The story

Ethnic composition of antebellum Massachusetts

Ethnic composition of antebellum Massachusetts

We are searching data for your request:

Forums and discussions:
Manuals and reference books:
Data from registers:
Wait the end of the search in all databases.
Upon completion, a link will appear to access the found materials.

What was the ethnic composition of Massachusetts in the decades before the Civil War? I am particularly interested in knowing what percentage of the population claimed English, Scottish, North Irish, and Irish descent (but information on other groups is welcome). The only good source I've found is the 1790 Census, but obviously the ethnic makeup of Massachusetts was very different only a few decades later.

Ideally, someone knows of a table that updates these figures every decade, but I'd still really appreciate any solid, empirically grounded estimates at any point between 1790 and 1860. I might use these figures in calculations for an academic article, so good answers will be sourced.

Essay Collections

Edited by Matthew Mason, Katheryn P. Viens, and Conrad Edick Wright

All states are not created equal, at least when it comes to their influence on American history. That assumption underlies Massachusetts and the Civil War. The volume's ten essays coalesce around the national significance of Massachusetts through the Civil War era, the ways in which the Commonwealth reflected and even modeled the Union's precarious but real wartime unification, and the Bay State's post-war return to the schisms that predated the war. Rather than attempting to summarize every aspect of the state's contribution to the wartime Union, the collection focuses on what was distinctive about its influence during the great crisis of national unity.

The essays in Massachusetts and the Civil War originated from the conference of the same name, held at the Massachusetts Historical Society in April 2013.

June 2015. Order from University of Massachusetts Press
$90.00 Hardcover ISBN: 978-1-62534-149-5
$27.95 Paperback ISBN: 978-1-62534-150-1

Available on campus to all, or off-campus to UMass Amherst students, staff and faculty with an UMass Amherst IT NetID (user name) and password.

For full terms of use, please see the Electronic Resources Usage Policy (

Available on campus to all, or off-campus to UMass Amherst students, staff and faculty with an UMass Amherst IT NetID (user name) and password.

For full terms of use, please see the Electronic Resources Usage Policy (

A Mass Exodus Begins

Illustration of a famine-era 𠇌offin ship” carrying passengers. (Credit: Illustrated London News/Hulton Archive/Getty Images)

A flotilla of 5,000 boats transported the pitiable castaways from the wasteland. Most of the refugees boarded minimally converted cargo ships—some had been used in the past to transport slaves from Africa𠅊nd the hungry, sick passengers, many of whom spent their last pennies for transit, were treated little better than freight on a 3,000-mile journey that lasted at least four weeks.

Herded like livestock in dark, cramped quarters, the Irish passengers lacked sufficient food and clean water. They choked on fetid air. They were showered by excrement and vomit. Each adult was apportioned just 18 inches of bed space𠅌hildren half that. Disease and death clung to the rancid vessels like barnacles, and nearly a quarter of the 85,000 passengers who sailed to North America aboard the aptly nicknamed 𠇌offin ships” in 1847 never reached their destinations. Their bodies were wrapped in cloths, weighed down with stones and tossed overboard to sleep forever on the bed of the ocean floor.

Although most certainly tired and poor, the Irish did not arrive in America yearning to breathe free they merely hungered to eat. Largely destitute, many exiles could progress no farther than within walking distance of the city docks where they disembarked. While some had spent all of their meager savings to pay for passage across the Atlantic, others had their voyages funded by British landlords who found it a cheaper solution to dispatch their tenants to another continent, rather than pay for their charity at home.

And in the opinion of many Americans, those British landlords were not sending their best people. These people were not like the industrious, Protestant Scotch-Irish immigrants who came to America in large numbers during the colonial era, fought in the Continental Army and tamed the frontier. These people were not only poor, unskilled refugees huddled in rickety tenements. Even worse, they were Catholic.

Massachusetts Population History

The earliest set of recorded population figures can be traced back to 1790, and after 170 years of colonization, there were already plenty of people living in Massachusetts. That early census confirmed that 378,787 people were residents in the state.

The population of Massachusetts continued to grow, but unlike many other states in the country, which often had absurdly large increases of several hundred percent in a single decade in their early years as settlers headed West, the increases in Massachusetts were fairly steady. While other areas of the United States doubled in size on a census by census basis, Massachusetts had grown by 11.6% in 1800 to a figure of 422,845.

State-level statistics tell part of the story, but many US states are also deeply segregated—meaning different counties in the same state can have vastly different breakdowns by race and ethnicity.

