The declaration of the "end of segregation" is wishful thinking, not reality in the United States. But a new report with that title does illuminate a substantive decline in residential segregation worth noting.
Those who denigrate government regulation and policies should take note of this, too: One big factor in the drop in neighborhood segregation was federal fair housing laws, passed in the late 1960s.
Duke University professor Jacob Vigdor, coauthor of the study for the Manhattan Institute, a conservative think tank, acknowledged that link Wednesday on National Public Radio: "If you look at where the turning point was, the turning point was right around 1970. We had the Fair Housing Act in 1968. We had other legislative and policy changes that really made housing market discrimination illegal and stopped discriminatory practices. And so I think we are seeing the legacy of those changes."
The study also ties the decline to changes in racial attitudes and an end to state-supported discriminatory lending practices. Those changes resulted in white gentrification of black neighborhoods, and blacks moving into white suburban neighborhoods, which the report tags as the prime drivers in segregation's decline.
Those who helped upend discrimination through court action and public policy did this country a great service. Segregation had a profoundly corrosive impact on the nation, constricting the life prospects of millions of its citizens and depriving the country of all that those citizens could contribute to its prosperity. The effect of that discrimination is felt today.
Still, the fact that racially isolated neighborhoods are on the decline, and that, as Vigdor puts it, "America is now more racially integrated than anytime in the past century," is progress. The opportunities for blacks and other nonwhites to live wherever they can afford to is an embodiment of American ideals.
Despite the study's title, the authors do acknowledge that "segregation has not disappeared." And though the study trumpets the fact that "all-white neighborhoods are effectively extinct," it acknowledges that many mostly black neighborhoods still exist. Charlotte is a good example. Segregation declined only modestly here over the past decade. Almost all neighborhoods between uptown and Interstate 85 are 80 percent black.
And even as residential segregation has declined, another form of segregation is on the rise: segregated schools. Studies show U.S. public schools are now more racially segregated than they were in the 1960s. Many of those high-minority, high-poverty schools are under-resourced to meet student needs.
Vigdor and co-author Edward Glaeser conclude that because significant social and economic problems persist for blacks even as segregation has declined, that segregation might not have been the obstacle to progress that many believed it to be.
But that flies in the face of what has happened since segregation was outlawed: More than 70 percent of blacks lived below the poverty line in 1970. Now, less than 30 percent do. Before 1970, 60 percent of employed black women worked as domestic servants; today more than 60 percent hold white-collar jobs. And though the achievement gap between whites and blacks remains large, black students made more progress than whites since 1971 on the nation's main test of achievement.
More work needs to be done to unwind the tentacles of segregation's impact, and to tackle economic and school segregation that's increasing. Good public policy choices will help. Among them: Providing more access to affordable housing, and having more of that housing in a variety of communities to give low-income parents better school choices for their children. More aggressive enforcement against predatory lenders and more extensive job training opportunities would help as well.
The "end of segregation" isn't here yet, but with work we can still get there.