Work together, live apart: Study shows racial divide in America's cities


Using previously unavailable census data, a team of geographers has found that residents of one of America's largest metropolitan areas are far less racially and ethnically segregated at work than they are in their home neighborhoods, confirming what social scientists have long suspected but could not verify.

Using 1990 federal census data from one in six homes in the five-county Los Angeles metropolitan area, researchers headed by Mark Ellis, a University of Washington geography professor, found widely divergent patterns of segregation. Data in the study were drawn from about 2.2 million Southern California households.

"The differences are striking. By day, the region is a more mixed place, roughly half as segregated, than it is by night," said Ellis, a one-time resident of Los Angeles. "With this new evidence we now know that the extent of Los Angeles' diversity is not captured by residential maps. People are encountering much more diversity where they go to work.

"While our work focuses on the Los Angeles area, there is every reason to suspect that this flux, or mixing at work, occurs in New York, Chicago, Miami and other major areas that attract immigrants. And we are confident that this is also happening in other communities across the country where immigration is taking place to a lesser or greater extent."

Ellis also said one of the consequences of more racial and ethnic mixing in the workplace is increased interracial marriage and this may lead to an eventual drop in the rate of residential segregation as the 21st century goes on.

The study, published in this month's edition of the Annals of the Association of American Geographers, is unique in that it utilized data from the census tract level that typically consists of about 4,000 residents to see where racial and ethnic groups work as well as live. Co-authors of the study are Richard Wright, a Dartmouth College professor of geography, and Virginia Parks, a University of Chicago assistant professor in the School of Social Service Administration.

The study focused on the eight largest immigrant groups in the region Mexicans, Salvadorans, Filipinos, Guatemalans, Koreans, Chinese, Vietnamese and Iranians and the four biggest native-born racial groups whites, Latinos, blacks and Asians.

While patterns of segregation fluctuate between where people live and work, the degree of residential segregation can directly affect levels of work segregation in a neighborhood. The study showed that blacks were the most segregated group both at home and at work. Whites and Mexican immigrants, by contrast, work over wider areas during the workday and males from both groups were more likely to share a working neighborhood than other groups.

The study also found that:

  • Men are more likely to interact with men from other groups at work than are women. The difference is slight, but holds up across all 12 groups examined.
  • Some Asian immigrant groups, particularly Chinese and Koreans, tend to segregate more at work than other groups because of their strong immigrant work network connected to ethnic enclave economies.

In 1990, the Los Angeles metropolitan area had a population of 15 million people spanning Los Angeles, Orange, Riverside, San Bernardino and Ventura counties. The National Science Foundation funded the study.

"Our research shows that there is an alternative ethnic geography in a city based on where people work. Typically, maps of ethnic groups only consider those who own property or sleep in a neighborhood, and ignore those who also labor in those areas," said Ellis.

"So Beverly Hills or Brentwood, for example, are not only for wealthy predominantly white residents. There also are a large number of people from other groups who come to work there every day and make the neighborhoods work. They mow the grass, clean the house and take care of the kids. It is the ultimate irony. The wealthy try to seal themselves off from the working poor, but still need them to make their community work."

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Last reviewed: By John M. Grohol, Psy.D. on 21 Feb 2009
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