Race and ethnicity data for COVID cases isn't widely available at the county level, so we're using two numbers we do have: the latest infection and death rates for each county, from a New York Times dataset, paired with the largest racial or ethnic group in that county, based on the Census Bureau's 2019 ACS 5-Year estimates. The results are staggering.

Racial, ethnic diversity increases yet again with the 117th Congress

Speaker of the House Nancy Pelosi swears in new members of Congress during the first session of the 117th Congress on Jan. 3, 2021. (Tasos Katopodis/Getty Images)

About a quarter of voting members (23%) of the U.S. House of Representatives and Senate are racial or ethnic minorities, making the 117th Congress the most racially and ethnically diverse in history. There has been a long-running trend toward higher numbers of non-White lawmakers on Capitol Hill: This is the sixth Congress to break the record set by the one before it.

Overall, 124 lawmakers today identify as Black, Hispanic, Asian/Pacific Islander or Native American, according to a Pew Research Center analysis of data from the Congressional Research Service. This represents a 97% increase over the 107th Congress of 2001-03, which had 63 minority members.

Among today’s senators and representatives, the overwhelming majority of racial and ethnic minority members are Democrats (83%), while 17% are Republicans. This represents a shift from the last Congress, when just 10% of non-White lawmakers were Republicans. Our analysis reflects the 532 voting members of Congress seated as of Jan. 26, 2021.

This analysis builds on earlier Pew Research Center work to analyze the racial and ethnic makeup of the U.S. Congress. To determine the number of racial and ethnic minority lawmakers in the 117th Congress, we used data from the Congressional Research Service. U.S. population data comes from the U.S. Census Bureau. Historical data was pulled from CQ Roll Call, CRS and the Brookings Institution. All racial groups refer to single-race non-Hispanics. Hispanics are of any race. Native Hawaiian Rep. Kai Kahele (D-Hawaii) is counted with the Native American lawmakers.

Our analysis reflects the 532 voting members of Congress seated as of Jan. 26, 2021. In the House, one New York race has not been called yet, and one Louisiana seat is empty because the congressman-elect died before he could be sworn in. We did not include former Louisiana Rep. Cedric Richmond, who resigned in January to join the Biden administration. The current number of voting House members is 432. Biden administration nominees who were not yet confirmed at the time of writing are included in our count. Independent members of Congress are counted with the party they caucus with.

Although recent Congresses have continued to set new highs for racial and ethnic diversity, they have still been disproportionately White when compared with the overall U.S. population. Non-Hispanic White Americans account for 77% of voting members in the new Congress, considerably larger than their 60% share of the U.S. population overall. This gap hasn’t narrowed with time: In 1981, 94% of members of Congress were White, compared with 80% of the U.S. population.

In the House of Representatives, however, representation of some racial and ethnic groups is now on par with their share of the total population. For example, 13% of House members are Black, about equal to the share of Black Americans. And Native Americans now make up about 1% of both the House and the U.S. population.

Other racial and ethnic groups in the House are somewhat less represented relative to their share of the population. The share of Hispanics in the U.S. population (19%) is about twice as high as it is in the House (9%). Asian Americans and Pacific Islanders together account for 6% of the national population and 3% of House members.

This analysis includes four representatives who are counted under more than one racial or ethnic identity: Rep. Robert Scott, D-Va., is counted as Black and Asian. Reps. Antonio Delgado and Ritchie Torres, both New York Democrats, are listed as Black and Hispanic. Rep. Marilyn Strickland, D-Wash., is both the first Black lawmaker to represent the state and one of the first Korean American women to be elected to Congress. Native Hawaiian Rep. Kai Kahele (D-Hawaii) is counted with the Native American lawmakers. Portuguese American members are not included in the Hispanic count.

In the House, Republicans account for a larger share of newly elected minority representatives than in the past. Of the 16 freshmen representatives who are non-White, nine are Republicans, compared with just one of the 22 new representatives in the 116th Congress. This freshman cohort includes the only two Black Republicans in the chamber: Burgess Owens of Utah and Byron Donalds of Florida.

Eleven senators are a racial or ethnic minority, up from nine in the 116th Congress. Six senators are Hispanic, two are Asian and three are Black. Freshman Raphael Warnock is the first Black senator to represent Georgia, and another freshman, Alex Padilla, is the first Hispanic senator to represent California. Padilla replaced Vice President and former Sen. Kamala Harris, who was one of four women of color (and the only Black woman) serving in the Senate.

Just three of the 11 non-White senators are Republicans: Tim Scott of South Carolina is Black, and Marco Rubio of Florida and Ted Cruz of Texas are both Hispanic.


