I looked at the trends in a representative range of leading cities: New York, Los Angeles, Chicago, Houston, Dallas, Atlanta, Miami, Seattle, Denver, Philadelphia, and Minneapolis. From 1980 to 2015, the gap between the median hourly wage earned by white workers and workers of color widened in all of them. In each of those cities (except Atlanta), the share of native-born African Americans holding a two-year college degree or more is at least 18 percentage points lower than the share of native-born white Americans. The poverty rate for people of color in each of those cities is at least double the rate of white residents. In Denver, Philadelphia, New York, Houston, and Dallas, it’s triple. In Minneapolis, where Floyd was killed by a police officer, it’s four times that of white people.
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While big cities “have seen some progress on reducing racial gaps in employment, many of the service jobs they’ve created pay low wages and offer few benefits or pathways into the middle class,” says Sarah Treuhaft, who directs PolicyLink’s work on economic inequity. “So in large metros, income gaps by race are continuing to grow.” (Other studies have found even wider gaps in assets between white and black families in metro areas, she notes.)
Research offers conflicting answers on whether residential segregation in big cities between black and white Americans is increasing. But evidence suggests it clearly is rising between white and black families with children. School segregation along lines of race and class remains endemic, even as kids of color have become a majority of the nation’s K-12 public-school students. In a study last year commemorating the 65th anniversary of the Brown v. Board of Education decision, the Civil Rights Project at UCLA found that desegregation peaked for African-American schoolchildren in 1988 and has receded since.
“Black students are more segregated now than they were 50 years ago,” says Gary Orfield, the UCLA project’s co-director. “For Latinos, there has never been any effort to desegregate and they are, in some of our measures, more segregated than black students.”
Cities haven’t all been indifferent to these problems, especially as they have consistently elected liberal mayors in recent years. They’ve raised the minimum wage, improved benefits for hourly workers, and elected progressive prosecutors, among other reforms. The steady job growth that held from the 2008 crash until the coronavirus outbreak reduced unemployment rates for African Americans and Latinos to historic lows.
Yet none of these factors have overcome the underlying disparities or the tendency of the modern economy to compound income inequality. “Previously, [being] in a thriving metro area meant you were generating a lot of [middle-class] jobs,” says Manuel Pastor, the director of the Program for Environmental and Regional Equity at the University of Southern California. But now, “what you are seeing is a set of jobs that pay super-high wages [and] professional middle-class wages, then the jobs rising up around them, which are low-wage service jobs.
“Baked into the very nature of these thriving metro economies is an underlying economic inequality in the employment that is being generated,” Pastor adds.