Americans love diversity — or so they like to claim. A 2016 Pew survey found that Americans are much more likely than Europeans to say that diversity makes their country a better place to live: Other polls say the same.
But words and actions are two different things. In the mid-20th century, US cities were known for white flight — the tendency of white people to move out of neighbourhoods when black people moved in. If white Americans pay lip service to the idea of living in a multiracial society but flee at the reality, then the coming demographic transition to a majority-minority nation won’t be a smooth one.
Economic theory also gives reason to worry. In 1971, economist Thomas Schelling showed that even if people have only a slight preference toward living around others of their own race, it can lead to very segregated neighbourhoods in the long-term. He famously predicted a “tipping point” where white flight would reach a critical level that rapidly turned a diversifying neighbourhood back into a segregated one. White abandonment of inner-city neighbourhoods across the country seemed to bear out his gloomy prediction.
But the mid-20th century was a long time ago. Many things have changed in the country since then. There is a small but growing black middle class. With the rise of Asian and Hispanic-Americans, who together now make up about a quarter of the US population, diversity is no longer just about black and white. And despite polls showing that white millennials are almost as biased as their parents, racial attitudes may change over time. It’s important to look at what economists call revealed preference — how people vote with their feet, not just with their words.
Surprisingly, evidence seems to show that Americans are increasingly open to living in diverse neighbourhoods. A 2016 paper by the National University of Singapore’s Kwan OK Lee finds that since 1990, white flight and white avoidance of black neighbourhoods has decreased dramatically. In fact, white Americans in recent decades have tended to move toward diversity rather than away from it.
Urban economist Joe Cortright, blogging at City Observatory, summarises the results. Lee looks at US. Census tracts, neighbourhoods that on average have about 4,000 residents. In addition to the racial make-up of neighbourhoods, she was able to track where individuals moved to and from.
Lee’s first finding is that American neighbourhoods are becoming more diverse. Majority white neighbourhoods were about two-thirds of the total from 1970 to 1990, but during the next two decades that number was only 57 per cent. The probability of single-race neighbourhoods becoming mixed increased substantially. Meanwhile, a small but growing number of neighbourhoods have a substantial numbers of whites, blacks and Hispanics or Asians.
What’s more, Schelling’s much-feared “tipping point” seems to be weakening. From 1990 to 2010, only one-fifth of mixed black-white neighbourhoods became segregated — only half the rate of re-segregation that prevailed in earlier decades. White flight is still happening in some places, but much less than before. Meanwhile, multiracial neighbourhoods tend to be the most stable — once a neighbourhood becomes multiracial, Lee found that it had a 90 per cent chance of remaining that way for at least 20 years.
Lee’s final finding is the most striking. She found that once Americans move to a mixed-race neighbourhood, they tend to either stay there, or move to another mixed neighbourhood. This is true for both white and black Americans. In other words, neighbourhood diversity isn’t just a result of changing demographics, but of Americans choosing to live near people of other races.
Lee’s finding confirms the results of other studies. Despite much alarm over gentrification, it turns out that gentrified neighbourhoods don’t lose their poor and minority populations. According to a 2009 study by Columbia University urban planning professor Lance Freeman, gentrification actually tends to increase diversity in the long term.
What about at the state level? There, diversity is increasing as well. Demographer William H. Frey has chronicled how both whites and minorities have been moving to diverse states like Virginia, Nevada, North Carolina, Colorado, Georgia and Washington. Texas, a majority-minority state, is still a leading destination for white migration.
Residential diversity isn’t the only kind of integration, of course. On other measures, the evidence is mixed — interracial marriage has climbed dramatically, but public schools have become more segregated by race. Meanwhile, the average numbers described in studies like Lee’s and Freeman’s mask considerable — white flight in some areas.
And the most important caveat is the political one. Fear of increasing diversity at the national level was strongly correlated with support for President Donald Trump. Even if a majority of Americans are embracing the country’s increasingly diverse demographics, a strong and vocal minority is resisting the change with every weapon at its disposal.
But overall, the trends are much more positive than the pessimists credit. The country will continue to struggle with the challenge of creating an inclusive multiracial society for decades to come. The American experiment — the question of whether a society can be both diverse and free — is ongoing. But signs point in the right direction.
Noah Smith is a Bloomberg View columnist. He was an assistant professor of Finance at Stony Brook University, and he blogs at Noahpinion.