Because of the problems in the meaning of race, many social scientists prefer the term ethnicity in speaking of people of color and others with distinctive cultural heritages. In this context, ethnicity refers to the shared social, cultural, and historical experiences, stemming from common national or regional backgrounds, that make subgroups of a population different from one another. Similarly, an ethnic group is a subgroup of a population with a set of shared social, cultural, and historical experiences with relatively distinctive beliefs, values, and behaviors and with some sense of identity of belonging to the subgroup. So conceived, the terms ethnicity and ethnic group avoid the biological connotations of the terms race and racial group.

At the same time, the importance we attach to ethnicity illustrates that it, too, is in many ways a social construction, and our ethnic membership thus has important consequences for how we are treated. In particular, history and current practice indicate that it is easy to become prejudiced against people with different ethnicities from our own. Much of the rest of this chapter looks at the prejudice and discrimination operating today in the United States against people whose ethnicity is not white and European. Around the world today, ethnic conflict continues to rear its ugly head. The 1990s and 2000s were filled with ethnic cleansing and pitched battles among ethnic groups in Eastern Europe, Africa, and elsewhere. Our ethnic heritages shape us in many ways and fill many of us with pride, but they also are the source of much conflict, prejudice, and even hatred, as the hate crime story that began this chapter so sadly reminds us.

Key Takeaways

  • Sociologists think race is best considered a social construction rather than a biological category.
  • “Ethnicity” and “ethnic” avoid the biological connotations of “race” and “racial.”

For Your Review

  1. List everyone you might know whose ancestry is biracial or multiracial. What do these individuals consider themselves to be?
  2. List two or three examples that indicate race is a social construction rather than a biological category.

A searching discussion about being Asian American at MIT

Images for download on the MIT News office website are made available to non-commercial entities, press and the general public under a Creative Commons Attribution Non-Commercial No Derivatives license. You may not alter the images provided, other than to crop them to size. A credit line must be used when reproducing images if one is not provided below, credit the images to "MIT."

Previous image Next image

A broad-ranging panel discussion on May 18 examined the complexities of Asian American and Pacific Islander identity and acceptance at MIT, while underscoring the need for collaborative work among groups to combat prejudice and create equity.

The online forum was held amid an ongoing string of violent assaults on Asian Americans in the U.S., which has raised public awareness about anti-Asian discrimination. But the forum — featuring faculty, students, and staff — made clear that anti-Asian American violence, stereotyping, and exclusion have long histories in the U.S.

Indeed, the event’s first segment, featuring presentations from three MIT faculty members, emphasized the importance of situating Asian American and Pacific Islander struggles in the context of systemic bias against many groups. That is both a better reading of history, the speakers suggested, and a more promising platform for allyship in activism.

“Sometimes it’s confusing for Asian Americans/AAPI to know where we belong,” said Emma Teng, a historian and the T.T. and Wei Fong Chao Professor of Asian Civilizations. “Sometimes we’re visible as minorities, and sometimes we’re not visible. … And that can lead to a lot of misunderstandings and lost opportunities for solidarity.”

The dangers of the “model minority” myth

Teng, author of the book, “Eurasian: Mixed Identities in the United States, China, and Hong Kong, 1842-1943,” focused her remarks on the dangers of the “model minority” myth — the idea that Asian Americans are a uniquely high-achieving and assimilated ethnic group. That idea, Teng observed, fails to account for the socioeconomic and cultural diversity of Asian Americans, and harms many ethnic groups, including Asian Americans and Pacific Islanders.

For one thing, the model minority myth can form a standard against which negative judgments of other minority groups are constructed. The concept also reduces attention to anti-Asian discrimination, Teng added, while at MIT the idea can burden students with “imposter syndrome” — a sense of not being worthy — and put undue pressure on them.

“I’ve heard students label themselves to me as a ‘bad Asian’ if they’re not breezing through all their classes,” Teng said. “Whereas in reality we all know that being an MIT student is enormously challenging for everybody, regardless of your background.”

Finally, Teng noted, the model minority myth contributes to the so-called “bamboo ceiling” in institutions, limiting opportunities for Asian Americans by linking them to qualities such as technical skills that are not associated with leadership.

“The ‘bamboo ceiling’ can, I think, be seen in many different kinds of contexts, where Asians are recognized as competent, intelligent, and high-achieving, but not possessing the social or leadership skills to be put in high leadership positions,” Teng said.

Against exceptionalism

Lily Tsai, the Ford Professor of Political Science and faculty chair-elect at the Institute, also suggested that notions of Asian American exceptionalism are problematic.

