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, U.S. cities were known for white flight — the tendency of white people to move out of neighborhoods 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 neighborhoods in the long-term. He famously predicted a “tipping point” where white flight would reach a critical level that rapidly turned a diversifying neighborhood back into a segregated one. White abandonment of inner-city neighborhoods 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 U.S. 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 neighborhoods. A 2016 paper by the National University of Singapore’s Kwan Ok Lee finds that since 1990, white flight and white avoidance of black neighborhoods 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, summarizes the results. Lee looks at U.S. Census tracts, neighborhoods that on average have about 4,000 residents. In addition to the racial makeup of neighborhoods, she was able to track where individuals moved to and from.
Lee’s first finding is that American neighborhoods are becoming more diverse. Majority white neighborhoods were about two-thirds of the total from 1970 to 1990, but during the next two decades that number was only 57 percent. The probability of single-race neighborhoods becoming mixed increased substantially. Meanwhile, a small but growing number of neighborhoods 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 neighborhoods 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 neighborhoods tend to be the most stable — once a neighborhood becomes multiracial, Lee found that it had a 90 percent 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 neighborhood, they tend to either stay there, or move to another mixed neighborhood. This is true for both white and black Americans. In other words, neighborhood 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 neighborhoods 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.
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.