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Chronicle Q&A with Jacob Vigdor

More than 40 years after the federal government enacted fair-housing legislation and the Great Migration of blacks from the South began to ebb, residential segregation in metropolitan America has been significantly curtailed, according to a recent study by Jacob Vigdor, professor of public policy and economics. Vigdor worked alongside Edward Glaeser, Fred and Eleanor Glimp professor of economics at Harvard University, to conclude that racial segregation in neighborhoods is largely on the decline. The Chronicle’s Ian Zhang sat down with Vigdor earlier this week to discuss the professors’ findings.

The Chronicle: What exactly motivated you to look at a topic like residential segregation?

Jacob Vigdor: I’ve been studying this topic since I was in grad school, a period of almost 20 years now. When I got to graduate school I happened to run into a couple of professors there by the name of David Cutler and Edward Glaeser who happened to be working on a study titled “Are ghettos good or bad?” So I became the research assistant on that project, and then from that project the follow-up was really more about trying to look more at what happened to segregation over time.

TC: How do you measure something like segregation in layman’s terms?

JV: The easiest segregation index to explain to a layperson is dissimilarity. Imagine a city that’s divided up into neighborhoods. If every neighborhood is a microcosm of the city, so in other words a city that’s 50/50 white to black, you’d be looking for a situation where every neighborhood was 50/50, that’s perfect integration. At the other extreme, if we got 50 percent of the neighborhood being all black, 50 percent all white, that’s perfect segregation. Perfect segregation means a dissimilarity index of a 100, and perfect integration means a zero. The points in between correspond to situations where you would have to move a certain proportion of either the black or the white population to achieve perfect integration.

TC: Is it possible that while neighborhoods are becoming less segregated, they are in fact becoming more stratified?

JV: There is some evidence that, as racial segregation declines, that economic segregation has been increasing. Some of that increase in economic segregation is a function of what has been happening to the income distribution. There has definitely been some talk about this among social scientists about the fact that there is an increasing, what you might call, class separation. You can see that looking around Duke for example. There are very few students at Duke who come from families where the family earns less than the median income for the United States.

TC: Do you believe desegregation of metropolitan areas in particular will help address issues of inequality?

JV: It is good for a society when people interact with other people who are not like themselves. One of my favorite experiences since I moved to Durham had nothing to with being a professor; it was when I had jury duty down at the Durham County Courthouse. When you serve on jury duty, you really see a cross-section of society. Here in the university setting you don’t see a cross-section of society. I think that what’s different about society today than say, about 100 years ago, is that we don’t have those common experiences that bring people together. And I think it’s good to be tossed into situations like that. The best way to understand people who are different from you is to be tossed in a room with them and asked to contemplate some very difficult questions.

TC: You mention in the study that desegregation has been a transition 40 years in the making. Has the trend been constant and steady or has it occurred in phases?

JV: I’ve looked at a lot of trends—it is remarkable how steady the trend has been. I mean if you look at this line that we’ve drawn from 1970 to 2010, it would be hard to imagine a straighter line. It’s very unusual to see something that straight. And I think what you see is that it’s a very gradual process. The real instigating incident was the Fair Housing Act of 1968 that makes discrimination in housing markets illegal. That’s what starts the ball rolling. It is a gradual process over time, and I think the process of integration itself has set off other processes. So one factor that’s very important is that the United States is becoming a more racially tolerant country over time. And this is not to say that we’re 100 percent racially tolerant, but we’ve come a long way since the 1960s. So you get these processes that feed upon themselves. You get a little bit of integration in your neighborhood, and then you realize that a little bit of integration is great—you actually like it. So when you go looking for a neighborhood you say, you know, I would like a neighborhood that has some diversity in it. So the more you experience diversity in your neighborhood, the more you realize it’s not something to fear.

TC: You use the 2010 U.S. Census as the foundation for your study. Do you see any inherent issues with using the U.S. Census in particular?

JV: Well, there are problems with using the census, but it’s the only game in town. We take what we can get. Another one of the problems with the census is that it has changed the way it defines race over time. Up through 1990, when you were asked what race group you belonged to, you could only check one box. And now you can check as many boxes as you want. So it turns out that you can slice and dice the data multiple ways, and you still get a very similar answer.

TC: Do you think there’s potential danger for individuals or organizations to interpret your study in a way that is contrary to social justice?

JV: So I think the interpretation that you want to watch out for is that “we solved that problem, race is not a problem anymore in the United States.” That’s clearly not the conclusion we’re pushing, and one of the important takeaway messages is that segregation has declined but by a lot of measures social inequality has not. What we have learned over time is that inequality is a much more complicated phenomenon than hypothesized in the 1960s. We’re going to need to think harder about racial inequality and those problems. So one thing I hope this study will do is to help focus people’s attention on strategies that seem more promising. Because I think to continue to focus on residential segregation and say limiting segregation is going to solve the race problem doesn’t seem to be consistent with the data.

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