“There are these myths that focus on the internal and cultural sources of success, for Asian Americans as a model minority,” Tsai said, noting that such narratives “really shift attention away from external structural sources” of disadvantage for all people of color.

Asian Americans, Tsai added, “really need to fight the myth” that, as political scientist Claire Jean Kim has put it, “no amount of externally imposed hardship can keep a good minority down.” Focusing on Asian American achievement, in this sense, can both lead people to minimize the barriers to success facing all minority groups, and heighten an unjustified sense of difference among groups.

Tsai also suggested that “racial triangulation theory,” developed by Kim, a professor at the University of California at Irvine, is a helpful framework for understanding how the dynamics of stereotyping can work. Among three groups — whites, Blacks, and Asian Americans — people may cast whites and Asian Americans as being successful, thus marginalizing Blacks at the same time, people may view whites and Blacks as “insiders” in America, with Asian Americans being cast as “perpetual foreigners.”

“It enables us to see how Asian Americans can be used as a wedge between whites and Blacks, and how there can be challenges to Asian American and Black solidarity,” Tsai said.

In his remarks, Craig Wilder, the Barton L. Weller Professor of History, emphasized the long history of violence against Asian Americans, dating to the 1800s.

“Going back to the 19th century, those campaigns of violence get so normalized in American history and so easily erased,” Wilder said, adding that in the U.S. there is a “cyclical rediscovery of American violence. We pretend somehow that we’ve forgotten that we have this deep, long history of violence.”

Wilder, author of the book “Ebony and Ivy: Race, Slavery, and the Troubled History of America’s Universities,” about many universities’ deep ties to slavery, emphasized that academics have long been involved in acts of exclusion toward minority groups.

“American intellectuals from the 1820s … were central to providing a kind of intellectual and academic justification for campaigns of various communities against people of color, and campaigns against other religious groups,” said Wilder. Showing a picture of eugenicist Francis Galton, he added that “our institutions were in fact never innocent actors sitting in the backdrop of history.”

However, Wilder added, at MIT today, “We have a moment where we have to really think about how we hold ourselves accountable, and how these institutions today need not just to repair that past, but also to envision a future that’s far more democratic, far more inclusive, and far less divided.”

Strategies for action

The event, “Asian American Visibility and Intersectionality at MIT,” was introduced by Beatriz Cantada, director of engagement for diversity and inclusion in MIT’s Institute Community and Equity Office. The discussion was moderated by Christopher Capozzola, head of the MIT History section.

After the initial faculty presentations, the event featured a discussion among the faculty and three other participants, acting as interlocutors and commentators: Eesha Banerjee, a first-year student majoring in electrical engineering and computer science Amelia Lee Dogan, a sophomore majoring in urban studies and planning with computer science and in American studies and Rupinder Grewal, a conflict of interest officer in the Office of the Vice President for Research, and the lead for the Asian Pacific American Employee Resource Group at MIT.

Grewal queried Teng, for instance, about what approaches might help remove the “bamboo ceiling” from workplaces.

“What do we do about that?” Grewal asked. “How do we change the narrative? Where does the responsibility lie?”

Teng noted that research indicates Asian Americans incur a “penalty” in workplace terms when they act more assertively: “They’re expected to be competent, to be somewhat passive, and also to have a caretaking role for others. It’s not a simple solution by saying … ‘I’m an Asian American woman and I’m going to be assertive now.’” That said, she observed that Tsai herself had just broken through the bamboo ceiling, as the first Asian American woman and first person of East Asian descent to be elected chair of the MIT faculty.

A significant part of the discussion focused on solidarity among different interest groups. Banerjee, for one, asked the panel to comment on “the role of members of the Asian American community who might have more privilege socioeconomically, or in terms of representation, [in creating] Asian solidarity and centering the needs of other groups.”

Tsai, in reply, suggested that kind of support is crucial to effective political alliances. Some research, she noted, suggests that “all of us are best at advocating for groups that we are not a member of. I often think about that, because I want to be able to use my influence and political capital as effectively as possible. . When you advocate on behalf of a group you are seen to be a member of, it is discredited, because it is seen as self-interest.”

As Teng suggested, however, there can be benefits to “disaggregating” the Asian American and Pacific Islander experience, and better understanding the trajectories of some students in relation to their particular ethnicities. Sometimes, she said, “I think we need to understand each group one by one, to understand the socioeconomic profile of the group.”

