Some of America’s most racially integrated neighborhoods and cities are on a path to becoming segregated all over again. In Los Angeles this means neighborhoods where Latinos and Asians now live alongside black or white neighbors may have few to no whites or blacks in 10 to 20 years.
In research I conducted with Siri Warkentien, another sociologist, we used a statistical model and census data to identify the most common changes in racial composition in 10,681 neighborhoods in metropolitan L.A., Houston, Chicago and New York, beginning as far back as 1970 in some areas. That starting point corresponds with the implementation of the 1968 federal Fair Housing Act, which protects buyers and renters from discrimination in choosing where to live.
Covina, 22 miles east of downtown L.A., provides an example of one city at risk of re-segregating. Whites make up about 26% of Covina as of 2014 and Latinos about 57%. Typically we consider neighborhoods with at least 10% of each group to be racially integrated. But the mix is crumbling. Latinos made up 13% of Covina’s residents in 1980, 26% in 1990, 40% in 2000, and 52% in 2010. Four years later, according to the most recent census estimate, the Latino population had grown by five more percentage points. By 2025, Covina is likely to be overwhelmingly Latino.
Something similar happened already in nearby Norwalk. In 1990, just under half its residents were Latino and about a third were white (not unlike Covina now). By 2014, Latinos made up 70% of residents and whites 11%.
The data show that vast portions of south and east Los Angeles are slipping from mixed populations toward single race populations. And the change has not just occurred in formerly white areas. One of the trajectories that we identified followed a similar pattern in neighborhoods that were once black. Compton residents were nearly three-quarters black in 1980; by 1990, the mix was about 52% black and 43% Latino; in 2014, two-thirds Latino. Such slow but steadily increasing Latino growth can be found in 46% of the neighborhoods we studied in the Los Angeles metropolitan region.
What’s causing a shift from mixed to single-race populations?
Immigration is one obvious factor. The Latino population increased in Los Angeles after immigration laws were changed in 1965 to encourage family reunification. That population was bolstered by a steady increase in Mexican immigrants from the mid-1990s until the recession. Newly arrived Latinos, like all immigrant groups, tend to find housing in neighborhoods already pioneered by their countryman who are already here.
Our research found that this process is occurring again in Southern California, but this time among immigrants from Asia, the source of the largest number of U.S. newcomers now. For example, the Asian proportion of the population in Cerritos increased from 44% in 1990 to 58% in 2000 to 62% in 2014. It appears to be following a path toward Asian segregation much like Covina is on the path to Latino segregation.
White preferences are another major factor that helps explain re-segregation.
Our model showed that, broadly speaking, during the 1980s, whites stopped fleeing from neighborhoods that were becoming integrated. But then — more than any other racial group — when whites did move they chose new neighborhoods with same-race neighbors.
In other words, Latinos moving to an area would not cause most whites to move out. But the prospect of having Latino neighbors might be enough to prevent whites from moving into a neighborhood. (Whites are moving to one kind of integrated neighborhoods: those that are gentrifying like downtown Los Angeles. But many fewer neighborhoods are gentrifying than segregating.)
For a time, places like Covina and Norwalk will remain integrated. But as whites in these areas get older and die, the outcome is clear. Consider the age patterns: In Covina, 22% of whites are 65 or older; only 14% are under the age of 18. Among Latinos in Covina, 6% are 65 or older; 32% are younger than 18.
Segregation is not, however, inevitable. Our statistical model found that in 20% of L.A. neighborhoods we examined, whites, blacks, Latinos and Asians have been living together for 10 to 30 years, and no group’s population is changing much faster or slower than any other. In fact, among L.A., Houston, Chicago and New York, Los Angeles had the highest proportion of these “quadrivial” neighborhoods.
There are ways to encourage integration. The Department of Housing and Urban Development has taken a positive step in this direction by requiring all grant recipients to show how they would promote integration, although Congress is threatening to undo this rule. At a local level, investment in neighborhood infrastructure, especially schools, attracts diverse residents and promotes integration. There is also new research that shows whites are choosing same-race neighborhoods not solely because of prejudice or animus, but because they don’t know about more mixed areas. In a separate study of Chicago area residents, for instance, whites were 2 to 6 times less likely than Latinos to even know about majority Latino neighborhoods.
Because so much of the shift in integration is based on whites’ decisions about where they will move next, Los Angeles’ future demographic patterns are in their hands. If whites do their homework, and find out more about neighborhoods that are now unfamiliar to them, they can make L.A. an example to the nation of how to create integration in the 21st century. Otherwise, knowingly or not, they may reproduce the problems of racial segregation for the future.