Diversity, Toleration, and Space in Metropolitan America

In metropolitan America, particularly in those conurbations that have grown increasingly diverse by race and ethnicity in the last few decades, America’s past and its uncertain future collide. On one side are deep historical patterns of segregation and hypersegregation that reinforce racial inequality and hostilities, particularly between black and white; on the other, an increasingly polyglot, perhaps majority minority nation, where the old binaries of race no longer hold.1

Some futurists contend that by 2040, America will be a brown-hued nation, its once dominant European-descended population blended into a new whole. Others look toward a post-racial America where intermarriage and intermixing will destroy the “ethnoracial pentagon,” which rigidly classifies all Americans as African, Asian, Latino, Native American, or white. Not all are optimistic. The growing trends of class inequality, combined with persistent segregation, has led some to suggest that trends point toward a United States that resembles Colombia or Brazil, places of extraordinary diversity in color, where everyday interracial contact and tolerance are commonplace but where a still-deeply entrenched color hierarchy economically and socially disadvantages those of African and Amerindian descent. Any one of these prognostications may be correct, but history offers no guide to the future, other than the chastening lesson that the vast majority of past demographic and economic predictions, especially those made with great certainty, are frequently wrong.

But it is clear that whatever the future brings, race relations in the present are in a state of flux, characterized by a mix of continuities and discontinuities. Scientific and social scientific understandings of race, public opinion about race, and the lived experience of race are ever changing: they are shaped by their cultural and political contexts. It is now axiomatic in the social sciences that race is a social, cultural, and political construction, one that takes on different forms and meanings in different periods of history. But history plays a role in the definition and meaning of race at any given moment, for notions of blackness and whiteness, of Asian as a racial category or Latinos as la raza, are shaped by past definitions and, more importantly, by the way that those definitions shaped institutions and the rules that govern them.

The results can be paradoxical. In the early twentieth century, for example, assumptions about the biological inferiority of blacks led actuaries and real estate economists to develop housing policies that mandated the official segregation of housing and mortgage markets. Those actuarial standards were abandoned in the 1960s, as a consequence of shifting racial attitudes, pressure by civil rights groups, and local, state, and federal laws forbidding discrimination in the real estate market. But housing segregation patterns—that resulted in the first place from assumptions of racial inferiority—remained deeply entrenched for decades afterwards. It is possible, as sociologist Eduardo Bonilla-Silva has argued, to have “racism without racists,” or put differently, public policies that have origins in racism and which perpetuate racial inequality but are no longer justified in explicitly racial terms. We might say that we can have tolerance without equality, diversity without solidarity.

The history of the late twentieth century—and the early twenty first, is shaped by tensions between a historically specific “post-racial” framework, that is a now broadly accepted discourse of colorblindness that has especially deep appeal to whites, and a still deeply-rooted racial consciousness, especially among African Americans. Two other racial frameworks co-exist with these—one, a white identity politics that dares not speak its name, and the other, a sensibility toward racial hybridity that shapes the worldview of many new immigrants and, increasingly, a younger generation of Americans. Racial ideas and practices, especially on the individual level, are contested and evolving, perhaps more rapidly now than they have at any time since World War II. But ideas about race matter most in their context, and all of them -- colorblindness, racial consciousness, and hybridity—play out in a racialized geography, polity, and economy, whose contours are deeply rooted in the twentieth century, where the distinctions of black and white are still not only relevant but often decisive. Tolerance and diversity, in other words, are structured; they must be considered as shaped and constrained by their spatial, political, and economic context.

Leading ethnographers and survey researchers find still deep racial and ethnic divisions in the United States. Wilson and Taub (2006) conclude that "neighborhoods in urban America, especially in large metropolitan areas like Chicago, are likely to remain divided, racially and culturally."2Their most important and troubling finding is that when it comes to their perceptions of African Americans, whites and Latinos are more alike than different. Mexican newcomers in Chicago, for example, quickly learned to view blacks as shiftless and prone to crime. In one Chicago neighborhood, Hispanic and white residents formed an alliance to prevent the busing of their children from the neighborhood's overcrowded schools to nearby, mostly black schools. In another, Mexican-American residents, many of them recent arrivals, expressed their contempt for blacks, whom they considered lazy, unreliable, and prone to crime. As a consequence, Chicago has the highest rate of black-Hispanic segregation in the United States. The nation’s largest and most ethnically diverse metropolitan areas, New York and Los Angeles, are similar. In Los Angeles, Harvard political scientist Lawrence Bobo and Penn demographer Camille Charles and their colleagues found that newly arriving Asian and Latin American immigrants—while they have a complicated relationship toward the white majority—-quickly define themselves as “not black.”3 They are attracted to predominantly white neighborhoods and like whites, view the presence of even a modest number of blacks as a sign that a neighborhood is troubled or in decline.

