Realities of racial equity

Nationally, more minorities have access to housing in formerly all-white parts of metropolitan areas. Opportunities and choices by more blacks, Latinos and Asians for suburban residence have increased as the numbers of whites moving to cities has increased. Thus, in the aggregate, there is greater residential mobility and mixing among racial groups in metro areas. Yet it’s primarily at the level of statistical neighborhoods, aka census tracts.

A census tract consists of multiple residential areas containing upward of 8,000 residents. These statistical spaces don’t correspond with what we normally mean by neighborhoods — the smaller collections of people on a few familiar blocks and streets, the geographies where we expect community.

When we zoom into the neighborhood level from the metro level of census tracts, declines in residential segregation often don’t mean as much as we think. Whites routinely manifest a preference for continuing to live in majority-white areas, albeit not “lily-white” neighborhoods. Not all minorities, especially the poorest among them, can obtain or want a more integrated neighborhood. Hence, at the neighborhood level racial segregation is declining at a much slower rate than what we see at the metro level.

Like the nation, as macrosegregation diminishes in metro Atlanta, microsegregation remains. Think of the city of Atlanta. Blacks mainly reside on its south and west sides. Whites mainly live on its north and east sides, joined by Latinos and Asians, in the majority-white neighborhoods.

Even where we see more diversity of residents (and consumers) on neighborhood streets due to gentrification of historically black and/or blighted areas, cross-racial fellowship and friendship is not the norm. In less segregated neighborhoods of metro Atlanta, namely unincorporated parts of counties or former suburbs that are now cities, we often see the same thing — shared spaces belying shared lives.

The progress towards racial equity of opportunities and outcomes in metro Atlanta is not as great as it seems, and it relates to enduring neighborhood-level segregation. What does this all mean? As residential segregation falls at the metropolitan level, including here in Atlanta, neighborhood-level segregation stands, hindering reductions in inequities among us.

The Urban Institute recently graded the nation’s 100 largest metropolitan areas, measuring parity between blacks, whites and Latinos in terms of residential separation, divergence in household incomes, variations in public school test scores and differences in employment and homeownership rates. Metro Atlanta ranked No. 40 in racial equity for black Americans and No. 67 in racial equity for Latinos. Converting rankings to grades, metro Atlanta — the full set of cities, suburbs and exurbs — earned a B in racial equity for blacks and a D in racial equity for Latinos.

Our D for Latino equity is damning. We’re only slightly better than failing when it comes to the spatial and socioeconomic integration of Latinos. Our B for black equity is worse than (or maybe better than) expected. While Latinos have a long way to go to achieve equity with whites, blacks have covered more ground due to their longer history of residence, political activism and middle-class development and success in the region.

Still, as college professors know, and their students hate to hear, a B denotes good performance, well short of excellence and honors.

Michael Leo Owens is a professor of political science at Emory University and teaches courses on the racial and political development of metropolitan Atlanta.

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