Tipping and the Dynamics of Segregation in Neighborhoods and Schools


In a classic paper, Schelling (1971) showed that extreme segregation can arise from
social interactions in preferences: once the minority share in a neighborhood exceeds a
"tipping point", all the whites leave. We use regression discontinuity methods and
Census tract data from the past four decades to test for the presence of discrete nonlinearities
in the dynamics of neighborhood racial composition. White mobility patterns
in most cities exhibit tipping-like behavior, with a range of tipping points centered
around a 13% minority share. These patterns are very pronounced during the 1970s
and 1980s, and diminish but do not disappear in the 1990s. We find similar dynamic
patterns in neighborhoods and in schools. A variety of specification checks rule out the
possibility that the discontinuity in the initial minority share is driven by income
stratification or other factors, and underscore the importance of white preferences over
neighbors ' race and ethnicity in the dynamic process of segregation. Finally, we relate
the location of the estimated tipping points in different cities to measures of the racial
attitudes of whites, and find that cities with more racially tolerant whites have higher
tipping points.

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