The Three Segregations and Asian America

A recurring conversation in sociology is that of segregation. While we are decades away from Jim Crow, the weight of the evidence since the 1980s is that while our population is diversifying, we’re not necessarily content with living alongside those who appear different from us. In most of the research to date, segregation has often inferred race as the main marker of difference. But a few years ago, new research was emerging that suggested income was now gaining in prominence. With the availability of a new interactive online tool, we’re able to see how income segregation appears today. Here’s a screenshot of the Chicago area based on the website, (Read on to see why I chose Chicago for this example):

Using income alone, we see a pattern familiar to those who understand racial segregation. The more urbanized areas of Chicago have concentrated poverty whereas the outlying areas generally show significantly higher income levels. Substitute low income with racial minority status and the picture looks very similar. So which one is it, racial segregation or income segregation? This is the big debate. Recently published research by sociologist Lincoln Quillian provides a new perspective that essentially shows us that it’s both.

Back in 1993 a landmark book, American Apartheid,

revealed the persistence of racial segregation and its effects on minority populations. Racial residential segregation places minorities in concentrated environments of poverty which are linked to higher criminal activity, violence, and poorer schools (not to mention inadequate access to good health care, and nutritious food). As Quillian summarizes, “Massey’s (1990) core point [is] that segregation and minority poverty rates interact, or intensify in combination, to produce concentrated poverty” (p.355). This point is more formally defined as two processes: racial segregation and class segregation within race. Look again at the map of Chicago and you can almost see this argument; if greater income is coupled with white racial status, then the higher income levels tend to be more white. Within the poorer census tracts, so the argument goes, there will be segregation between poorer minorities and richer minorities. But Quillian’s study, which uses Chicago census tracts as his main example, goes one step further and provides the missing methodological key to Massey’s study: “the segregation of high- and middle-income members of other racial groups from blacks and Hispanics” (355). Stated differently, to understand how concentrated urban poverty and racial segregation work, we have to account for the difference in poverty rates between the different racial groups. It’s not only that whites and blacks are segregated, nor that richer blacks are slightly segregated from poorer blacks. It is also that whites have much less poverty as well. Since white poverty rates are much lower than blacks, neighborhoods with middle-class blacks are more likely to have poorer neighbors (regardless of race) than if the neighborhood was middle-class and white. The “three segregations” serve to distance whites from blacks (and Hispanics) generally and conversely amplifies the combination of black segregation and black poverty. This is a powerful explanation. We learn from this study that the underlying logic of racial and class segregation still go together despite increasing diversity and calls for colorblindness (which presumes that race doesn’t matter in social and individual outcomes). The integration of nonwhites and whites is very selective and coupled with perceived class of racial minorities. [If readers can’t follow my explanation, here’s another summary of the study).

Given my interest in Asian Americans, I wondered how they fit in this equation. I’ll need to contact Dr. Quillian for the additional analyses he did that accounted for Asian Americans as a separate group (p.365), but I suspect that the other observations we know about this group will explain their role pretty quickly. We know that Asian American poverty is higher than the national average (see pp.34-35 on link to report) (according to the Census Bureau, Asian American poverty increased 46% between 2002 and 2010), while at the same time Asian American household incomes are quite high. This is because Asian Americans are a very diverse group and due to the specific kinds of migration patterns (high-skilled employment, political asylum etc.) some arrive with a lot of resources and others have very little. More than half of the Asian population is foreign-born so these factors still play a sizable role in their poverty or lack thereof. But Asian Americans are also fewer in number compared to other minorities and (this is the big one) they are not often embedded in concentrated communities whether rich or poor. The Chinatowns and Koreatown are still here but they don’t contain a large number of Asians (note that each of these enclaves is a specific ethnic group; “pan-Asian” enclaves don’t really exist) in part because there aren’t as many of them to begin with. So if I could guess, Asian American segregation is fairly rare and the coupling of concentrated poverty and racial segregation doesn’t result in the same amplified results we see for blacks and increasingly for some Hispanics.

As I reflect on it some more I also wonder if predominantly white neighborhoods will absorb Asians and more readily accept their presence as a symbolic gesture toward inclusivity, a means of justifying colorblindness. Given the high incomes of many Asian Americans this seems like a real possibility given the way the three segregations play out. Note that Quillian did not describe segregation from whites, but rather from “non-black neighbors” and I suspect this is because there are just enough Asian Americans in those neighborhoods that one cannot call these exclusively white neighborhoods.

But what about Asian and black residential integration? From a news piece that appeared yesterday, I’m intrigued at the possibility of what might happen in New York. Apparently Chinatown is too expensive for some Chinese to move in; these migrants need a more affordable place to live. Their next choice is east Harlem. Will entry into a predominantly black community perhaps reshape the segregation patterns we see (at least in this city), or will it reflect more of the same, only now including poor Asian Americans? Here’s a screenshot of the richblockpoorblocks site for Harlem:

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  • George

    The income measures of Asians is also misleading since we use household income and Asian-Americans have larger families. While they do better than blacks and Hispanics we tend to overestimate how well they are doing.
    It will be interesting to see the sort of results you get from Quillian. Here is my guess. Asian-Americans tend to concentrate on the coasts. I know on the west coast we have residential segregation but it is not in as large of blocks as it is in the midwest. So we should see some Asian-American segregation but not to the degree we see with blacks and Latino(a)s.
    Finally, I do think that middle class Asians have an eaiser time intergrating into middle class white nieghborhoods than blacks (I suspect it is easier for Hispanics as well). Thus I do not think you will find a lot of middle class Asian nieghborhoods since they will likely be in a white nieghborhood. I look forward to a future blog of yours to see if my speculations are accurate.

