Many people have had trouble adjusting to the news that Colorado Springs is one of two most residentially racially integrated cities in the United States. That was the result of a major study by the University of California at Berkeley that measured the extent of racially segregated housing throughout the nation.
Colorado Springs and Port St. Lucie, Florida, were the only two cities to be labelled residentially “Integrated.” The study found widespread racial segregation in housing in the U.S. that was concentrated on the East Coast, in the upper Midwest, and on the West Coast, particularly in Los Angeles.
Many observers have thought of Colorado Springs as having too few minority residents to qualify high on the chart of residential racial equality. Yet U.S. Census figures paint a different picture. In 2020 Colorado Springs was recorded as 6.5% African Americans and 17.6% Hispanics (of any race).
Those two minorities added together total 24.1% of the city’s population. One out of every four residents of the Springs is now African American or Hispanic. The Cal-Berkeley study included any city in the nation that was 20% or more minority, so the Springs qualified by 4.1 percentage points.
I think many people are unaware of how steadily the percentage of Hispanic residents in Colorado Springs has grown over the past 30 years. According to the U.S. Census, in 1990 Hispanics were 8% of the population. By 2000 that figure had grown to 11.3% and by 2010 to 15%. At the 2020 level of 17.6%, Hispanic citizens are the most numerous minority group in both Colorado Springs and the Colorado Springs metropolitan area.
The researchers at Cal-Berkeley attributed the level of residential racial integration in Colorado Springs to the presence of the U.S. military — Fort Carson, the Air Force Academy, the North American Air Defense Command, etc.
The Cal-Berkeley scholars argued that the military is one of the most racially integrated groups in U.S. society. Furthermore, the military provides good jobs and access to Veterans Administration housing loans that enable military and retired military to afford to live in housing developments throughout the Pikes Peak region.
Longtime residents will agree with that analysis, but there are homegrown reasons for Colorado Springs being so residentially racially integrated:
• Colorado was not a slavery state. Founded mainly by Northerners at the time of the Civil War (1860s), Colorado never had a significant African American population living on and farming the land as was the situation in the American South.
• The egalitarian views of William Jackson Palmer, the founder of Colorado Springs, were influential. A Union general in the Civil War, Palmer fought to end slavery. After the war he donated money to support colleges and universities to educate the recently free slaves. He was a benefactor of Colorado College in Colorado Springs, which styled itself as “open to all races.” Palmer wanted Colorado Springs to be a “best place to live in the West” rather than just another city.
• Colorado was not a part of the Great Migration. From the 1920s through the 1960s, there was a northward migration of some 6 million African Americans from the rural South into major northern cities such as New York, Philadelphia, Detroit, and Chicago. Racial segregation of housing in American cities was the operating rule during that period.
The result was the creation of large areas of segregated minority housing in East Coast and Midwest cities. Because the Great Migration never reached Colorado Springs, however, the city now lacks the highly segregated minority residential areas that characterize so many other U.S. cities.
The great growth of population in Colorado Springs coincided with the Civil Rights Movement. Prior to World War II, Colorado Springs was a small city with little population growth and small minority populations. The rapid expansion of the military in Colorado Springs during the war created the fast-growing city with housing developments springing up in all directions that continues to this day. This fast-growing and developing version of the city of Colorado Springs is only 75 years or so old.
Yet all that rapid population expansion and housing construction coincided with the Civil Rights Movement, particularly the Housing Rights Act of 1968. Minorities had the law on their side when they opted to buy housing wherever they could afford it throughout the growing Colorado Springs area.
The major conclusion is this. As the Hispanic population has grown in Colorado Springs over the past 30 years, these new minority residents have had little or no problem buying housing throughout the Colorado Springs metropolitan area — whether in the city or in unincorporated El Paso County.
Widespread housing integration has created the mistaken impression that Colorado Springs is an all-white community. Because African Americans and Hispanics are widely dispersed residentially throughout the metropolitan area, they are less evident to the casual observer. The situation is different in many other cities in the United States, where African Americans are living together in “ghettos” and Hispanics are concentrated in “barrios.”
Racial and ethnic relations are not perfect in Colorado Springs in such areas as policing, the incidence of poverty, and the lack of affordable housing. But, according to the researchers at Cal-Berkeley, this city and metropolitan area have achieved one of the highest levels of residential racial integration in the nation.
Bob Loevy is a retired professor of political science at Colorado College. He worked as a legislative assistant in the U.S Senate during the filibuster and enactment of the Civil Rights Act of 1964. To review the Cal-Berkeley study, google “Roots of Racial Residential Segregation.”