Single family homes in Deep East Oakland
Most neighborhoods in East Oakland are considered highly segregated, according to a new interactive study by UC Berkeley researchers. Credit: Amir Aziz

Oakland is the 14th most segregated major city in the U.S., according to a new project from UC Berkeley researchers. Different racial groups tend to be isolated in different neighborhoods, resulting in dramatic racial disparities in access to resources and poorer health outcomes for people of color.

While Oakland is among the cities at the top of the list, the Roots of Structural Racism project, from the Othering & Belonging Institute, found that more than 80% of the country’s metropolitan areas have become more segregated since 1990, contrary to the popular assumption that fair housing laws led to more integrated cities and neighborhoods—and despite rising diversity in many of those locations.

“Oakland is one of the most diverse places in the world,” said Stephen Menendian, the project’s lead author, during a press conference. Yet the project, which includes an interactive map, reveals that Oakland has been considered “highly segregated” since 1980, the first year of data the research includes. In 2019, Oakland was in the 92nd percentile of segregation, and compared to all other U.S. cities with populations over 200,000, Oakland ranked 14th most segregated.

In order to track segregation rates, researchers used a new measure, called the “divergence index,” that’s understood to be much more precise than typical measures. The divergence index calculates how much the demographics of a given area, like a neighborhood, “diverge” or differ from a larger geography, like a city or county. The study authors say this paints a much more accurate and nuanced picture of segregation, compared to less sophisticated metrics that look at the diversity of a neighborhood in isolation. It also includes more racial groups than, say, just segregation between Black and white people. 

The map allows users to zoom in to look at the segregation rates and racial makeup of neighborhoods, cities, or metro areas, based on census data. You can toggle between years to see how locations have changed over time, and look at numerous different measures of segregation. Note that as of publication time, overuse of the map was reportedly causing intermittent glitches.

A color-coded map shows Oakland and surrounding areas, revealing segregation rates. Most of Oakland is coded "high POC segregation," while some chunks are labeled "low-medium segregation."
Very few Oakland neighborhoods are integrated, according to a new UC Berkeley study. Credit: Othering & Belonging Institute (screenshot)

Hardly any neighborhoods in Oakland are considered “racially integrated” by these metrics. Just a few census tracts in the Dimond and Laurel districts, above I-580 and directly above Highway 13, as well as the Cleveland Heights tract, received low divergence scores and thus are not considered segregated.

By contrast, a deep East Oakland tract that borders San Leandro has remained around the 95th percentile of segregation since 1980. The map doesn’t only say whether an area is segregated or not, but drills down further to show whether its segregation is due to white people living in concentration with each other, or people of color living in concentration. The East Oakland tract has “high POC segregation,” though the racial demographics have changed tremendously over time: In 1980, the tract was 76% Black, whereas now it’s 65% Latino.

North Oakland’s Longfellow neighborhood is also considered to have “high POC segregation,” but it’s become less segregated in recent years, shifting from the 97th percentile in 1980, to the 91st in 2010, to the 79th in 2019. But sometimes increased integration can be a harbinger of gentrification, say researchers. 

A neighborhood’s segregation level influences everything from residents’ average lifespans to incomes.

“Segregation remains one of the principal causes of group-based inequality, by separating people from life-enhancing resources, such as good schools, healthy environments, and access to jobs,” the UC Berkeley researchers wrote in an extensive report about their findings. 

“These things are at the core of what we mean by systemic and structural racism in the U.S.,” said Menendian at an Othering & Belonging Institute event. 

“Median household income, home value, and ownership rates in segregated white communities are much higher than in segregated communities of color,” added co-author Samir Gambhir. He noted that Black and Latino people who are raised in segregated white neighborhoods end up earning higher incomes as adults, confirming a “structural problem” related to access to resources and opportunity, not one associated with race itself.

The study also reveals the detrimental decades-long impacts of historical racist housing policies. The project allows users to map formerly redlined areas—the areas considered hazardous or declining by the federal government, and thus denied access to mortgage loans in the 1930s—against current segregation rates. Researchers found that 83% of neighborhoods formerly redlined, such as much of East and West Oakland, were still “highly segregated communities of color” in 2010.

The project creators say they hope the mapping tool will be used by regular community members seeking to understand more about their communities, as well as groups compiling local histories, and “grassroots organizations and fair housing advocates” working on policy change. 

While recent police killings and the unequal impacts of the pandemic have increased societal awareness of racial disparities and systemic racism, the authors say, “there remains a surprising lack of appreciation for the centrality of racial residential segregation in forming and sustaining these disparities.”

The report doesn’t propose specific integration policies to undo segregation, but the project builds on previous work by the Othering & Belonging Institute that highlighted segregation in the Bay Area and focused on the role of single-family zoning and other restrictive land-use policies in isolating communities. Oakland is among the cities that have recently pledged to allow more density in residential neighborhoods. 

Natalie Orenstein covers housing and homelessness for The Oaklandside. She was previously on staff at Berkeleyside, where her extensive reporting on the legacy of school desegregation received recognition from the Society of Professional Journalists NorCal and the Education Writers Association. Natalie’s reporting has also appeared in The J Weekly, The San Francisco Chronicle and elsewhere, and she’s written about public policy for a number of research institutes and think tanks. Natalie lives in Oakland, grew up in Berkeley, and has only left her beloved East Bay once, to attend Pomona College.