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I’ve always liked the expression “voting with their feet” – which conveys the ideas that (1) the best way to understand how Americans (and people everywhere, for that matter) isn’t to listen to what they say, but to look at how they behave; and (2) one of the best measures of behavior is where they choose to live.

And the expression came quickly to mind as I was reading a recent Wall Street Journal examination of how U.S. housing patterns by race and ethnicity have changed in recent decades. Because what the Journal data show is that, although large majorities of every major racial and ethnic group seem keep telling pollsters, other researchers, and journalists that relations among them have worsened over the years (see, e.g., here, here, and here), they’ve kept living closer together during this period.

In other words, housing in America has become much less segregated and much more integrated. In turn, that looks like an unmistakable sign that bigotry, prejudice, and racial and ethnic tensions aren’t remotely as bad as widely portrayed – much less dangerously mounting.   

This trend is surely especially striking for anyone who remembers or who has read about the often hate-filled housing integration battles that erupted in the late 1960s and early 1970s in places like Queens, New York and suburban Chicago.

But unless you’re deeply skeptical about U.S. Census Bureau findings (the main bases for the Journal report and for the academic research it also cites), it’s clear that major race relations progress has been made by the voting-with-your-feet standards over the last fifty years.

Journal reporters Paul Overberg and Max Rust looked over the Census data and lots of academic research to see “where the homes of whites, Blacks, Latinos and Asians remained most clustered along racial lines, and where they have become more intermixed” since 1970. Their conclusion? In general, “segregation of all racial groups continues to decline steadily from a peak that occurred” around that year.

Moreover, with the exception of Asians, whose segregation levels have always been by far the lowest of any of these groups, every individual group is becoming more integrated with every other group. And the upward move of Asian segregation levels has been minimal.

It’s true, according to the Journal, that levels of white-black segregation remain the highest among the groups. But they’ve also been falling the fastest. Even better, especially for those who remember or have studied the early phases of housing integration and the resulting backlash, Overberg and Rust report one leading researcher’s findings of “an emerging pattern in which the arrival of Latinos and Asians in predominantly white neighborhoods doesn’t trigger white flight, even with the later arrival of Black residents.”

I don’t want to sound Pollyanish about U.S. race relations today. But who can seriously deny the importance of choosing where to live – which strongly determines conditions like your family’s safety, where your kids go to school and who they play with, and how promising a nest egg-building investment your home purchase will be? The housing integration progress documented above makes clear that Americans of all backgrounds are less and less prone to believing that the racial and ethnic character of a neighborhood per se influences these hopes and fears. Which sure doesn’t sound like a nation increasingly and even hopelessly divided along racial and ethnic lines to me.