Black segregation in US drops to lowest in century

America's neighborhoods became more integrated last year than during any time in at least a century, says a broad array of census data released Tuesday on the impact of race and economics.

Segregation among blacks and whites fell in roughly three-fourths of the nation's 100 largest metropolitan areas as the two racial groups spread more evenly between inner cities and suburbs. Still, ethnic segregation in many parts of the U.S. persisted, particularly for Hispanics.

"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 postracial America has a way to go."

Income also varied widely by geography. Poverty ranged from 4 percent to more than 40 percent with many of the poor living on American Indian reservations in the High Plains. Amid swirling congressional debate over taxing the wealthy, just three U.S. counties reported a median household income of over $100,000 — all in Virginia.

In contrast, seven counties in 2000 — in Colorado, New Jersey, New Mexico and Virginia — had median income of more than $100,000, before the housing boom and then bust began to ravage household budgets.

The new information is among the Census Bureau's most detailed yet released for neighborhoods, pending demographic results from the official 2010 census next spring.

Among the findings:

— New Orleans was among metros with the largest decline in segregation among blacks and whites since 2000, due largely to the exodus of low-income blacks from the city after Hurricane Katrina.

— Four New York counties ranked at the top of longest commute times to work, all in excess of 40 minutes: Richmond, Queens, Kings and Bronx. Residents in King, Texas, had the quickest trip: 3.4 minutes.

— Falls Church, Va., had the highest share of people ages 25 and older who had a bachelor's degree or higher; it was also the locality with the highest median household income at $113,313. In all, 17 of the nation's 3,221 counties had college completion rates of over 50 percent, compared to 62 counties whose rates were less than 10 percent.

— In 21 counties, more than 1 in 3 people lived in poverty. Nationally, the poverty rate in 2009 stood at 14.3 percent, or 43.6 million people.

The figures come from previous censuses and the 2009 American Community Survey, which samples 3 million households. For places with fewer than 20,000 people, the ACS figures from 2005-2009 were averaged to help compensate for otherwise large margins of error.

The race trends 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.

Milwaukee, Detroit and New York 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 Las Vegas, Honolulu, Raleigh, N.C., and Albuquerque, N.M.

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 based on a pair of demographic measures that track the degree to which racial groups are evenly spread between neighborhoods. Both showed declines in black-white segregation from 2000 to the lowest in generations.

One of those measures found that the average white person now lives in a neighborhood that is 79 percent white, compared to 81 percent in 2000. The average black person lives in a 46 percent black neighborhood, down from 49 percent. But for Hispanics, their average neighborhood last year was 45 percent Hispanic, up slightly from 44 percent.

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.

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.