There's a small town in Minnesota called Worthington. It's a place that fascinates sociologists.
In the 1980s, Worthington was on its way to becoming a ghost town, like many other white, blue-collar communities.
But in 1989, the local pork processing plant added 650 jobs and attracted new workers, many of Mexican descent, by giving them one free week of lodging and food.
By the early 1990s, about 5 percent of the town's population was Mexican. People told their friends and family about these jobs, and more and more Hispanic workers came to Worthington — a phenomenon called chain migration.
By 2010, more than one in three residents were Hispanic.
Worthington is so fascinating to sociologists because it shows a new type of migration — one they say they’ve never seen before. Traditionally, immigrants from Latin America and Asia live in gateway cities like San Francisco, New York, and Miami. But now, Cornell University sociologist Dan Lichter said, "You've got these different population groups that are spreading out in ways we haven't seen in the past."
Part of it is nonwhite Americans leaving urban enclaves and going to the suburbs. It's a fulfillment of the traditional American dream — a path European immigrants took in past generations to leave poor, segregated neighborhoods that relegated them to a lower social class.
The other part is new immigrants going directly to the suburbs and other traditionally white areas, like Worthington.
But this isn't a story about what minorities have done. It's about how many white people have reacted to increasing exposure to nonwhite populations, who are following in their footsteps and pursuing the traditional American dream. The reaction is not always articulated or even intentional; in fact, most people say they want to live in a diverse and integrated community; they, too, have the dream that no one will be judged by the color of their skin.
But data shows that as minorities move into suburbs, white families are making small and personal decisions that add velocity to the momentum of discrimination. They are increasingly choosing to self-segregate into racially isolated communities — "hunkering down," as Lichter likes to call it — and preserving a specific kind of dream.
The white reaction to this new suburban migration
A few years ago, researchers conducted an experiment in which they took a group of about 200 white people and primed some of them with different news articles. When the respondents were reminded about America's growing diversity, they showed more bias against black people.
"These findings are consistent with a concept known as Group Threat Theory, which is the idea that when minority groups grow in size or power, the majority group feels threatened," wrote Washington University researcher Allison Skinner.
It plays out in broader polls too.
A recent PRRI survey showed that half of Republicans — and one in three Americans — believe more racial diversity would have a negative impact on America:
A growing number of people are worried about the country becoming majority minority, including one in three Trump supporters.
And more than half of white Americans believe the country's "way of life" needs to be protected against foreign influences. About 84 percent of Trump supporters feel that way.
"People like Trump were able to exploit exposure to race, now that all these areas are exposed," Lichter said.
The phrase "way of life" is imprecise, and perhaps it could indicate an allegiance to vague terms like freedom and liberty. But coded in the context is the assumption that our American culture is static — that what we have now, even though this differs for everyone, is more American than what outsiders can bring.
This type of migration is perhaps the inevitable outcome of a diversifying nation that takes pride in its specific narrative of upward mobility. Starting in the 1970s, Asians and Latin Americans began arriving to the US in large numbers. Now most public school children are nonwhite. By 2020, most children will be nonwhite. And by 2045, most people in America will be nonwhite.
But in most communities, white families haven’t overtly resisted.
For example, in the Los Angeles suburb of San Marino, a large number of Chinese families began moving in — and despite some underlying unrest, there wasn’t much coarse rhetoric about race, according to Columbia University sociologist Merlin Chowkwanyun. Rather, more white families moved out, fewer moved in — and by 2005 there were stories like this one in the local paper where a white mother lamented:
I know [my daughter] can do it, get good enough grades, so it doesn’t bother me. But to hear her say she can't win [a social chair] election because Asians vote for Asians, that bothers me.
In Worthington, rumors cropped up that the town had become dangerous, even though crime data shows it wasn't any more dangerous than similarly sized towns.
These are the kinds of passive tensions that have cropped up with this new trend of migration. There is, however, a small community of people who are taking this in-group favoritism and developing it into a more nativist ideology. The most concise and unfiltered expression comes from former Notre Dame football coach Lou Holtz, who said a few months ago, "I don't want to become you. I don't want to speak your language. I don't want to celebrate your holidays. I sure as hell don't want to cheer for your soccer teams."
