The Buffalo Niagara region is one of the most racially segregated communities in the United States, according to an analysis of new census data.
The region -- comprising Erie and Niagara counties -- ranks as the sixth most residentially segregated metropolitan area in the country when it comes to whites and blacks living near each other.
That finding from the Brookings Institution isn't surprising, because the Buffalo area historically has ranked high on similar lists and is not unlike other Rust Belt regions that have been slower to integrate than growing communities in the South and West.
But the question is whether Buffalo Niagara's mostly segregated neighborhoods have made any progress toward integration.
And the answer is: Sort of.
"[Segregation] has come down since the last census," said William H. Frey, a demographer with Brookings, a think tank based in Washington, D.C., "but it's still high."
Frey used new census estimates released last week to create a demographic index that shows how racial groups are spread throughout America's neighborhoods.
The index is based on a percentage and what it would take to achieve an even residential pattern between blacks and whites, using scores ranging from 0 to 100. Anything above 60 is considered a very high level of segregation.
Buffalo Niagara scored 74.4.
That's actually a slight decline in segregation from a decade ago, when the region scored 78 on the index.
"It's moving in the right direction. Certainly it means there's something going on," Frey said. "But you know, in some ways, the die is cast in these older metro areas."
Much of the region's segregation is rooted in history, Frey said. A half-century ago, blacks moved in large numbers from the South to major industrial cities in the North, where public policy and real estate practices concentrated the black population.
The real key to overcoming those historical patterns of black and white segregation is growing numbers of middle-class blacks migrating into white neighborhoods, Frey said, but Rust Belt regions such as Buffalo simply don't have enough of that.
Metro Milwaukee, for example, ranked as the most segregated region in the country, followed by metro Detroit, New York, Chicago, Cleveland and Buffalo. Metro St. Louis, Youngstown, Ohio, Syracuse and Cincinnati came in just below Buffalo on Frey's index.
On the other end, blacks and whites in the growing South and West -- regions including Las Vegas, Raleigh, N.C., and Tucson, Ariz. -- are more likely to live near each other, because they tend to be of a more stable socioeconomic class.
"Buffalo is in a group of metros that can be classified as slow-growing for blacks," Frey said. "The flow is not big enough to counter the historical structure of neighborhoods that have been segregated."
Consider the numbers:
*Of the more than 1.1 million people living in Buffalo Niagara, 81 percent are white, and 12 percent are black, according to census estimates released last week. Most of the region's black population lives in the City of Buffalo, where there are almost as many minorities as there are whites.
*The only suburban communities with noticeable minority populations are Cheektowaga, where more than 7 percent of the population is black, and Amherst, where almost 5 percent of the population is black.
White flight and racially based suburban growth are big reasons why the region remains so residentially segregated, said Henry L. Taylor, a professor in the Center for Urban Studies at the University at Buffalo.
"You have communities that may look like they're integrating today, but they start to transition," Taylor said, "because when there's a certain number of blacks, whites move out."
Nationwide, three-quarters of the 100 largest metro regions showed a decline in segregation from a decade ago, according to Frey's analysis. The indication is that the nation has made large strides toward integration in the last decade, but that's debatable. Frey acknowledges that black and white integration still has a long way to go.
His segregation rankings are based on census estimates released last week from results of the American Community Survey from 2005 to 2009, a large sampling of households conducted annually by the U.S. Census Bureau to get an up-to-date snapshot of America.
Results from the 2010 census should start rolling out today, when state-by-state totals are scheduled to be released.
The most segregated metros
The Buffalo Niagara region ranks as the sixth most segregated region among the 100 largest metros in the U.S.
Rank / Metro
3. New York City
6. Buffalo Niagara
7. St. Louis
8. Youngstown, Ohio
Source: William H. Frey, Brookings Institution