Racial Segregation and Integration

How Segregated or Integrated are Major Metroplitan Areas?

By US Census Bureau, 2000 Census [Public domain], via Wikimedia Commons

Racial segregation is not only a sociological topic, but a prominent subject in urban geography as well. Segregation occurs due to many different reasons and is most strongly felt within social and economic systems. Although purposeful segregation seems to be a thing of the past, its presence still affects cities to this day. We are able to measure how segregated a city is through the use of the "index of dissimilarity." This equation allows us to identify the disparity within a city and make careful judgments on what the cause of the segregation may be.

Social Segregation

Segregated cities tend to have a higher degree of "worse off" residents, especially among the black population. This is especially true for educational attainment where neighborhoods with a very high amount of black population (80% or more) tend to have low rates of the population earning higher educations. Schools in central city districts tend to be significantly more underfunded than schools in suburban neighborhoods.

`1Most of the real estate that underprivileged minorities may be able to afford is located in some of the poorest neighborhoods of a city. Because of this, the quality of education available is relatively low due to the smaller amount of tax money that their homes earn. With aging school buildings and underfunded teachers, the incentive to pursue an education (even at the high school level) may be non-existent. With little incentive to continue with school in the absence of support from teachers and parents, few actually persevere to get an education.

Economic Segregation

Economic segregation is where groups are segregated due to economic processes and their outcomes. A great example of economic segregation is the city of Detroit in Southeastern Michigan. Due to the outsourcing of thousands of jobs from the city, Detroit experienced economic decline and stagnation. One process that may have contributed to Detroit's downfall was the departure of many white residents during the late 60's that is called "white flight". White flight is the process in which the integration of minorities into a white neighborhood (or city) reaches a "tipping point" at which its white residents begin to withdrawal to suburbs or other cities.

Detroit even shows a visible line where the segregation begins and ends in the northern part of the city: the infamous 8 Mile Road. The road separates Detroit proper from its almost completely white suburbs. This disparity leads to a high index of dissimilarity due to the clear separation of race along its border. Homes in the city of Detroit can be shockingly cheap (many around $30,000) and crime tends to be quite prevalent south of 8 Mile Road.

Another take on economic processes is analyzing the demand for and supply of certain amenities within a city. Detroit tends to be more of a low-income city due to the massive amount of jobs that have been outsourced. Since many jobs in the city have been destroyed, opportunities for the blacks that inhabit the majority of the city have been lessened. Lower incomes bring lower demand for upper-class amenities (for example, restaurants) which means that restaurants such as Olive Garden are mostly absent. There are no Olive Gardens present within the city of Detroit. Instead, one would have to journey to one of the city's suburbs to take advantage of one.

The Index of Dissimilarity

In order to distinguish segregated areas from non-segregated areas, we use an equation called the "index of dissimilarity". The index of dissimilarity is a measure of the evenness of the distribution of two races inside a certain area which is a component of a larger area. In the case of cities, the "larger area" is its metropolitan statistical area (MSA), and the smaller areas within the MSA are the measured areas. For example, think of these components as a set of buckets: we measure the dissimilarity between two groups (whites and blacks, for instance) in our first bucket which is a Census tract. There are hundreds (and sometimes thousands) of Census "buckets" within a single MSA "bucket". The formula for the index is as follows:

0.5 ∑ | mi - ni |

Where mi is the ratio of the number of minority persons in a Census tract to the number of minority persons in the MSA. Inversely, ni is the ratio of the number of non-minority persons in a Census tract to the number of non-minority persons in the MSA. The higher the index for a city, the more segregated that city is. An index of "1" represents a completely similar and integrated city, while an index of "100" implies a completely dissimilar and segregated city. By plugging Census data into this equation (and summing up every Census tract for the given MSA) we are able to see how segregated a city really is.


The opposite of segregation is integration, which is the synthesis of different groups into a unified whole. Every large city tends to have some segregation, but there are others that tend to have a more integrated structure. Take for example the city of Minneapolis in Minnesota. Although the city is mostly white (at 70.2%), there is a considerable amount of other races present. Blacks make up 17.4% of the population (as of 2006), while Asians account for 4.9%. Combine this with the recent influx of Hispanic immigrants, and it is clear that Minneapolis contains many different races and ethnicities. With all of these races present, the city still has a low index of dissimilarity at 59.2.

A City's History

The difference between Minneapolis and segregated places such as Chicago and Detroit is that the immigration of minorities to the city has been balanced and slow as opposed to a sudden movement. This steady immigration has led to mostly balanced neighborhoods with little segregation for Minneapolis. The roots that started the segregation in Chicago and Detroit are mostly attributed to the Great Migration of blacks from the south to cities in the Midwest during the 1910's.

While Minneapolis gained a small amount from this event, Rust Belt cities with economies based on the auto industry received most of the migrating population. So when immigrating blacks moved to cities such as Chicago and Detroit for work, they tended to move into areas that were more welcoming for their race. These areas also happened to be the most segregated and contained little opportunity for blacks to integrate with whites. Since Minneapolis had a slower history with immigration, blacks were able to integrate with the white society rather than be pushed to a certain enclave.

Some Great Resources for Determining Segregation:

  • The Population Studies Center at the University of Michigan has done a lot of work with 2000 Census tracts and has compiled many indices of dissimilarity on their website.
  • The New York Times issued a fascinating interactive map that allows one to select a racial input and see what Census tracts (and counties) are more segregated than others.
  • Lastly, Census data is always an important tool for getting population figures to work with.

Jacob Langenfeld is an undergraduate at the University of Iowa studying economics. He aspires to continue researching demographic and economic trends within a geographic context while teaching others what he learns in an elated fever. His work can also be found on New Geography.