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Census Says:
New York Intensely Segregated

By Annette Fuentes

The 2000 Census showed the U.S. population was becoming more and more diverse as the numbers of Asians, Latinos and people of the African diaspora continued to climb. The Latino population alone increased by more than 50%. In New York City, the combined population of black, Latino and Asian residents swelled to majority status.

But in New York, the ostensible capital of diversity, the segregation of Asians, Latinos and black residents from white households is at virtually the same level today as it was in 1960.

Indeed, it’s just about the worst in the country. Out of 331 metropolitan areas scrutinized by John Logan, a sociologist and director of the Lewis Mumford Center for Comparative Urban and Regional Research at the State University of New York at Albany, New York now ranks first for both Latino-white segregation--up from second place in 1990--and Asian-white segregation, up from seventh place 10 years ago. For black-white segregation, long the yardstick of racial integration in neighborhoods, New York City ranks third in the country, up from seventh place at the time of the 1990 Census. Detroit and Milwaukee rank first and second respectively. If those statistics weren’t troubling enough, Logan applied his methodology to census numbers on children and discovered that segregation is in fact growing. In metropolitan areas around the nation, black, Asian, and Latino children are growing up in neighborhoods increasingly separated from white children.

"I was startled that areas with high levels of segregation had even higher levels for children," he says.

Logan attributes the overall trend to concentrated growth of Latino and Asian populations in the Northeast, Sunbelt and West Coast. But it holds true in New York City, too--here, segregation among children has increased 6% since 1990. The Big Apple now ranks third nationwide for the level of segregation between black and white children.

"For people who think we’ve seen change, the news is that it’s the same," says Angelo Falcon, director of the Institute for Puerto Rican Policy at the Puerto Rican Legal Defense and Education Fund. "There was some media coverage of the census analysis, but no sense of outrage or a need to do something about it. Look at the mayoral race. There is no discussion of segregation. You don’t have the mayoral candidates saying, ‘I want to integrate New York City.’"

Segregation is measured by several indices that assess residential patterns within census tracts, which contain from 4,000 to 6,000 people. Logan’s analyses found sharp differences in the composition of neighborhoods where whites live as compared to blacks, Asians and Latinos. Nationally, on average, whites live in neighborhoods that are 83% white. Blacks live in neighborhoods that average 54% black and 33.2% white. Latinos’ neighborhoods are 42.1% Latino, 40% white, and 13% black. Asians’ neighborhoods are 19.3% Asian and 58% white, with the rest split between blacks and Latinos.

The numbers for New York City reflect that same pattern of segregation, but even more so. Latinos are an average of 46.3% of their neighborhoods’ residents; Asians are 26.5% of theirs; and blacks make up 60.4% of their neighborhoods.

What it means, says Logan, is that in spite of the growing population diversity in New York City overall, blacks, Latinos, and Asians live in closer proximity to one another than they do to whites.

The reasons for New York’s segregation--as for any city’s racial and ethnic divides--boil down to several factors, which can vary for the different groups. Apologists for persistent segregation like to say that choice, not racial or economic barriers, determines where people live.

It’s true that Latino and Asian immigrants are often drawn to neighborhoods populated by others from their nations of origin, just as waves of immigrants before them were. Other cultural and language similarities are also strong magnets. So, for example, Mexican immigrants have boosted the Latino population of Sunset Park and East Harlem, established Puerto Rican enclaves. For Latinos, limited income and newcomer status help perpetuate their segregated residential patterns, says Logan; for most Asian groups, segregation is driven by preference and their immigrant status.

For African-Americans, though, segregation is the direct consequence of racial discrimination, plain and simple. "The basic underlying grid is black-white segregation," says John Mollenkopf, co-director of the Center for Urban Research at CUNY Graduate Center. "But over that is being applied a spatial differentiation driven by immigrant groups who are not black or white. As these groups establish themselves in different areas, segregation will go down. Exclusively white neighborhoods will be less so and more Asian or Latino. But not black."

The tenacity of segregation is a testament to decades of policies, both official and unwritten, that fostered white privilege in housing choice. Federal housing subsidies and loan programs, local zoning laws and racially restrictive covenants attached to home deeds laid the foundation for segregated cities before and after World War II. From the 1950s on, public housing projects, discriminatory mortgage practices and urban renewal projects all helped ghettoize African-Americans, building on that early legacy of residential segregation.

"Segregation is caused by racism, but it can’t be interpreted as simple acts of racism by whites," says Nancy Denton, associate professor of sociology at SUNY Albany and co-author of American Apartheid: The Making of the Underclass. "It’s the segregated pattern established years ago, and now it determines how people live. Segregation of a group over a long time becomes self-perpetuating."

For some African-Americans, integration is no longer a goal, Denton believes, because the personal price of confronting racism has been too steep. "We’re seeing that with African-Americans in Harlem," Denton says.

"It comes down to being sick and tired of dealing with discrimination. Integration has gotten a bad reputation. It’s been equated with a one-way process: Blacks should live like whites. Whites love this because if 0we say that these groups prefer to live among themselves, it’s very convenient."

Even as increased incomes for some African-Americans and Latinos should have provided wider access to housing choices in the city and suburbs, fair-housing laws have done little to attack segregation. Historically, federal enforcement of fair-housing laws has been anemic. In 1998, the Justice Department filed just 64 fair housing cases nationally, only about half for discrimination on the basis of race or national origin.

The worsening segregation of children is easily detected in a public-school system that offers wildly differing quality and resources depending on neighborhood. Gary Orfield, co-director of the Civil Rights Project at Harvard, authored a report released this July called "Schools More Separate: Consequences of a Decade of Resegregation." Orfield paints an alarming picture of worsening segregation among students, especially Latinos, whose enrollment in public schools has ballooned in several key states. "New York is the most segregated for black and Latino students,"

Orfield says. "For Latinos, it’s been the most segregated since the 1970s." Residential segregation is the simple cause of this skewed system, he says. "Just pick any random black or Latino classroom. Then look at a white suburban school. The difference hits you like a ton of bricks," Orfield says.

In New York City, the economics of segregation is the most formidable challenge, according to Orfield. "Residential segregation is a huge economic threat to communities. When housing is moved out of white control to blacks and Latinos, there is disinvestment in jobs and infrastructure."

The census analyses and their alarming portrait of a city segregated could ignite political activism among new groups coming to political maturity as well as long-time progressives, says Angelo Falcon. "During the civil rights movement, the idea of integration was a pained kind of ameliorist approach," he says. "Now it strikes me that it is one of the most revolutionary demands. The persistence of segregation raises the issue of how changing demographics mean people of color should be challenging white privilege. Integration could be a much more radical and powerful tool than how people saw it back then. It’s the basis of a new civil-rights issue."

A longer version of this article appeared in the November issue of City Limits. Reprinted with permission.