The State of Current Knowledge about Cities and Toleration

We know several important facts about racial and ethnic dynamics in American cities, but I see no consensus on how important these facts are, how much they are offset by other facts, and how to evaluate them. We also know something about other forms of toleration in cities beyond race and ethnicity; it may be my ignorance speaking but I believe that these additional facts are less contentious and have a more consensual interpretation.

Demography: First, American cities and their surrounding suburbs are changing demographically at a rapid clip. To illustrate, I include below four figures from a recent article (Hochschild 2012):

Figure 1: Proportion of non-Hispanic whites, in the cities of the 10 largest metropolitan areas, 1970-2010

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*15% sample. These cities were at the center of the ten largest metropolitan statistical areas in 1970; in order to show comparable data over time, the figure provides evidence on only the central city of each MSA.

Sources: 1970, 1980, 1990: (Bureau of the Census 2005); 2000: (Bureau of the Census 2000); 2010: (Bureau of the Census 2010).

Figure 2: Proportion of blacks, Hispanics, Asians, and foreign-born, in cities of the 10 largest metropolitan areas, 2010

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Source: (Bureau of the Census 2010)

Figure 3: Racial and ethnic composition of selected cities and suburbs, 2008

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Source: (Metropolitan Policy Program 2010): 61

Figure 4: Shares of selected cities’ young and old populations comprised by various racial and ethnic groups, 2009

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Source: Metropolitan Policy Program 2010: 85.

These figures show some consistency across major metropolitan areas, but also important variation. In most but not all cases (figure 1), the proportion of whites in the city is declining; whether the population is being filled with native-born blacks, native-born Hispanics and Asian Americans, or foreign-born Asians and (mostly) Latinos varies by city and region (figure 2). Conversely, suburbs in some cities are much less white than they used to be or than the city itself is (figure 3).

Finally, young Americans are much less likely to be white than older Americans, although that too varies across cities and regions (figure 4). That may be the most important element of urban demography from the perspective of the study of toleration since the dependency ratio among Americans is changing rapidly for the worse, especially with regard to the elderly, as figure 5 shows:

Figure 5: Dependents per 100 persons aged 18 to 64 in the United States, 1900-2050

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Source: (Guyer, Freedman et al. 2000): 1315.

At present, worries focus on the tolerance of older mostly-white Americans for younger increasingly-nonwhite Americans; will the former pay for the schools, job training, higher education, and other needs of the latter? But if Guyer and his colleagues’ projections are accurate, city governments need to start worrying as much if not more about the tolerance of younger increasingly-nonwhite Americans for older mostly-white Americans. Will young adults be willing to pay for the health care, residential needs, transportation and mobility requirements of the larger and larger share of the population over age 65? In short, demographic changes in cities and suburbs are clear, and the combination of race or ethnicity, geography, and generation are creating new issues of toleration that remain politically almost invisible.

Residential Separation: A second fact on which there is consensus is that cities and suburbs are less racially segregated than they were a few decades ago, at least by some measures (Glaeser and Vigdor 2012); (Frey 2010);(Population Studies Center 2010); (Iceland 2009). As that weasly phrase suggests, however, consensus dissolves as soon as one probes more deeply into the data (Alba and Romalewski 2012); (Logan and Stults 2011). The number of all-white neighborhoods is declining, but it is not clear if movement of a few blacks, Latinos, or Asians into an Anglo community really affects levels of toleration. Blacks are less segregated from non-blacks, but it is not clear if a neighborhood comprised of African Americans and Hispanics should be understood as racially integrated. In some but not all cities, Hispanics are more concentrated residentially than they were a decade ago, but it is not clear if that is a short-term effect of immigrants moving into – and then out of – gateway communities or if it is a harbinger of a new group segregation. Are racially mixed neighborhoods stable or in transition? Do less segregated communities translate into less segregated schools or jobs? Most importantly here, is a rise in residential mixture associated with greater intergroup toleration? Current knowledge on these questions is, to put it politely, in a state of flux.

Associated with what might be a decline in residential separation is a rise in class separation, especially within non-Anglo groups. One more figure:

Figure 6: Family income segregation by race or ethnicity, in large metro areas, 1970-2009

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Source: (Bischoff and Reardon forthcoming): figure 2.

Metropolitan areas may be moving toward a pattern of more class than group segregation, or perhaps more likely, class segregation within each racial or ethnic group layered onto overall class segregation. What that complex pattern implies for toleration remains to be seen.

Concentrated Effects of Incarceration: One type of urban neighborhood is deeply problematic, both on its own terms and for its impact on toleration.   A few communities are extraordinarily affected by the dramatic rise in levels of incarceration, particularly of young, poor, and poorly-educated black men. Almost three-fourths of New York State’s prisoners, for example, come from 7 of the 50 community board districts of New York City; a few neighborhoods in Detroit, Richmond, Houston, Boston, and Chicago are similarly affected (Hochschild, Weaver et al. 2012): 147). Given the huge impact of high levels of incarceration on families and neighborhoods, Robert Sampson and his co-author call these “imprisoned communities.” [(Sampson and Loeffler 2010); see also (Clear 2009); (Burch 2013)]. Little research directly examines the relationship between contiguity to imprisoned communities and toleration, but surely these deeply poor and troubled neighborhoods have a harmful impact on attitudes and behaviors of people far beyond their near neighbors (Pattillo 2013);(Wilson and Taub 2007).

