Understanding Segregation Today

A Sociological Definition

Houses separated to illustrate segregation, something that very much still exists in society.
Cultura RM/Ian Nolan

Segregation refers to the legal and practical separation of people on the basis of group status, like race, ethnicity, class, gender, sex, sexuality, or nationality, among other things. Some forms of segregation are so mundane that we take them for granted and hardly even notice them. For example, segregation on the basis of biological sex is common and hardly questioned, as with toilets, changing rooms, and locker rooms specific to males and females, or separation of the sexes within the armed forces, in student housing, and in prison.

Though none of these instances of sex segregation are without critique, it is segregation on the basis of race that comes to mind for most when they hear the word.

Extended Definition

Today, many think of racial segregation as something that is in the past because it was legally outlawed in the U.S. by the Civil Rights Act of 1964. But though "de jure" segregation, that enforced by law was banned, "de facto" segregation, the real practice of it, continues today. Sociological research that demonstrates the patterns and trends present in society makes it very clear that racial segregation persists strongly in the U.S., and in fact, segregation on the basis of economic class has intensified since the 1980s.

In 2014 a team of social scientists, supported by the American Communities Project and the Russell Sage Foundation, published a report titled "Separate and Unequal in Suburbia." The authors of the study used data from the 2010 Census to take a close look at how racial segregation has evolved since it was outlawed.

When thinking about racial segregation, images of ghettoized Black communities likely come to mind for many, and this is because inner cities across the U.S. historically have been greatly segregated on the basis of race. But Census data show that racial segregation has changed since the 1960s.

Today, cities are a bit more integrated than they were in the past, though they are still racially segregated--Black and Latino people are more likely to live among their racial group than they are among whites.

And though suburbs have diversified since the 1970s, neighborhoods within them are now very segregated by race, and in ways that have damaging effects. When you look at the racial composition of suburbs, you see that Black and Latino households are nearly twice as likely as white ones to live in neighborhoods where poverty is present. The authors point out that the effect of race on where someone lives is so great that it trumps income: "...blacks and Hispanics with incomes over $75,000 live in neighborhoods with a higher poverty rate than do whites who earn less than $40,000." (See this interactive map for a visualization of racial segregation across the U.S.)

Results like this make the intersection between segregation on the basis of race and class clear, but it's important to recognize that segregation on the basis of class is a phenomenon unto itself. Using the same 2010 Census data, Pew Research Center reported in 2012 that residential segregation on the basis of household income has increased since the 1980s. (See the report titled "The Rise of Residential Segregation by Income.") Today, more lower-income households are located in majority low-income areas, and the same is true of upper-income households.

The authors of the Pew study point out that this form of segregation has been fueled by rising income inequality in the U.S., which was greatly exacerbated by the Great Recession which began in 2007. As income inequality has increased, the share of neighborhoods that are predominantly middle class or mixed income has decreased.

Many social scientists, educators, and activists are concerned about one deeply troubling consequence of racial and economic segregation: unequal access to education. There's a very clear correlation between the income level of a neighborhood and its quality of schooling (as measured by student performance on standardized tests). This means that unequal access to education is a result of residential segregation on the basis of race and class, and it is Black and Latino students who are disproportionately exposed to this problem due to the fact that they are more likely to live in low-income areas than their white peers.

Even in more affluent settings, they are more likely than their white peers to be "tracked" into lower level courses that reduce the quality of their education.

Another implication of residential segregation on the basis of race is that our society is very socially segregated, which makes it difficult for us to tackle the problems of racism that persist. In 2014 the Public Religion Research Institute released a study that examined data from the 2013 American Values Survey. Their analysis revealed that the social networks of white Americans are nearly 91 percent white, and are exclusively white for a full 75 percent of the white population. Black and Latino citizens have more diverse social networks than do whites, but they too are still mostly socializing with people of the same race.

There's a lot more to be said about the causes and consequences of the many forms of segregation, and about their dynamics. Fortunately there's a lot of research available to students who wish to learn about it.