America's neighborhoods became more integrated last year than during any time in at least a century – but ethnic segregation persisted, particularly for Hispanics, in many parts of the U.S.
Segregation among blacks and whites fell in roughly three-quarters of the nation's 100 largest metropolitan areas, as the two racial groups spread more evenly between inner cities and suburbs, according to recent Census data.
A rising black middle class in particular has helped as blacks moved into fast-growing white areas in the South and West.
The findings are expected to be reinforced with fresh Census data being released Tuesday on race, migration and economics. The new information is among the Census Bureau's most detailed releases yet for neighborhoods.
The race trends also hint at the upcoming political and legal wrangling over the 2010 census figures, to be published in the spring. The data will be used to reallocate congressional districts, drawing new political boundaries.
New Hispanic-dominated districts could emerge, particularly for elected positions at the state and local level. States are required under the Voting Rights Act to respect the interests of minority voting blocs, which tend to support Democratic candidates.
"It's taken a Civil Rights movement and several generations to yield noticeable segregation declines for blacks," said William H. Frey, a demographer at the Brookings Institution who reviewed the census data. "But the still-high levels of black segregation in some areas, coupled with uneven clustering patterns for Hispanics, suggest that the idea of a post-racial America has a way to go."
Milwaukee, Detroit and Syracuse, N.Y., were among the most segregated, all part of areas in the Northeast and Midwest known by some demographers as the "ghetto belt." On the other end of the scale, cities that were least likely to be segregated included Fort Myers, Fla., Honolulu, Atlanta and Miami.
Hispanic integration was mixed. There was less Hispanic-white segregation in cities and suburbs in many large metros such as Buffalo, Washington, D.C., and Chicago, according to preliminary Census figures. But in many smaller neighborhoods, large numbers of more recently arrived Hispanic immigrants are believed to be clustering together for social support, experts said.
The findings on segregation are partly based on a demographic index that tracks the degree to which racial groups are evenly spread between city and suburb. The index ranges from 0 to 100, with 60 or above generally considered highly segregated. That index found that for large U.S. metros in 2009, the black-white segregation reading was 27, down from 33 in 2000 and the lowest in generations.
Still, the recent gains in racial integration are somewhat limited, said John Logan, a sociologist at Brown University who has studied residential segregation. He noted that black-white segregation remained generally high in areas of the Northeast and Midwest. In those areas, there is slow population growth and white flight from increasingly minority neighborhoods is still common.
As for Hispanics and Asians, while residential movement out of ethnic neighborhoods has been increasing, those numbers have generally been surpassed by the arrival of new immigrants into traditional enclaves.
"The political implications of these trends are great in the long run — majority black districts will become harder to sustain, while more majority Hispanic districts will emerge, especially for state and local positions," Logan said.
The figures come from previous censuses and the 2009 American Community Survey, which samples 3 million households.
Due to incomplete 2009 data, the analysis of racial segregation omits seven metro areas: Sarasota, Fla., Greenville, S.C., Harrisburg, Pa., Jackson, Miss., McAllen, Texas, Portland, Maine, and Poughkeepsie, N.Y.
Based on reporting by the Associated Press.