Fifty years ago, segregation seemed to be the most pressing racial problem in America. The civil rights movement took it as its explicit goal to end segregation. Integration was seen as the logical precursor to equality. If separate meant unequal, then living together could only mean equality.
A new report from the Manhattan Institute says that black Americans are now more integrated in American society than at any point in the past century. All-white neighborhoods are "effectively extinct;" the rise of segregation following the "Great Migration" of black people from the South to the North has "been entirely erased by integration since the 1960s;" black ghetto neighborhoods are "in decline," replaced by rising black suburbanization and integration. The study's authors attribute the spread of integration to not only changes in laws and cultural attitudes, but also to increased availability of credit, which allowed black people to relocate away from highly segregated Northern cities. Notably, gentrification is not a big driver of the trend:
...for every prominent example of a black neighborhood undergoing gentrification...there are countless more neighborhoods witnessing no such trend. Instead, the dominant trend in predominantly black neighborhoods nationwide has been population loss.
Of course, America is not yet (and may never be) fully racially integrated, and the theories that integration and economic equality are inexorably linked have not turned out to be wholly accurate. And the continued segregation of America's vast prison system has been a heavy counterweight to true racial parity in this country. Still, there's no doubt that kids growing up today are growing up in the most culturally and physically integrated United States of America ever.
This is not a panacea. But it is a good thing. Segregation (and, in a broader sense, all racial inequality) is a man-made problem. When we get rid of it, we have conquered a problem of our own making. We are still left with all of our other problems. But one less problem is one less problem.
The interesting question is: What next? Black president, hip hop as pop culture, ever-increasing housing integration—what does race, apart from economic inequalities, mean in this context? Well, it still means a lot. It means history. It means identity. And that identity may fade somewhat along with segregation, but it will never disappear. What comes after legal, economic, and social trends have largely erased the legacy of forced segregation? Voluntary segregation, I imagine. White people have been practicing the tradition since the Mayflower first set up camp. Race is a very strong contributor to group identity. Not stronger than economics, perhaps, but a close second. As black people increasingly move into the middle and upper class and integrate the suburbs, it's entirely predictable that their children and grandchildren—like generations of white suburban kids before them—rebel against the suburban homogeneity, venture off back into more urban environments, and re-form neighborhoods based upon a shared cultural identity in an effort to recapture something perceived as more pure than the heavily blended American Dream of endless shades of integrated grey.
What is Williamsburg, Brooklyn except a settlement of young white culture? What is Park Slope except a settlement of adult white culture? Perhaps in another ten or twenty years, wealthy young suburban-bred black people a full generation removed from any taste of the urban ghetto can flock to New York and re-form their own culturally homogenous neighborhoods in which they celebrate and advance their own idea of what "real" used to be in some vaguely defined time past. The black version of the 25 year-old urban lumberjacks that currently prowl the Lower East Side.
It will all be very mockable and annoying to old people and worrisome to various pundits and a hell of a step in the right direction. A day when we can all gripe about one another being just as trite, misguided, and cliched as every other person on earth: not quite a dream, but we're happy to settle for it.