While this crude expression of nativism is less common, though perhaps on the upswing, it is a sentiment that has been historically engineered into the fabric of this nation — with xenophobic immigration laws, with discriminatory housing laws, with Jim Crow laws, with slavery. There’s less overt discrimination now, but we’re still at the mercy of this segregating momentum that our past has inflicted upon us. It still decides where we live and whom we live with.
White people say they want diversity — but their actions show it’s only of a certain kind
A few years ago, researchers invited a handful of Illinois residents to talk to them about where they lived.
On one side of the table was a researcher. On the other side was a resident. And in between, on a table, was a simple map of the Chicago metropolitan area.
The residents talked about how they ended up living where they do now. They talked about the neighborhoods they've been to and ones they haven't. And usually, without prompting, they talked about race.
Residents would point to an area they've never been before, an area in the outer suburbs, and assume it was a white and wealthy area. They'd do the same with the inner city but assume it was a poor black area. Without any real evidence, there was a mental map built into the city's geography.
Watching all of this behind a window was University of Illinois sociologist Maria Krysan. This was part of an experiment she was doing for an upcoming book.
What makes her research unique is her fascination with the process of where we end up living, and not just the outcome.
Recent migrations patterns don't necessarily show the same kind of "white flight" we saw in the 1960s, where a neighborhood's demographic shifts drastically in just a couple of years because white people leave. Rather, Krysan said, "In the last several decades, the demographic characterization is less about the flight — less about whites fleeing a certain type of neighborhood — and more about decisions that people make when looking at where they're going to move next."
One thing she's found when she asked Chicago-area residents about their housing search is that people of all races say they want to live in a relatively diverse, integrated neighborhood.
When it comes time for the housing search, black and Latino residents look in neighborhoods that are as diverse as they say they want.
White residents "give a socially acceptable answer in the abstract," Krysan said, but they end up searching and living in much less diverse areas.
What this shows is that it's not black and Latino people who are self-segregating into neighborhoods — a myth that is often perpetuated, Krysan said. Rather, it's white residents who say they want more diversity but end up looking in less diverse areas.
Krysan found similar results when she gave nearly 800 adults in Cook County, Illinois, a diagram of a neighborhood and asked them to fill out their ideal racial and ethnic mix.
Then she asked residents to construct a neighborhood in which they would feel least comfortable.
What she found was that people, on average, wanted a specific kind of diversity.
For example, white residents said their ideal neighborhood was about half white, with other racial groups filling out the rest of the community. But the neighborhood they least desired had a lot more African Americans and Arab Americans.
The primary reason white respondents said they'd be uncomfortable in their least desired neighborhood was poor neighborhood quality — especially crime. A close second was cultural differences and concerns. One white respondent told the researchers:
If this were the neighborhood makeup, you could almost be certain that it would be lower income, higher crime, worse school. Not because of inherent characteristics of these people, but people of these backgrounds have a lower socioeconomic status and opportunity for education. Also I am just not used to … it would be a culture shock. Just like moving into any new culture. It is difficult in general to see people that don’t look like them.
White resignation from diversifying suburbs
There's certainly an amount of segregation caused by poverty, which is more rampant in communities of color. But research by Indiana University sociologist Samuel Kye found that even in middle-class suburbs, a strong presence of minority groups causes white families to stop moving in. This has caused segregation in Asian and Latino suburbs to actually get worse in the past 25 years, and segregation in black suburbs to stay high.
In the mid-20th century, white suburbanites reacted very differently to minorities, specifically black people, moving into their neighborhoods. Some communities prevented minorities from moving into their town with various housing and legal maneuvers. Chowkwanyun, the Columbia sociologist, said in virtually every suburban newspaper in that era, there were reports of confrontation and violence when a black person moved in.
This is where recent minority suburbanization differs from black suburbanization of past generations: When Chowkwanyun studied California's San Gabriel Valley, where Asian Americans became a large part of the population, he said he could find few overt conflicts.
Rather, it was a passive reaction. When white families moved out, they were more often replaced by Asian households, which is in line with what much of the research tells us about other similar suburbs.
Research led by Lichter, the Cornell sociologist, shows that in the past 25 years, the segregation between white people and minorities hasn't changed much within cities; racial groups are still very separate, though slightly less so. What has changed, though, is how segregated one town is from another.
