Segregation Is Down. Great News, Right?

But was it ever really a bad thing that black people lived together?

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When Newt Gingrich says that housing project people don't work, our job is to show that they do. When he says that Obama is the "food stamp" president, our job is to show that most food stamp recipients are white. When Ron Paul writes that we're about to start rioting again, we are to make sure that everybody knows we're not.

In other words, although this isn't the lesson usually taken from these recent episodes, it would appear that we are getting more comfortable admitting that progress happens for us. Real progress, even if racism still exists, as it always will. And not just symbolic progress, such as having a black president. When we get angry at whites depicting us as poster children, we are saying that being black is less of a problem in 2012, even if it occasionally still is one.

Well, now there's more good news. We need to trumpet it to the skies as eagerly as we do the news that not so many of us use food stamps. It's about segregation: This new report by Edward Glaeser and Jacob Vigdor shows that black Americans are living under less of it than at any time since William Howard Taft was president.

As Glaeser and Vigdor, writing for the Manhattan Institute for Policy Research, show, "As of 2010, the separation of African-Americans from individuals of other races has stood at its lowest level in nearly a century. Fifty years ago, nearly half the black population lived in what might be termed a 'ghetto' neighborhood, with an African-American share above 80 percent. Today, that proportion has fallen to 20 percent."

Indeed, I used to work for the Manhattan Institute and am proud of it. But I am hardly the only one who will be writing about this report this week, and I would be shouting it to the heavens even if I used to work for Burger King. This is important news.

So often we are told that despite the civil rights revolution, black America's big problem is segregation. Black people live together too much, we are told. And when everybody is black and poor, then we have to understand that the neighborhood must fall to pieces. Not enough middle-class role models, we are told. About twice a year the New York Times runs a story on segregation that pings around the country madly for weeks, in which assorted people are quoted spinning variations on "We've come a long way, but we have a long way to go."

Here, then, is a story about the way we've come. From 1970 to 2010, segregation declined for black people in all 85 of the nation's largest metro areas. From just 2000 to 2010, segregation declined in 522 out of 658 housing markets. By 2010, out of 72,531 census tracts, only 424 had no black people in them. And as recently as 2000, that number had been 902. In 1960, there were 4,700 all-white neighborhoods in America. Today there are 170. We're everywhere!

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Skepticism will be natural -- and quickly relieved. Many, wary of news like this, will check out the stats in Glaeser and Vigdor's report and come away having to process what is, quite simply, good news backed up by solid, simple math. For example, nota bene, social scientists: Yes, the report does measure both isolation (the extent to which black people live only with other blacks) and dissimilarity (the percentage of blacks or whites who would have to move to make a neighborhood perfectly integrated).

Did segregation decrease everywhere? Of course not. But only in 95 districts did dissimilarity and isolation increase over the past 10 years. Notably, they are places where this would neither surprise nor much bother anyone, largely because so few blacks live in them. For example, black people are less than 4 percent of all but one of the 10 biggest cities with small black populations. Plus, the segregation levels in these cities are themselves quite low.

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