Demographic shifts in the Kansas City metropolitan area tell us the suburbs are becoming more diverse, while downtown has seen an influx of white people. But it doesn't necessarily feel more integrated.
Shambresha Roland, a native Texan who has lived in Overland Park, Kansas, and Independence, Missouri, has found being an African American woman in those majority white communities awkward.
“Sometimes you get the feeling that you stand out,” Roland says. “People look at your different, or people think you talk funny, or your hair … You get those feelings, but I try not to let it get to me.”
Roland plans to move with her husband and young son to Grandview, Missouri, a suburb that has become one of the most integrated in the metro (40 percent black and 48 percent white in 2010).
Kansas City is following some national trends in which overall metropolitan areas are becoming more diverse, but that’s partly because some suburbs are becoming majority black, at least nationally, while others remain majority white. Long past the days of legal segregation and explicitly racist covenants, people in Kansas City still tend to be grouped in neighborhoods according to race and culture.
Recent history of de facto segregation
Kansas City council member Quinton Lucas grew up in mostly African American neighborhoods in the 1980s and 1990s, but went to a mostly white private school. He told Gina Kaufmann on KCUR’s Central Standard that hope for desegregating the city’s public schools was disintegrating during that era.
“That was the first time I saw white people give up on integrated schools, cities, saying that’s just a mess,” Lucas said. “If we can create strong enough lines, if we can move across state line, be away from the problem.”
The same things that motivated white flight from Kansas City’s poorer neighborhoods – neglected infrastructure, declining housing stock, the perception of low-quality schools – also led to “black flight.” Lucas said there’s also something else.
“Sometimes there is this kind of view of one’s neighborhood, if you grew up in a neighborhood with struggle, and I experienced this too and I have family members that did, you don’t want to be around anymore,” Lucas said. “Getting away from it sometimes is the easiest view, and sometimes it’s just 20 minutes south.”
What the numbers say
Frank Lenk, a senior researcher at the Mid America Regional Council (MARC), cautioned that while downtown has seen a big influx in population growth (the first growth in 70 years), overall, whites are still leaving Kansas City, particularly south of the river.
A tool called the “dissimilarity index” shows that Asians and Latinos are moderately segregated when compared to the white population, while the black-white level of segregation is considered “high.”
Still, according to Lenk, the level of overall segregation has improved statistically over the last 10 years.
“We are mixing it up to a certain extent,” Lenk told Central Standard.
One thing to look out for, according to Lenk, is that when infrastructure improves, as it has downtown, the city needs to make sure that low and middle-income people aren’t priced out. Other policies to encourage integration include more affordable housing throughout the metropolitan area and better transportation, particularly routes running across the metropolitan area from East to West.
Regardless, projections show that in the future Kansas City will be more diverse everywhere. Two thirds of the population in the metropolitan area is in so-called “minority” groups, which will soon be the majority in many places.
Sylvia Maria Gross is a reporter and editor at KCUR, and senior producer of the show Central Standard. Reach her at email@example.com and on Twitter, @pubradiosly.