At the same time, Dogan noted, a willingness to engage in pan-Asian organizing may also reflect the political orientation of the participants: Some people may more readily view different subgroups of Asian Americans as being linked in a common effort, while others may be more particularist.

“I think there are a lot of struggles toward pan-Asian advocacy, and that’s a very deep conversation [regarding being] Asian American as a political identity versus an ethnic identity, and how we internally have our own struggles and regional conflicts,” Dogan said. “There are Asian Americans working toward that right now.”

“Imagine a world that can be different”

Banerjee and Wilder both observed that universities, imperfect though they may be, do offer unusual opportunities for dialogue, action, and progress.

“At MIT, solidarity is something we still do need to work toward,” Banerjee said. And yet, she noted, it does exist to an extent. As a result, one question is how students and others can move multiethnic organizing and awareness from campuses to the cities and towns around them: “The solidarity we build up here on the university level, how can that be translated, either in the Cambridge community or back home?”

For his part, Wilder noted, “One of the things that college campuses allow us to do is to imagine a world that can be different, [along with] using the skill sets that you learn on campus and taking them elsewhere.”

Certainly, Wilder added, “College campuses have a lot of housecleaning to do. We’re not, in fact, racially uncomplicated spaces. We actually have all of the same burdens that the greater society has. One of the things that we do have that’s different is the luxury of stepping back to think about how to wrestle with [existing] tensions. To recognize that they’re not easily solved.”

The event was organized and sponsored by MIT’s Institute Community and Equity Office the African, Black, American, Caribbean Employee Resource Group the Asian American Association the Asian American Initiative the Asian Pacific American Employee Resource Group the Black Graduate Student Association the Department of Aeronautics and Astronautics MIT Global Languages MIT History the Department of Mechanical Engineering the Office of Multicultural Programs and the Undergraduate Association.

Ghettos: The Changing Consequences of Ethnic Isolation

The most profitable and productive elements of our society are lodged in our cities. From the fantastically dense agglomeration of financiers who make up Wall Street to the cluster of artists and film studios in Hollywood, the concentration of resources in urban settings seems essential to creating world-class centers of commerce and industry. Cities facilitate trade, provide markets for specialized producers, and, perhaps most important, speed the flow of ideas. Because of these advantages, big-city workers earn more than their nonurban counterparts -- 28 percent more, controlling for education, age, race, occupation, and gender. Certainly there are cities in decline, especially those without a well-educated work force or those with too heavy a commitment to manufacturing. But the overall connection between urbanization and economic growth is such an empirical truth that one can hardly find a wealthy, modern country that is not also urbanized.

So it is disturbing to find geographic concentrations of impoverished ethnic groups in the midst of these productive environments. These districts, commonly called "ghettos," function culturally, intellectually, and economically apart from the busy downtown. The distance from Wall Street to the South Bronx, along these dimensions, is greater than that between New York and London or Tokyo. Cities throughout history have contained distinct ethnic districts. But rarely have they been so isolated and impoverished as the African-American districts found in U.S. cities today.

All major immigrant groups coming into the United States established their own residential areas. Irish and Eastern European immigrants in the early twentieth century actually were more segregated than blacks of that era they lived almost as segregated as blacks do today. These immigrants clustered together in part because they were restricted from living in Yankee areas, but also in part voluntarily. They found it much easier to settle where they could speak the language and get foods that were at least somewhat familiar. As sociologist Herbert Gans described, Boston's Italian West End was a halfway station between the old country and new. Where outsiders often viewed residents as locked in a squalid, archaic society, Gans saw a healthy community that preserved a culture useful for making one's way in America.

Today, advertisers use only Spanish signs in many urban neighborhoods. Polish is the first language in parts of Chicago and South Boston keeps a decidedly Irish flair. Boston's Italian North End is a cherished urban asset, a nearby piece of Italy prized by residents and visitors alike. From the creation of Yiddish theater, to the influence of Irish politicians, to the restaurants of Chinatown, there are many indications that ethnic districts serve valuable social and economic functions.

Nevertheless, the isolation of African-American ghettos from the mainstream city can be quite harmful. Ghettos create artificial barriers that impede critical opportunities for trade and the exchange of ideas, and this deprives residents of the key advantage of living in an urban setting. In addition, segregation impedes the rest of the city from developing advantageous financial, employment, business, and cultural contacts with the ghettoized group.


The African-American ghetto is a creation of the twentieth century. The golden age of Northern black-white relations lies in the period before 1900, write Allan Spear and Kenneth Kusmer, historians of the Midwestern ghettos. Blacks at the time were not generally restricted from using public facilities, and they lived in much more integrated communities than their descendants do today.

