Many researchers are concerned about ethnic concentrations in our cities, particularly in the US. Researcher Rich Benjamin’s latest book Searching for Whitopia: an Improbable Journey into the Heart of White America, examines why the fastest-growing areas in the US are also the whitest. He defines “whitopias” as areas that are over 75% white, and for the book he focused on places with a higher than 6% growth rate since 2000. The idea was also raised by Bill Bishop, who wrote The Big Sort (2008) which documents the trend for Americans to live in increasingly homogenous communities where everyone has the same religious and political values. Both authors agree that this is bad for Americans; Bishop’s book is subtitled “Why the Clustering of Like-Minded America is Tearing Us Apart.” It seems like Richard Sennett was right after all.

Decades ago in The Uses of Disorder (1970) Sennett argued that suburbs were a fascist social control that created a more intolerant society, one that was more individual-based rather than community-based. He wrote that suburbs tended to exacerbate the natural inclination of people to associate with others with similar values, even banding together to exclude people of different cultures and religions.

In the US, Bishop and Booth write that the roots for this type of voluntary segregation can be seen in the 1960s, when the courts demanded integration of African Americans and “white flight” first began. Recently, minorities are increasing in the inner suburbs fairly close to city centers, spurring whites to flee to exurban areas, which can be over an hour from the city. Benjamin says that many of these are older white Americans who fear an increasing role of government and a loss of power in the face of demographic shifts. Older whites traditionally have more political power because they are more likely to vote, but as of 2042 whites will no longer be the majority in the US.

Echoing Sennett, both Bishop and Benjamin argue that segregation into class-based, race-based neighbourhood leads to more clashes between groups, as each becomes entrenched in its own position and values. Bishop writes that this type of stalemate leads to some innovative policy at the metropolitan and state levels, but a lack of transformative change in the US.

The argument is very interesting from a Canadian viewpoint, where many of our suburban areas are very mixed because of our consistently high immigration rates. Unfortunately, no author has taken on a book-length discussion on growth rates and ethnicity in Canadian cities, but there is plenty of statistical evidence that shows Canada moving in a very different direction than the US. In Metro Vancouver, suburban municipality Port Moody had the highest growth rate in the region, followed by Surrey. Richmond and Vancouver had much lower rates but are still around 6%.

Metro Vancouver Growth RatesImmigration landings confirm that the vast majority of these immigrants have come from Asia, particularly mainland China and Hong Kong. Statistics Canada Community Profiles show that the proportion of immigrants is significant even in traditionally “whiter” mid-sized cities: 20% of Victoria’s population is foreign-born, as is 21% of London’s and 15% of Kelowna’s. However, visible minorities make up only 12% of Victoria’s population, 14% of the population in London and 6% in Kelowna.

Despite the mixture of ethnic groups in Canadian suburbs, the tendency towards locating among people with similar values can clearly be seen in Canadian elections. Cities emerge as islands of Liberal and NDP support in a country that has had a Conservative minority government since 2006. Have a look at southern Ontario or Vancouver in the 2008 federal election. Even Vancouver’s municipal election results show sharp dividing lines between those supporting Gregor Robertson for mayor versus Peter Ladner. Some even argue that the periodic redrawing of census tracts is linked to political agendas, but given the housing affordability crisis in most Canadian cities, it seems that the political and ethnocultural trends is less tied to cultural preferences than the geography of affordable housing.

At any rate, there are some obvious differences between Canadian and American cities, notably in the spatial concentration of ethnic populations and the absence of sharp ethnic divides. While Bishop and Benjamin trace this to civil rights era, the issue clearly goes further back to a history of slavery in the US. Canada, while having its own history of racist legislation, does not have as long of a history of non-white settlement. The Immigration Act of 1952 was the first to allow people from non-European countries to enter the country, and by that time there were fewer legal restrictions to owning land and buying property. By 1967, with another major shift in the Immigration Act, a new wave of non-white immigrants entered the country. However, they were never faced with legal barriers to homeownership or the labour market, two considerable barriers for African Americans in the US that remain entrenched today. Earlier non-white populations in Canada, notably Sikhs and Chinese in British Columbia, faced much harsher restrictions and still have the highest rates of segregation in the country today. These differences in immigration and labour market policy mean that our segregation rates are much lower than those seen in the US, yet another reason to think twice before applying American theory and reality to our own cities.

Benjamin’s and Bishop’s books do make us think about the fractured populace living just south of the border, and urge us to do more to help new immigrants integrate into their lives in Canada. Every time I travel to the US for a conference and listen to researchers documenting entrenched segregation, labour market barriers, and the “racial” biases unearthed during the mortgage crisis, I am reminded how different our countries are. This is particularly significant in my own research with immigrants in Toronto, which has introduced me to the work of many brilliant Canadian researchers and opened my eyes to our lower spatial segregation rates and more mixed neighbourhoods. However, I am also reminded of how much work still lies ahead for Canadians in recognizing immigrants’ foreign credentials, ensuring greater income equity, and promoting more tolerance in the workplace. We also need to recognize that sharp divides in tenure, such as the growth of luxury condominiums in neighbourhoods next to predominantly rental and low-income housing, can foster critical differences in political affiliation. As Sennett argued almost 40 years ago, the more isolated we are the more intolerant we become.

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