    • Jerry Park

      Thanks George, and this is a good reminder to get that email sent to Quillian. I agree with your speculations about region. It might be a good blog to review the same maps for LA and SanFran to see what we can make of potential Asian segregation. His analysis was on Chicago only so it would be interesting to test it out on Calif cities and Houston, Atlanta etc.

  • Lala Suarez

    Hi Mr Park While this is not the main idea of your article, I often wonder what are the implications of the use of the word segregation. I often hear the word “voluntary segregation”. And I wonder if this doesn’t apply in these cases. In other words individuals choose to buy or rent in specific neighborhoods because they feel comfortable surrounded by individuals of the same race. Just a thought. Lala Suarez.

    • Jerry Park

      Hi Ms. Suarez, I think your question is very much on topic; I hadn’t addressed whether these segregation patterns are voluntary or not based on comfortability with same-race neighbors. I think there are two things happening in that respect. On the one hand, homophily (preference for the same members of a group) is a normal tendency, and in the US we view homophily often in terms of racial appearance. So on that basis, yes one would expect that whites might gravitate toward whites and blacks with blacks etc. The other dimension is the unequal distribution of resources by race. Since whiteness historically (and for the most part today as well) confers better resources (better schools, less crime, better house values), being around whites becomes desirable for everyone regardless of race. So many minorities who have some resources are stuck trying to decide whether to live in environments with same race others or to move (if possible) to predominantly white areas since the best resources are bundled there. I imagine if all racial groups were equally resourced similarly at the level of white Americans, we would probably have a lot more ethnic enclaves. They would all be relatively middle class in resources including lower crime, better schools, and rising house values- some will be predominantly white, predominantly Asian, predominantly black, predominantly Hispanic. It’s speculation of course but your insight helps build a case for what we might expect were this to happen.

      • Lala Suarez

        Thanks so much Mr. Park for your answer. I had meant to emphasize the fact this segregation is “voluntary” and individuals make those decisions based on other factors like the ones you mention of income, and schooling. I oftn have wondered if living close to family members is also another factor that should be considered. And if often, in this individualistic society, we overlook the advantage of living close to the extended family, or members of the same etchnic group who share our same values. thanks Lala Suarez

  • jeffat8asians

    I’ve written a lot about Asian Ethnoburbs on the 8asians blog and read your article with much interest. In addition, I live and work in two different Asian ethnoburbs ( Some comments:

    “As I reflect on it some more I also wonder if predominantly white neighborhoods will absorb Asians and more readily accept their presence as a symbolic gesture toward inclusivity, a means of justifying colorblindness. Given the high incomes of many Asian Americans this seems like a real possibility given the way the three segregations play out.”

    In Silicon Valley, where I live, I see some of that acceptance of Asians in wealthy white areas. I also see white flight when the concentration of Asians, no matter how wealthy, gets very high. This article from the Wall Street Journal ( talks about white flight from heavily Asian Cupertino, as some white families bluntly say that the schools are too Asian. In the Bay area, Asians are segregated by income and ethnic group – there are Asian cities like Union City, Milpitas, and Hercules, for example, which are more Filipino and lower income than wealthy areas like Cupertino, Mission San Jose area in Fremont, and Sunnyvale, which have more Indians and Chinese.

    George says: “I know on the west coast we have residential segregation but it is not in as large of blocks as it is in the midwest.”

    My experience in California is that segregated areas, even Asian areas, are pretty big. Asian American in LA kids talk about the 626, a large swath of Asian America in the LA area ( and In Silicon Valley, there are a number of cities with Asian majorities (Fremont, Cupertino, and Milpitas).

    Lala Suarez says: “I oftn have wondered if living close to family members is also another factor that should be considered.”

    That’s a big factor ( In parts of my area, home builders have accommodated Asian American extended families by building downstairs bedrooms with a private bath. When my wife and I work looking for houses, we looked for this kind of house to accommodate my in-laws. I see many Asian families bringing in grandparents to live with them to help take care of the kids. My wife’s parents lived with us for many years – my brother-in-law still does.

    • Jerry Park

      Thanks Jeff for these great comments and links to your very helpful posts; I wish I had seen those before posting! I especially like your perspective from the California scene since the largest proportion of the population is there and the kind of race x class residential dynamics might play out differently. Recently a colleague mentioned what you said as well, that builders are trying to accommodate mixed-generational living with double master bedrooms etc. It’ll be interesting to see what happens in Texas cities, especially Houston and Dallas, as it seems to attract more folks from all parts of the US including Asian Americans.