Informal practices did limit integration in the North. But only in response to the large-scale black migration north, in the early twentieth century, did these restrictions harden. W.E.B. DuBois, the Harvard-educated black scholar, raised in Great Barrington, Massachusetts, was shocked at the deteriorating conditions he found in the nascent, turn-of-the-century Philadelphia ghetto inhabited by recent migrants from the South "Murder sat on our doorstep, police were our government, and philanthropy dropped in with periodic advice." The apparatus of legal segregation arrived soon thereafter -- zoning by race, restrictive covenants, and a myriad of other devices. The U.S. Supreme Court banned explicit zoning by race in 1917, and restrictive covenants were banned in 1948. But these legal restrictions had served as a mighty handmaiden of segregation by 1920, the color line in Northern cities had fully hardened.

This reinforcement of ethnic barriers was hardly limited to antiblack initiatives in Northern U.S. cities. The South created its vast array of Jim Crow laws at the end of the nineteenth century. In the West, whites used restrictive covenants against Asians. In Boston, with a long history of attempts to bar Irish immigrants from Yankee institutions, these barriers, and anti-Semitic restrictions as well, were formalized in the early twentieth century.

Domestic tranquility was marred not just by conflicts between native Protestants and both blacks and immigrants, but by tensions between blacks and immigrants, and among different immigrant groups. In 1910, blacks were more segregated from the foreign-born than they were from native whites. Spear's history of the Chicago ghetto describes how immigrants were the fiercest opponents of blacks in that city, and how blacks moved into native white areas rather than face the more violent resistance of the newer Americans.

Segregation increased most in those cities with the greatest black in-migration. Whites felt more threatened by larger influxes of blacks, and their racism grew. Black migrants from the South also found in urban ghettos in the North many of the "attractions" seen in other urban immigrant communities. Most were arriving from an inhospitable, impoverished region that still relied on lynching as a tool of discipline, and many valued the comfort of their own community.

African-American ghettos also started out well, economically. In the Midwest, ghettos were built on high wages from manufacturing jobs. In New York City, the housing was superb. Developers in Harlem had built state-of-the-art apartment buildings around the new subway extension for upwardly mobile whites, writes historian Gilbert Osofsky. But they overbuilt, and entrepreneurial real estate agents, of both races, quickly filled vacant units with blacks. By the end of the 1920s, Harlem was home to the nation's largest concentration of African-Americans. Migrants from the South, to use Nicholas Lemann's phrase, generally had come to see Northern ghettos as "the promised land."

The segregation of the foreign-born also rose, for similar reasons, during their period of great in-migration, 1890 to 1920. But once America ended its open-door immigration policy in the mid-1920s, the segregation of the foreign-born began to decline.

African-American segregation continued to rise however, until it reached its peak in the 1960s. It rose in every decade and in cities of all sizes, and in all regions of the country. While the great growth came before World War II, segregation increased after the war as well. It continued to rise perhaps because the black migration north, stimulated by the cutoff of foreign immigration, extended over a much longer period than the influx of other immigrant groups. And white flight to the suburbs led to an increasingly isolated black inner-city population.

The segregation of blacks in Northern U.S. cities began to level off in the 1960s. The U.S. "segregation index" -- the number of blacks who would need to move to distribute the races evenly across metropolitan areas -- had reached an all-time high of 74 percent. The index thereafter declined quite rapidly to its current 56 percent level, and to 74 percent for twenty-four large Northern cities. Blacks nevertheless still live far more segregated lives than any other U.S. urban group. The segregation index for Hispanics, for example, is 38 percent. And the average urban black lives in a census tract that is 60 percent black the comparable number for Asians is 19 percent.

The decline in racial segregation from its peak in the 1960s might stem from the end of the legal barriers needed to keep areas all white. Thirty years ago, ghettos existed primarily because legal restrictions made it impossible for blacks to leave. The barriers today are more subtle, and economic. David Cutler, Jacob Vigdor, and I, examining the price of otherwise similar housing, find that ghettos now exist primarily because whites will pay more to live in areas with few, if any, blacks. Middle-class blacks can buy their way out of the ghetto, but those at the bottom of the income ladder are unable to leave. The black segregation index declined primarily because areas that used to be all white now have a small number of blacks. The African-American ghettos have not become any less black. They just house a smaller share of the nation's urban black population.

