Multiethnic neighborhoods are on the rise in America, but new research suggests that when most whites or blacks move, they find another neighborhood where most of the people share their race.

Both races are most likely to move from one neighborhood predominantly made up of their own racial group to another, the research found. In other words, self-segregation is still alive. And this is not a demonstration of "separate but equal" living, said study researcher Kyle Crowder, a University of Washington sociologist.

"Segregation, to me, is not necessarily a problem, if the neighborhoods that people are moving between are equal. But the fact that these white neighborhoods and black neighborhoods differ in terms of school quality, crime and access to health care and those sorts of things, that's where it becomes important," Crowder told LiveScience.

Making a move

There is no doubt that multiethnic neighborhoods have been on the rise in America. According to one 2008 study, the number of metropolitan neighborhoods made up of sizeable numbers of at least two ethnic groups increased by more than two-thirds between 1980 and 2000, and the number of all-white metro neighborhoods decreased by the same amount.

Even so, multiethnic neighborhoods are not in the majority, Crowder said. "We didn't have a whole lot of multiethnic neighborhoods back in the 1970s, and the fact that we have more now doesn't mean we necessarily have a lot of them," he said.

Crowder and his colleagues were interested in the decisions people make to move from place to place. They used data from the Panel Study of Income Dynamics, a research effort that has been following volunteer families since 1968, to track the movements of 44,808 black households and 57,415 white households over almost three decades. During that period, these families made nearly 19,000 moves from neighborhood to neighborhood.

Using U.S. Census data, the researchers were able to track the demographics of neighborhoods moved to and from. They found that people tended to move within limited circles. About 44 percent of black families moved to black neighborhoods, and only 5 percent moved to white neighborhoods. About a third moved to neighborhoods that were mixed but dominated by one ethnic group or another, and a final 17.7 percent moved to true multiethnic neighborhoods — areas populated by at least 10 percent black residents, 10 percent Hispanic or Asian, and at least 40 percent white. [Crowded Planet: Earth at 7 Billion]

White families were even less likely to cross racial borders, with 56.8 percent moving to largely white neighborhoods, 2 percent to largely black neighborhoods, 5.6 percent to multiethnic neighborhoods and 35.6 percent to neighborhoods with some diversity but dominated by one racial group. (In 21.9 percent of moves, white families moved to "white/other" neighborhoods, where neighbors were between 10 and 50 percent Hispanic or Asian and no more than 10 percent black.) Lower-income and lower-educated whites were the most likely to move into multiethnic neighborhoods.

White families also were more likely to leave a multiethnic neighborhood or a neighborhood with a higher proportion of black residents than they were to leave a predominantly white neighborhood. When whites left a mostly white neighborhood, 75 percent of them headed to another one. When blacks left a predominantly black neighborhood, 60 percent of them relocated to another one.

"Those multiethnic neighborhoods that have grown in number are still not the dominant destination for most black and white movers," Crowder said. He and his colleagues detailed their findings today (May 31) in the journal American Sociological Review.

Why segregation persists

Economics explains part of the discrepancy between where black and white families move, Crowder said. Income, education and home ownership play a role. But economic disparities don't tell the whole story, because when researchers control for these factors, differences in residence remain.

Discrimination could play a role in some neighborhoods, Crowder said, as could personal preferences: Studies have found that whites prefer predominantly white neighborhoods, while blacks are slightly more open to diversity. Moving to certain neighborhoods also depends on opportunity, Crowder said. If a person grew up in a black neighborhood and has black co-workers and black friends, he or she is unlikely to be familiar with white neighborhoods or to hear about housing opportunities in those areas. The same is true for white home-hunters and black neighborhoods.

"In terms of what policymakers can do or what folks that are interested in reducing segregation can do, it might be not only about reducing discrimination, but also doing a better job of equalizing the sources of information about different residential opportunities," Crowder said.

City characteristics matter, too. Crowder and his colleagues found that cities with greater diversity had more people moving into multiethnic neighborhoods, which makes sense given the greater opportunities for cross-racial mingling in a diverse environment. Cities with lots of new housing construction had more movers into multiethnic areas than cities with long-established racial distributions.

Predominantly black neighborhoods still differ from predominantly white neighborhoods in education quality, walkability, food choices, health care opportunities and crime, Crowder said.

"If we were able to equalize those conditions across those areas, I think you would probably see lower, not only smaller racial disparities in all kinds of outcomes, but you'd probably also see a lot more racial mixing at the neighborhood level," he said.

You can follow LiveScience senior writer Stephanie Pappas on Twitter @sipappas. Follow LiveScience for the latest in science news and discoveries on Twitter @livescience and on Facebook.

Copyright 2012 LiveScience, a TechMediaNetwork company. All rights reserved. This material may not be published, broadcast, rewritten or redistributed.