The new immigration has—despite an outburst of nativism unparalleled since the anti-immigrant crusades of the early twentieth century—destabilized racial categories, though unevenly. The most pronounced reshuffling of the racial deck involves those new Americans of Latino and Asian descent; the slowest changes have come with Americans of African descent, even those new immigrants from places as diverse as Liberia, Senegal, Haiti, and the Dominican Republic. The Latin American immigrant experience is instructive. For the last thirty years, as tens of millions of Spanish-speaking immigrants from Central and South America and the Caribbean have flooded into the United States, anti-immigrant commentators have fretted about the Latinization of the United States and the emergence of an unassimilable minority. But such fears have proved ungrounded. Despite their incorporation into anti-discrimination and affirmative action laws as a racial minority beginning in the 1970s and the ongoing efforts of civil rights advocates to protect rights based on that status, ordinary Latinos have resisted efforts to organize as a racial group, for several reasons, including the diversity of Latino national origins, the incommensurability of racial categories between Latin America and the United States, and the embrace of the category “white” by a majority of Latin American immigrants and their children.

When the U.S. Census Bureau introduced the category “multiracial” in the 2000 census, most observers expected it to reflect the growing number of black-white marriages. Instead, the vast majority of those who checked more than one box denoted some Latin American identity and “white.” By contrast only two percent of self-identified whites and four percent of self-identified blacks considered themselves as being of more than one race. By nearly every measure, Latinos of non-African descent (a crucial distinction) have amalgamated to a degree comparable to that of Southern and Eastern European immigrants in the early twentieth century. Rates of intermarriage between Americans of Hispanic and non-Hispanic European descent are up to one-third in aggregate; and they rise in each generation removed from the first wave of entrance to the U.S. And despite such publicized comments as George H.W. Bush referring to his grandchildren (whose mother is Mexican American) as “little brown ones,” data show that mixed-race children of Latin American descent, with no visible African heritage, are regularly viewed as “white.”

The instability of racial classification is even more striking when it comes to the groups that are broadly labeled Asian American. There are variants within and between groups, but overall the experience of Asian immigrants since the 1960s inverts the racial order that prevailed as late as the 1940s, when Chinese and Japanese were forbidden from emigrating to the U.S., when public health authorities advocated their quarantine, and where many (especially the Japanese) were even prevented from owning property. It is impossible to generalize about Americans of Asian descent: Hmong, Laotian, and Filipino immigrants, for example, have faced greater obstacles than Indian, Chinese, and Korean newcomers; many of the former come from impoverished backgrounds, while many of the latter arrive in the United States with capital and relatively high levels of educational attainment. But even accounting for variations between different ethnic groups and the fact that most Asians are new arrivals to the United States, more than one-quarter of all married people of Asian descent in the United States have a non-Asian partner (87 percent are white). The figure is as high as 70 percent for those of Japanese American descent.

Immigration patterns have also transformed urban and metropolitan geographies in ways that confound traditional racial categories. Most big cities have Chinatowns and many have Mexican Villages or their equivalent. Smaller groups clustered in Japantowns and Little Koreas and Filipino neighborhoods, especially in older, western cities. But more than half of new immigrants to the United States since the 1990s live in suburbs; resulting in an extraordinary diversification of what had been, fifty years ago, some of the whitest places in America. And patterns of segregation vary widely from group to group. Asian communities—especially those that are portals for the newest immigrants--remain somewhat concentrated (and those patterns vary by group), but overall less than Latinos. Latino segregation varies by group as well—South American immigrants are the least segregated; Afro-Hispanics (such as immigrants from the Dominican Republic) most segregated. But overall, the pattern is one toward residential amalgamation, with the noteworthy exception of African descended immigrants.