Economic conditions in African-American ghettos have deteriorated quite sharply over the past three and a half decades. The inner city, which once might have looked like a promised land, doesn't much resemble one today. This is partly a statistical phenomenon. The ability of more affluent blacks to leave has lowered the average income of those who remain. The poverty of inner-city blacks also reflects the declining economic position of Americans of all races at the bottom of the income ladder. But a growing body of research shows that the segregation of American blacks in inner-city ghettos further damages their economic chances.

The oldest and the most easily understandable evidence on ghettos compares blacks who grew up in segregated neighborhoods with those raised in integrated neighborhoods. The literature began with a 1968 study, by economist John Kain, in which Kain documented that blacks who lived in ghettos had worse labor-market outcomes than those who did not. Kain's explanation was "spatial mismatch" -- that ghetto residents lived far from where the urban jobs were located. According to Kain, the key economic advantage of living in a city -- the opportunities urban environments create for trade and exchange -- thus lay beyond the reach of ghetto residents. Subsequent research has generally corroborated Kain's results. Extremely black neighborhoods are generally located far from job opportunities, and residents do worse, economically, than blacks from more integrated areas.

There is a methodological problem with this type of study, however. A connection between living in a ghetto and being poor need not imply that ghettos create poverty. Poverty could also create ghettos -- it could be that poor people can't afford to live elsewhere.

Katherine O'Regan and John Quigley published a particularly fine study that addressed this issue in the May/June 1996 issue of the New England Economic Review. O'Regan and Quigley's study examined young blacks and Hispanics who still live at home. Since their parents chose the neighborhood, the labor-market outcomes of these young people should have little effect on where they live. So in any correlation between neighborhood and labor-market outcomes, causation should run from neighborhood to outcomes.

O'Regan and Quigley found, in the neighborhoods around Newark, New Jersey, that blacks and Hispanics who live in ghettos are far more likely to be idle -- to be neither in school nor working -- than those from more integrated communities. Their results suggest that the chance the average black or Hispanic youth would be employed or in school would rise a dramatic 10 percentage points if he or she moved to the neighborhood where the average white youth lives.

Why is this so? In addition to spatial mismatch, poor whites may do better because their neighborhoods are economically more heterogeneous. A critical problem with ghettos today is that almost everyone who lives there is poor. Ghettos lack the variety of incomes and skills found in other urban neighborhoods, so opportunities for trade and the exchange of ideas -- again, the key economic advantages of living in cities -- are again unavailable to ghetto residents.


Another way to gauge the effects of ghettos is to compare black economic outcomes across different metropolitan areas. Cutler and I divided the metropolitan areas of the United States in half -- into more and less segregated communities -- and examined various outcomes. We found that blacks between ages twenty and twenty-four in the more segregated metro areas are far more likely to be idle 22 percent are neither at work nor in school, compared to 15 percent in the more integrated areas. Segregated blacks are also more likely to have dropped out of high school 26 percent versus 21.5 percent. And segregated black women ages twenty-five to thirty are more likely to have become single mothers -- 45 percent versus 40 percent. These effects are big and statistically significant. They also hold up under alternative methods of estimation and after controlling for region, city size, and the racial composition of the metro area.

(Our study, coincidentally, found no effects of segregation on whites. Whites in segregated areas may seem to monopolize the economy's better-paying positions or otherwise "gain" from segregation. But their incomes, single motherhood, and schooling outcomes are essentially identical to those of whites in more integrated communities.)

It is possible, of course, that black poverty at the metro level causes segregation, not the other way around. (This issue of identifying causation is equivalent to the problem, in the intra-city studies, of determining whether ghettos create poverty or poverty creates ghettos.) Cutler and I examined this issue using a variable created by economist Caroline Minter Hoxby, based on her notion that topographical barriers often serve as neighborhood boundaries. We found that metro areas with more natural boundaries -- like Cleveland with the Cuyahoga River running through it -- are more segregated and have worse black outcomes. The chain of causation here must run from rivers to segregation to poverty. (Rivers presumably do not cause poverty directly and neither segregation nor poverty causes rivers.) We thus conclude that segregation -- whether created by natural or man-made factors -- results in poor black outcomes.


The African-American ghettos of the mid-twentieth century appear to have been much less harmful than those of today. In the most segregated cities, such as Chicago, Cleveland, and Detroit, African-Americans prospered as workers in America's industrial centers. The fortunes of the ghettos changed, in part, as a result of downturns in manufacturing in postwar America. But the declining vigor of African-American ghettos also resulted from a pervasive feature of all immigrant ghettos. David Cutler, Jacob Vigdor, and I found that immigrant ghettos are generally beneficial, or at least not harmful, for the first generation of residents. Today, first-generation Asians, who often do not speak English, seem to be helped by living in segregated Asian communities. But when we look at later generations still living in the earlier generation's ghetto, we see deleterious effects. This was true of Irish immigrants still living in ghettos in 1910, long after the major Irish immigration waves, or of Eastern European immigrants still living in their ghettos in 1940.