Response to Immigrants: Once again, cities vary, but urban governments tend to be more tolerant of immigrants than are suburbs and rural areas. Tolerance is associated with demography, with the causal arrow probably going in both directions: perhaps past a certain tipping point, city officials do more to incorporate immigrants as the population of newcomers rises, and immigrants are more likely to move into cities that seek to incorporate them (Mollenkopf and Sonenshein 2009); At least some of the time, school officials, health care personnel, librarians, and police come to see their professional duty as one of accommodation or even incorporation rather than rejection (Jones-Correa 2008); (Lewis and Ramakrishnan 2007). At least some of the time, mayors and other elected officials choose to mobilize voters from immigrant backgrounds rather than run the risk that their opponent will do so (Ramakrishnan and Wong 2010); the presence of engaged unions, churches, advocacy groups, and neighborhood associations can make a difference here (Wong 2006); (Heredia 2008).

Other than cities such as Phoenix, Arizona (the home of Sheriff Joe Arpaio), the biggest exception to cities’ relatively greater tolerance of immigrants may lie in neighborhood competition, a.k.a. gangs.

Other Forms of Toleration: Cities also tend to be relatively tolerant of homosexuality, and of relatively uncommon choices of religion, family structure, cultural practices, or personal expression. People who prefer to live alone (as distinguished from being homeless or isolated) find it easier to do so in cities than in smaller communities (Klinenberg 2013).


Alba, Richard and Steven Romalewski (2012). The End of Segregation? Hardly. New York, City University of New York Graduate Center, Center for Urban Research.

Bischoff, Kendra and Sean Reardon (forthcoming). "Residential Segregation by Income, 1970-2009." The Lost Decade? Social Change in the U.S. After 2000. John Logan. New York: Russell Sage Foundation.

Burch, Traci (2013). Trading Democracy for Justice: Criminal Convictions and the Decline of Neighborhood Political Participation. Chicago IL: University of Chicago Press.

Clear, Todd (2009). Imprisoning Communities: How Mass Incarceration Makes Disadvantaged Neighborhoods Worse New York: Oxford University Press.

Frey, William (2010) "Census Data: Blacks and Hispanics Take Different Segregation Paths." State of Metropolitan America 21,

Glaeser, Edward and Jacob Vigdor (2012). The End of the Segregated Century: Racial Separation in America's Neighborhoods, 1890-2010. New York, Manhattan Institute. No. 66.

Guyer, Bernard, et al. (2000). "Annual Summary of Vital Statistics: Trends in the Health of Americans During the 20th Century." Pediatrics 106(6): 1307-1317.

Heredia, Luisa (2008). The Catholic Church and the Immigrant Rights Movement: The Ethics and Politics of Struggling for Immigrants’ Rights from 1980 through Today Ph.D. Dissertation.Cambridge MA: Harvard University, Sociology.

Hochschild, Jennifer (2012). "Race and Cities: New Circumstances Imply New Ideas." Perspectives on Politics 10(3): 647-658.

Hochschild, Jennifer, et al. (2012). Creating a New Racial Order: How Immigration, Multiracialism, Genomics, and the Young Can Remake Race in America. Princeton NJ: Princeton University Press.

Iceland, John (2009). Where We Live Now: Immigration and Race in the United States. Berkeley: University of California Press.

Jones-Correa, Michael (2008). "Immigrant Incorporation in the Suburbs: Differential Pathways, Arenas and Intermediaries " Immigration and Integration in Urban Communities: Renegotiating the City. Lisa Hanley, Blair Ruble and Allison Garland. Baltimore MD: Johns Hopkins University Press: 19-47.

Klinenberg, Eric (2013). Going Solo: The Extraordinary Rise and Surprising Appeal of Living Alone. New York: Penguin Books.

Lewis, Paul and S. Karthick Ramakrishnan (2007). "Police Practices in Immigrant-Destination Cities: Political Control or Bureaucratic Professionalism?" Urban Affairs Review 42(6): 874-900.

Logan, John and Brian Stults (2011). The Persistence of Segregation in the Metropolis: New Findings from the 2010 Census. Census Brief prepared for Project US2010.

Metropolitan Policy Program (2010). State of Metropolitan America: On the Front Lines of Demographic Transformation. Washington D.C.: Brookings Institution Press.

Mollenkopf, John and Raphael Sonenshein (2009). "The New Urban Politics of Integration: A View from the Gateway Cities." Bringing Outsiders In: Transatlantic Perspectives on Immigrant Political Incorporation. Jennifer Hochschild and John Mollenkopf. Ithaca NY: Cornell University Press: 74-92.

Pattillo, Mary (2013). Black Picket Fences, Second Edition : Privilege and Peril among the Black Middle Class. Chicago IL: University of Chicago Press.

Population Studies Center (2010) "New Racial Segregation Measures for Large Metropolitan Areas: Analysis of the 1990-2010 Decennial Censuses."

Ramakrishnan, S. Karthick and Tom Wong (2010). "Partisanship, Not Spanish: Explaining Municipal Ordinances Affecting Undocumented Immigrants." Taking Local Control: Immigration Policy Activism in U.S. Cities and States. Monica Varsanyi. Stanford CA: Stanford University Press: 73-96.

Sampson, Robert and Charles Loeffler (2010). "Punishment’s Place: The Local Concentration of Mass Incarceration." Daedalus 139(3): 20-31.

Wilson, William Julius and Richard Taub (2007). There Goes the Neighborhood: Racial, Ethnic, and Class Tensions in Four Chicago Neighborhoods and Their Meaning for America. New York: Vintage.

Wong, Janelle (2006). Democracy's Promise: Immigrants and American Civic Institutions. Ann Arbor: University of Michigan Press.

About the Author
Jennifer Hochschild is the Henry LaBarre Jayne Professor of Government and professor of African and African American studies at Harvard University.
Posted on July 23rd, 2014.