White families are increasingly self-segregating themselves in new ways — and it's largely in the form of their moving decisions. Lichter's research shows white households are now moving to what sociologists call the "exurbs" — gated communities, unincorporated housing developments, and the countryside. This is why the only communities in the US that have seen significant white growth are places that were already predominantly white.
"You've got one group of white Americans who are comfortable with diversity and integrating with minorities, including blacks and Hispanics and Asians," he said, "and another America that is hunkering down in overwhelmingly white areas in overwhelmingly white places — and you see them moving further out."
"There are new forms of segregation taking place here, where a lot of this is motivated by what whites do — the white reaction to minority growth, rather than what minorities themselves are doing," Lichter said. "The exposure of whites to minorities is just at a standstill, even though these communities have become more diverse. Whites are leaving these areas that are diversifying."
Even when predominantly white suburbs are surrounded by diverse communities, other research shows white families aren't as comfortable moving into those nearby areas.
And even when white families live in relatively diverse suburbs or urban neighborhoods, the one place integration has to be faced head on is in traditional public schools, where catchment areas determine where your child goes.
In a place like North Carolina, white families are using charter schools to escape this system. And as a whole, studies show that charter schools have created more segregation than traditional schools. It can be a tool to integrate schools, but that’s not what’s happening — white children who choose to go to charter schools are choosing to go to predominantly white schools, and black children to a predominantly black one. In short, charter schools are being used by some as a self-segregation tool.
And it's contributed to the increasing rate of predominantly black and Hispanic schools with high poverty levels.
"They just want to keep with their own spaces, and not go beyond that," said Casey Cobb, a University of Connecticut education researcher. "That's a vehicle that allows them to continue to do that. Their preferences are being allowed to play out."
This is what is exceedingly clear: Many white families in America, many of whom have ancestors who fulfilled the journey of the American dream, want to live in a certain type of community and want their kids to be educated in a certain type of school. It's often not malicious, not overt, and not articulated. It's just the broad pattern of how white Americans move about this land, and perhaps that's the definition of a privilege that is increasingly being called out.
Unfortunately, that doesn't always leave room for racial and ethnic minorities to do the same.
We have differing mental maps of where we can (and can’t) live
One of the first things I said to Maria Krysan, the University of Illinois sociologist, was that her research gave me hope.
The reason is that it breaks down why people move to certain places, and it's not necessarily because they explicitly don't want to be around other racial groups.
In the experiment I described before, where she had researchers talk to residents using a map as a conversational object, Krysan said she was fascinated by how people talked about places they'd never even been to.
It points to this mental map that everyone has of their surroundings — and often, she says that knowledge comes from social networks, lived experiences, and the media. These things aren't always accurate. We're more familiar with some places, which makes our perception of them more accurate.
This builds on research she did on people in the Chicago area, where she asked people of different races if they knew anything about various neighborhoods.
The reason she asked this question was because, as she says, "It's very hard to move to a place if you've never heard of it."
What she found was that white respondents had a blind spot for neighborhoods that were diverse, even if they were majority white. Meanwhile, African Americans were less likely to know about far-flung suburbs.
If you've ever moved in your life — or 17 times, in my case — this makes perfect sense. Krysan said, "If my friends all look like me, their knowledge is about places where people like me live."
Sure, research seems to show that some white families just don't want to live near too many minorities. But a certain amount of this appears to be about being conscious of the systemic racism of the past that separates us by socioeconomic class, by social networks, and by where we live.
Part of the reason white people may not be looking for housing in neighborhoods that are as diverse as they say they want might be because they just don't know about these areas or have inaccurate preconceptions about them.
It's this societal momentum that this country spent a lot of money and effort engineering — one that's discriminatory and xenophobic. That's why housing advocates celebrated the 2015 Supreme Court ruling that affirmed the Fair Housing Act can be used to "affirmatively further fair housing." In other words, it said public policy should proactively promote racial integration.
Many opponents believe this is governmental overreach. Trump's nominee for the Department of Housing and Urban Development, Ben Carson, said this would allow the government to do "social engineering."
To that, housing advocate Erin Boggs says: "We have already been socially engineered. We're living in a socially engineered environment because of our history."
Martin Luther King Jr. said the arc of the moral universe bends toward justice — and it's something Obama has espoused often during his presidency. But the arc seems rigged so far the other way, and not just in depth but in breadth. It seems segregation is like a strong wave — and if you don't swim against the tide, if you do nothing, then we go backward.