the map above.

It's certainly not a pleasant hypothesis. But honestly, if you look at the map, do you have a better explanation?

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