By nearly every measure, African Americans stand alone. The most persistent manifestation of racial inequality in the modern United States has been racial segregation in housing and education. From 1920 through 1990, patterns of black-white segregation hardened in most of the United States, despite shifts in white attitudes about black neighbors and despite the passage of local and state antidiscrimination laws and the enactment of Title VIII of the Civil Rights Act (1968) which forbade housing discrimination nationwide. There was slight improvement in the last decade of the twentieth century, mostly in and around military bases, college towns, and new exurbs in the Sunbelt with no extensive history of racial hostility and with metropolitan or regional governments. That those places desegregated to some degree was a reminder of the powerful role that government policy and the structure of local governments could play in undermining racial segregation: the military is the largest substantially racially-mixed institution in the United States; colleges and universities institutionalized diversity through affirmative action; and metropolitan governance discouraged segregation because whites lacked the opportunity to jump across municipal boundaries for towns with better schools and public services, while leaving minorities behind.

By contrast, in metropolitan areas with fragmented governments and school districts, overwhelmingly in the Northeast and Midwest, racial segregation rates have remained particularly high. The reasons are varied, but they reflect the long-term effects of discriminatory patterns that date to the early twentieth century. Before that, in most places--North and South--blacks and whites lived in relatively close proximity. Real estate brokers refused to rent or sell houses to blacks in white neighborhoods, actuaries determined that a neighborhood’s racial composition was the most important factor in measuring property values, and whites began to resist black incursion, sometimes with violence. And federal pro-homeownership programs, beginning in the New Deal, wrote discriminatory provisions into public policies. The result was that during the mid-twentieth century, expectations about the racial composition of neighborhoods were established that proved to be extraordinarily resistant to change.Nearly a half century after the civil rights gains of the 1960s, it is still noteworthy that the configuration of metropolitan space still constrains opportunities for group interactions.

Although I have focused on race and ethnicity in this survey, we must consider one of the most significant changes in metropolitan geography over the past third of a century. As Sean Riordan has shown, American metros have become increasingly divided by socio-economic status, regardless of race.4 The wealthiest Americans have, in effect, withdrawn from the poor, working-class, and middle-class. This is of course an old pattern, dating back to elite suburbanization in the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries. But socio-economic segregation has increased sharply, one profound consequence of the growing income and wealth inequality in post-1973 America. It is possible to look the distribution of population and resources in metropolitan America as a form of what sociologist Charles Tilly called “opportunity hoarding.”5 The withdrawal of the wealthy, the shrinking of middle-class communities, and the increased segregation of the working-class and poor has exacerbated educational, political and social divisions in the United States, creating greater obstacles to tolerance.

As we set an agenda for the study of toleration and diversity in metropolitan America, it is imperative to disaggregate the experiences of different groups; to consider the role of public policy and governmental institutions in structuring diversity; to consider the ways that real estate practices and housing markets reinforce differences (or similarities) between city, suburb, and exurb; and to map socio-economic, racial, and ethnic geographies. The possibilities of tolerance are structured.

  1. Some material in this article appeared in earlier form in Thomas J. Sugrue, Not Even Past: Barack Obama and the Burden of Race (Princeton: Princeton University Press, 2010), chapter 3.
  2. William Julius Wilson and Richard P. Taub, There Goes the Neighborhood: Race, Ethnic, and Class Tensions in Four Chicago Neighborhoods and their Meaning for America (New York: Knopf, 2005).
  3. Lawrence D. Bobo, Melvin L. Oliver, James H. Johnson, Jr., and Abel Valenzuela, Jr. Prismatic Metropolis: Inequality in Los Angeles (New York: Russell Sage Foundation, 1999) and Camille Zubrinsky Charles, Won’t You Be My Neighbor? Race, Class, and Residence in Los Angeles (New York: Russell Sage Foundation, 2006).
  4. Sean F. Reardon and Kendra Bischoff, More Unequal and More Separate: Growth in the Residential Segregation of Families by Income, 1970-2009 (2010). Report prepared for the Russell Sage US2010 project. www.s4.brown.edu/us2010/Data/Report/report111111.pdf
  5. Charles Tilly, Durable Inequality (Berkeley and Los Angeles: University of California Press, 1998).
About the Author
Thomas Sugrue is the David Boies Professor of History and Sociology at the University of Pennsylvania.
Posted on July 23rd, 2014.