Slightly fewer Americans live in racially isolated neighborhoods than in the past, but the average white child in the U.S. wouldn't know it.
White kids in the nation's largest cities continue to live among mostly white neighbors — in large part, according to a new University of Southern California study, because white parents want to live in communities served by predominantly white schools.
The study is part of a new attempt by USC associate professor of sociology Ann Owens to link education researchers' findings about the demographic makeup inside the nation's classrooms — where racial segregation remains a persistent problem — with research on where people in different racial groups choose to live.
"School district [boundaries] can serve as these sort of bright lines," Owens said — a "bright line" that may do more to shape some parents' choices than the somewhat arbitrary lines between individual neighborhoods or U.S. Census tracts.
For example, in Los Angeles County, Owens said, a parent's "first order question might be, 'Do I want to live in LAUSD, or do I want to live in South Pasadena?' Or somewhere else where they might prefer the school district?"
To study these "bright lines," Owens essentially overlaid school district boundaries onto maps of the neighborhood-by-neighborhood racial makeup in the nation's 100 largest metropolitan areas.
Her analysis found that, in 2010, 56 percent of residential segregation between white and non-white families with kids occurred between school districts.
In other words, school district boundaries explained most of the residential segregation between white families with kids and non-white families with kids.
"It sort of signals to me that white parents in particular are paying attention to school district boundaries when they’re choosing they’re neighborhoods,” Owens said — a choice white parents have more freedom to make because they have higher incomes, on average, and are less likely to face housing discrimination than non-white parents.
Nationally, the average white child lives in a neighborhood where roughly 70 percent of other kids are white, Owens calculated.
By contrast, the average black child in the U.S. lives in a more-diverse neighborhood: half of the other children are also black, one-fifth are white and another fifth are Hispanic.
In L.A. County, the clearest evidence of segregation is between white and Hispanic residents, Owens said.
Though 61 percent of the county's children are Hispanic, the average white child in L.A. County lives in a neighborhood where only 32 percent of other children are Hispanic, according to data Owens provided to KPCC.
Nearly half of the other kids in the average L.A. County white child's neighborhood are white.
But in the average Hispanic child's neighborhood in the county, only 9 percent of the other children are white.
Of the 100 largest metro areas in the U.S., Owens said Los Angeles had the fifth-highest level of segregation between white and Hispanic children.
The results are troubling, Owens said, because "there’s a mountain of social science research showing us that segregation is a bad thing."
For adults, she said, segregation contributes to higher levels of crime as well as lower productivity and wages.
But "for kids," Owens added, "segregation is particularly harmful because a significant amount of social science research demonstrates that when disadvantaged kids grow up in disadvantaged neighborhoods with low-quality schools, their outcomes are worse. They have lower educational achievement and attainment. They have lower health outcomes later in their life. They have lower wages when they become adults."
Her paper, published in the The Russell Sage Foundation Journal of the Social Sciences, concludes that "a policy that breaks the link between school attendance and neighborhood residence … is necessary to break the cyclical relationship and reduce inequality among both contexts."
But in an interview, Owens noted how tricky such policymaking could be.
There is preliminary evidence, she said, that giving parents more school choice — that is, allowing children to enroll in schools located in neighborhoods outside their own, such as a charter or magnet school — can lead to small declines in residential segregation.
But there's also evidence that white parents remain reluctant to send their children to schools serving sizable populations of racial minorities, even if the school's test scores or funding levels are competitive, Owens said.
In other words, unbridled school choice could just as easily boost segregation in classrooms while integrating neighborhoods.
"It can be a good news-bad news story," Owens said.