A staggering 81% of metropolitan regions across the nation have become more racially segregated since the 1990s, according to findings from UC Berkeley’s Othering and Belonging Institute. The Roots of Structural Racism Project found that while California is diverse, racial residential segregation has changed little in the Golden State, especially in some Southern California cities.
Stephen Menendian, the study’s lead author, says the United States has transformed since the 1960s. “We've always been a multiracial country. But for most of the 20th century, we were most regarded as a primarily Black and white country.”
He explains that duality changed with the Immigration and Naturalization Act of 1965, which brought in more Asian and Hispanic Americans to the West Coast and the Southwest. In California’s Bay Area, Asians are on track to be the largest plurality within a few decades.
Following some growth in diversity, Los Angeles was one of the state’s metropolitan areas to see improvements in desegregation. However, it still remains the sixth most segregated region among more than 220 metro areas.
Menendian says there are multiple reasons for that. “It's not just that there is more segregation. It's that there has been a tremendous amount of shifts in demography. You have … Asian and Hispanic peoples moving to different neighborhoods across the metropolitan region.”
The region’s sprawl also creates fragmentation. “Los Angeles is a metropolitan region that is dominated by highways and cars. And in any region where cars are the predominant mode of travel, you're going to have freeways bisecting communities. … It's a very balkanized region in the sense that there are racially identified viable neighborhoods across the region,” he says.
Several other Southern California cities remain high on the study’s list of most segregated areas, including Santa Barbara, Riverside and Oxnard.
Menedian believes the main reason segregation has persisted despite the rise in diversity is that a number of highly segregated and affluent white communities have “maintained their exclusionary whiteness.” The researcher says those areas are heavily white relative to the populations of the state and the nearby regions.
“[While] most people in California are people of color … many of these cities are 60 to 70, even 80% white. And that’s what’s driving a lot of this segregation,” he says.
Some of the cities listed as most segregated also include several agricultural hubs driven by seasonal migration. Many diverse groups, most often Latinos, settle in highly concentrated neighborhoods where they will work. “You'll see the handful of Census tracts that are highly segregated communities of color in what's otherwise a sea of white,” explains Menendian.
The assistant director of the Othering and Belonging Institute says the racial divide in residential areas is a problem. “Racial residential segregation continues to undergird almost every expression of racial inequality in our society.”
COVID also highlights the importance of addressing segregation because it drives health outcomes. “There have been several notable studies related to the COVID pandemic, which neighborhoods were hardest hit by COVID, where's the mortality rate the highest,” says Menendian.
Also with most students in the United States assigned to neighborhood schools, Menedian says, “Segregated residential patterns shaped segregated educational opportunity.”
So what’s the solution? Menendian says it comes down to policy and integrating neighborhoods. “So we can address each of those issues in a piecemeal fashion or we can recognize that racial residential segregation is really the root cause of each of them.”
And if the problem of segregated metro areas isn’t addressed, he says, “I think we're going to continue to see uprisings of the sort that we saw in Watts in the 60s.”
He says the past few years have shown that “without actually promoting racial equity through integration, deliberate integration, we're going to continue to see police violence focused in communities of color ...we're going to continue to see uprisings.”
He notes that uprisings over the last 50 years aren’t simply about police brutality. “They were also a response to these inequitable conditions that are baked into our metropolitan region.”