Civil Liberties


Segregation Forever?


When Brown v. Board of Education turned 50 this year, the Brookings Institution offered some qualified but heartening news about the state of racial integration in America: While a majority of neighborhoods (55 percent) in the 10 largest metropolitan areas were racially homogenous in 1990, just 10 years later a majority (52 percent) were racially mixed. But when it comes to political ideology, segregation is getting stronger.

In April, Austin American-Statesman reporter Bill Bishop penned a series on what he called the "great divide": Americans' growing tendency to live and work with others who share their ideology. In 1976 only 26.8 percent of voters lived in "landslide counties," where one contender captured 60 percent or more of the votes for a major-party candidate. By 2000 the figure was 45.3 percent of voters. And while in 2000 Bush and Gore split the votes for major party candidates almost exactly 50-50, in only 772 of over 3,100 counties was the difference between them less than 10 percentage points.

As political theorist Cass Sunstein notes in Why Societies Need Dissent (Harvard), social scientists have firmly established that group opinions are subject to a feedback effect: When like-minded people interact, their views become more extreme. That means our political conversation is likely to continue as a Crossfire-style shouting match.

Map: Landslide and Non-Landslide Counties in the Continental U.S.

(not available online)