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Return To Segregation

THE YEAR IN IDEAS: A TO Z.; Return to Segregation

By James Traub (NYT) 892 words
The release earlier this year of residential data from the 2000 census led to the conclusion that assimilation isn't working the way it used to. Though blacks, Hispanics, Asians and other nonwhite groups now constitute 31 percent of the population, up from 24 percent in 1990, the new housing data demonstrated a startling degree of isolation: Hispanics and Asians are living in more heavily Hispanic and Asian neighborhoods than they were 10 years ago, while whites and blacks are only slightly more exposed to one another than they were in 1990.

But the truth is that immigrants are assimilating faster than they used to. The immigrants from the golden age of assimilation, mostly from Europe, took two or three generations to leave the ghettos they first settled in, and at least that long to begin intermarrying in large numbers; the new immigrants, arriving since 1965, simply haven't had time to master the language and culture. According to John R. Logan, a sociology professor at the State University of New York at Albany, ''Italians and Jews were more segregated in the first 30 years after their arrival than Asian groups are today.'' The same is true, he says, for Hispanics, except for those on the bottom of the socioeconomic ladder.

It is not assimilation that has failed; it is integration -- the word we use specifically for the incorporation of African-Americans into the mainstream. In ''Beyond the Melting Pot,'' published in 1963, Nathan Glazer and Daniel Patrick Moynihan portrayed blacks as migrants from a Southern rural culture to a Northern urban one, subject to essentially the same dynamic as immigrants. The new census data provide further evidence that -- as both have long since conceded -- they were wrong. Blacks' residential exposure to whites, like intermarriage rates, has increased every decade since 1970, but most scholars are much less struck by the progress than by how modest the numbers remain.

The classic immigrant pattern is up and out: you leave the ghetto as soon as you have attained even precarious middle-class status, as Jews and Italians did when they moved from the Lower East Side and Brooklyn to the new suburbs of Long Island. A large fraction of black segregation is explained by black poverty, since you can't move out until you've moved up. For impoverished blacks (and for many Puerto Ricans), isolation has become self-perpetuating, as it has not been for immigrants.

But the census confirms another phenomenon as well: for that large, and growing, number of African-Americans who rise into the middle class, moving out means moving out to a largely black world. As George Galster, a professor of urban affairs at Wayne State University in Detroit, says, ''Despite conventional wisdom, the upper-income group of black Americans by many indexes is as segregated from white Americans as lower-income blacks are.''

Implicit within the new residential data is the idea that while immigrants are finding their way into the larger culture in much the same way as they have in generations past, blacks remain a special case. Scholars do disagree about whether middle-class black segregation should be understood essentially as a matter of choice -- a conscious repudiation of the integration ethic -- or as a consequence of such discriminatory practices as ''racial steering.'' Probably the distinction is too schematic. ''I would put the 'voluntary' in quotes,'' says John O. Calmore, a professor at the University of North Carolina Law School. ''Sometimes you're reacting to bad experiences with integration at work or in school.'' Calmore observes that while integration in higher education or in the workplace is indispensable to success, residential decisions are more a matter of preference.

That doesn't sound so bad: in a more or less free market, people make more or less free choices about where they want to live and whom they want to consort with. But the price may be higher than it appears. Today's middle-class black neighborhoods, whether St. Albans in Queens or Prince George's County in Maryland, are much more uniformly black than the Irish and Jewish and Italian neighborhoods that Glazer and Moynihan described 40 years ago were uniformly Irish and Jewish and Italian. It was in those mixed neighborhoods that the hard edges of ethnic identity were blurred (just as they are starting to be now, say, in the new South Asian suburbs of New Jersey). Ethnic groups found a way to remain salient as groups even as they negotiated their passage to the larger community. They became, in New York terms, ''ethnics,'' and in so doing altered the culture into which they assimilated. Black Americans have done this, of course, in myriad ways, and yet the recent data show that in many ways they continue to stand on the outside, looking in. JAMES TRAUB

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