This overall pattern helps us understand why ghettos form and why they can be harmful to residents. The first generation of migrants benefits from the social networks, the cultural comforts, and the protection against native hostility. But ghettos deprive their children of contacts with the broader world and with the informational connections that make cities so strong. The negative effects of ghetto isolation are exacerbated as many of the ghetto's most able children then leave for more integrated communities, or for more prosperous segregated communities. So thirty years after the immigrant ghetto was a vibrant community, it typically becomes an island distant from the city, whose inhabitants rarely experience the best features of U.S. urban society.


The empirical evidence clearly indicates that ghettos hurt blacks a great deal. Ghetto walls separate residents from mainstream society, from mainstream jobs, and from contact with successful whites and blacks. The suffering is real, as is the resulting crime, disorder, and social distress. The magnitude of these problems, moreover, is sufficiently large to merit significant government intervention.

While the evidence justifies action, policymakers have little idea about what should be done. In the past, many well-intentioned interventions caused more harm than good.

Perhaps the most egregious example is the large-scale housing projects of the 1950s. This generally well-intentioned policy squeezed as many minorities into as small an area as possible, increased segregation, and worsened ghetto conditions. Forced school integration, or busing, as Charles Clotfelter documents, led to a substantial outflow of white children into private schools, not to increased integration. And enterprise zones, which are currently in vogue, might slow what has been, for other ethnic groups, the process of neighborhood exodus and evolution.

It does seem crucial to lessen discrimination in the housing market. Racism in individual consumer tastes seems to be the primary problem, and government cannot legislate racism away. But government can combat discrimination in real estate marketing and finance.

Policies that generate choice and use incentives instead of controls also hold promise. Housing vouchers and magnet schools, for example, attract individual blacks and whites most willing, or eager, to live and go to school with one another. The nation can also hope that evidence showing a decline in racism over the past twenty-five years is correct, and that the trend will continue.

The damage caused by African-American ghettos reinforces the importance of the idea of the "informational city." Ghetto residents live in cities and face most of the costs --monetary and otherwise -- of urban residence. But the ghetto cuts them off from the informational connections and job markets that make city living worthwhile for so many people.

The city is an enormously positive social institution. It should be able to answer the problems of its own inner core. Breaking down ghetto walls is no small task. But it will be a great achievement to connect inner-city residents to the informational advantages of downtown America.

Ghettos are formed in three ways:

  • As ports of entry where minorities, and especially immigrant minorities, voluntarily choose to live with their own kind.
  • When the majority uses compulsion -- typically violence, hostility, or legal barriers -- to force minorities into particular areas.
  • When the majority is willing and able to pay more than the minority to live with its own kind.

All three causes are typically present in the formation of any particular ghetto. But compulsion played an unusually large role in forming the African-American ghettos. We would expect these ghettos to be much more harmful than immigrant ghettos, where immigrants clustered more voluntarily.

It is often alleged that ghettos and the separation of the races create more racism and that racism -- not segregation -- explains why black outcomes are so much worse in segregated cities. This argument, however, relies on the claim that white racism is more extreme in segregated communities.

To examine the link between segregation and racism, David Cutler, Jacob Vigdor, and I examined evidence collected by the National Opinion Research Center. For the past twenty years, the Center has asked respondents whether whites and blacks should be allowed to marry, their assessment of how violent blacks are, and a myriad of other questions designed to display discriminatory attitudes.

Cutler, Vigdor, and I found that whites living in more segregated communities are indeed more likely to have discriminatory attitudes regarding housing. Compared to whites who live in completely integrated areas, those in completely segregated areas are 20 percentage points more likely to believe they have a right to segregated housing they are 36 percentage points more likely to say they would not live in a neighborhood that was 50 percent black.

But we found no connection between segregation and discrimination on questions not directly connected with housing. Whites in segregated areas actually had a more favorable assessment of blacks on some issues, such as perceiving blacks as violent. For most questions, however, there was just no connection between and segregation and discriminatory attitudes.

White discrimination in housing decisions would seem to be at least partly responsible for residential segregation. But the lack of strong connections between segregation and other racist attitudes suggests that segregation may not lead to more hatred between the races. The ghetto walls themselves, not any increase in racism they may engender, thus seem primarily responsible for the poor black outcomes associated with increased segregation.