In Boston, diversity is a mixed bag

Suffolk County residents as a whole now have a 50-50 chance of living next to someone of a different race, but some areas remain starkly isolated

By Scott Flaherty, Adam Tamburin, and Lisa Kaczke
Globe Correspondents / June 5, 2011

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Suffolk County has become steadily more integrated during the past two decades, with residents now having about a 50-50 chance of living next to someone racially different from themselves, according to an analysis of census data.

Pockets of Boston, however, remain starkly isolated, due to geography, tradition, or persistent socioeconomic conditions. In City Point, the overwhelmingly white neighborhood on the tip of the South Boston peninsula, residents have only a 3 percent chance of living next to someone of a different race.

The diversity index, developed by demographers and widely used to calculate racial mixing, uses responses from the US Census to calculate the probability that two people, chosen at random from a geographic area, are of a different race. The Globe analysis calculated a diversity ranking for each of Suffolk County’s 204 census tracts — areas with roughly 2,000 to 5,000 residents each.

In 1990, there was a 34 percent likelihood that a Suffolk County resident would live beside someone of a different race. In 2000, that figure rose to 48 percent and now, according to the 2010 figures released earlier this year, to 52 percent.

“It seems to me that these figures indicate what I would regard as a remarkable change in the nature of population in Boston,’’ Boston historian Thomas O’Connor said.

Increased diversity extends outside of Boston as well. Kenneth Johnson, a demographer at the University of New Hamp shire, said that the 2010 census showed an increasingly diverse United S, as minority groups move into new areas across the nation.

“There’s no question that the minority population is dispersing,’’ he said.

The diversity index showed that Americans in 2010 had a 55 percent chance of living alongside a person of a different race, up from 40 percent in 1990 and 49 percent in 2000, a comparable rise to the one that took place in Suffolk County during the past two decades.

The changes in Suffolk County can also be seen at a census tract, or neighborhood, level. In 1990, only six tracts had a diversity index of more than 70, meaning residents there had more than a 70 percent chance of living next to someone of a different race; in 2010, 39 of the county’s 204 tracts exceeded 70 on the index.

Some of the starkest increases in diversity can be seen in public housing, which was integrated by the government in 1987, officials said. The five most diverse census tracts in Boston in 2010 contained public housing developments, with South Boston’s West Broadway area registering as the most diverse.

In that census tract, residents had an 84 percent chance of living next to someone of a different race, a steep jump from 18 percent in 1990.

“You couldn’t make it more diverse than that,’’ Johnson said.

In general during the last two decades, the number of segregated neighborhoods has steadily diminished. In 1990, 22 tracts were more than 90 percent black, compared with only three in the 2010 census. Likewise, the number of census tracts more than 90 percent white has decreased from 71 to 27 since 1990.

On the fringes, however, are neighborhoods where the trend toward integration has been less dramatic — or not felt at all.

In City Point, for instance, the level of diversity has remained virtually unchanged since 1990, when the neighborhood was almost 100 percent white and residents had only a 1 percent chance of living near someone racially different from them.

A mostly-black census tract, near Mattapan Square, had nearly 90 percent black or African-American residents, according to the 2010 census. Residents there had a 33 percent chance of living alongside someone of a different race in 2010, an increase of 14 percentage points from 1990, compared with the 18-point increase for Suffolk County as a whole during the same years.

Johnson explained that natural and man-made boundaries, including highways or geographic boundaries, can sometimes contribute to racial isolation in certain neighborhoods. The City Point neighborhood, for instance, is located on a peninsula deep in South Boston.

Trends in these neighborhoods serve as an extension of a racial history that O’Connor said has always been complicated.

People of different races were isolated in separate neighborhoods for decades and have only recently started to intermingle, O’Connor said.

In certain parts of the city, he said, it wasn’t uncommon to hear, “You can’t come here. Stay where you belong.’’

Racial tension intensified as Boston’s black population grew in the 1950s, O’Connor said. Black residents left neighborhoods like Roxbury and began moving into white enclaves like Mattapan, which had been mostly Jewish.

‘The white people were telling the black people where they belonged,’’ he said. “But the blacks were saying, ‘Boston belongs to everyone.’ ’’

These clashes became violent and sometimes deadly in the 1960s and 1970s when the city attempted to integrate schools by busing students into unfamiliar neighborhoods.

The violence became so virulent that the Boston Housing Authority separated white and minority tenants in public housing until 1987 to avoid further strife, officials said.

O’Connor, a professor at Boston College who’s called the area home for years, said he’s noticed more people of different races interacting with each other, even in parts of the city where it used to very rare a few decades ago.

“You see married couples walking down the street with children who are racially diverse. It’s not extraordinary,’’ O’Connor said. “But it would be extraordinary when I was growing up.’’

Scott Flaherty, Adam Tamburin and Lisa Kaczke are graduate journalism students at Boston University. This story was reported and written as part of an advanced journalism seminar taught by former Globe staff writers Mitchell Zuckoff and Dick Lehr.