When Ron Smith was young, growing up in the 1970s, he and his buddies would drive out from south Kansas City to Lee’s Summit, a lily-white country hamlet that had yet to grow into a sprawling suburb. They were treated like black teens often are.
“We’d get stopped by police over and over and over again,” Smith recalled.
Today, Smith, 62, lives in Lee’s Summit in a $300,000 home as part of the changing racial and ethnic makeup of the Kansas City area and its predominantly white suburbs.
To be sure, the Kansas City metropolitan area is far from earning a title as a racial melting pot. Home to more than 2 million people, its population is 12 percent black, and its suburbs, from Olathe to Liberty, remain 85 percent to 92 percent white. It is a still a highly segregated metropolis.
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But according to a new Brookings Institution analysis of US. Census Bureau data, deconstructed locally, the movement of black, white, Asian and Hispanic individuals and families into and around the Kansas City area since 2000 has markedly improved the city’s dubious ranking as one of the most racially segregated large cities in the United States.
In 2000, a Brookings analysis ranked Kansas City and its suburbs the 11th most black-white segregated large city in America, better by only a few degrees than Philadelphia, Indianapolis and St. Louis and far better than the most racially segregated, Chicago, Milwaukee and Detroit.
Whereas those cities’ rankings have barely budged since 2000 — St. Louis only dropped from 6th to 7th place — Kansas City now ranks 27th most segregated among 51 cities with populations of 1 million or more. It made the second largest gain toward integration than any other major U.S. city.
“Basically, what’s happening, and this has been happening for a while, minorities are suburbanizing,” said Frank Lenk, director of research services at the Mid-America Regional Council in Kansas City. Lenk, with colleagues Andrea Repinksy and Jeff Pinkerton, dove deeper into the census data that drove the Brookings analysis.
“I think it runs counter to the narrative that we tell ourselves,” Lenk said, “that things are not improving — that we are one of the most segregated metros in the country. That is probably not true any more.”
When Smith moved into his newly constructed home near Longview Farm some 18 years ago with his wife, Teresa, and two young kids, theirs was the only black skin on his block. He’d occasionally see former Kansas City Chiefs defensive back J.C. Pearson jogging by, but that was about all.
Last week, seated in his dining room, Smith pointed to the homes of neighbors on the other side of the block.
“Across there, and across there,” Smith said. Both are black families, along with others down the street, most having moved in over the last few years.
“It’s totally different now,” Smith said. “Basically because of the school system. It isn’t just Lee’s Summit. Even in Johnson County, it’s different now.”
“Slightly good news”
To determine each metropolitan area’s level of integration or segregation, William Frey of the Brookings Institution, author of the new book “Diversity Explosion,” compared race numbers from the 2000 census to averages from 2013 to 2017.
He calculated a black-white segregation index that runs from 0, meaning no segregation, to 100, meaning 100 percent segregation — no white people living near black people.
Between 2000 and 2017, the Kansas City area’ s index dropped from 71 to 60
“I think the top line is that, yes, (Kansas City) is still a segregated city,” Frey said by phone last week. “Any time you have a place where 6 out of 10 people have to move to be (integrated), there is a large divide that has to be dealt with. But it is down from what it was in 2000. … So it is a slightly-good-news-but-a-long-way-to-go story.”
The census numbers, broken down by Brookings and mapped and further analyzed by the Mid-America Regional Council, show other trends and hot spots:
▪ The metropolitan area as a whole is becoming more diverse. In 2000, a huge swath was 75 percent white or more. Now, the region is dotted with diversity along Kansas Highway 7 and North Oak Trafficway and in Bonner Springs, Lenexa, Olathe, south Overland Park, Lee’s Summit and Blue Springs.
▪ The average white neighborhood is becoming a bit less white and a bit more black. In 2000, these neighborhoods were 86 percent white and 6 percent black, on average. That changed by 2017, to 80 percent white and 7.4 percent black.
▪ Downtown Kansas City and areas along and east of Troost Avenue are becoming more diverse, namely whiter, as luxury apartments and homes are building up.
▪ In parts of south Overland Park — south of 135th Street around Metcalf Avenue — some neighborhoods range from 8 percent to 30 percent Asian.
▪ Black neighborhoods are changing, too. Black people are moving out of the core of Kansas City and Kansas City, Kan., to the suburbs, such as Lee’s Summit and Blue Springs in Missouri and around K-7 and Bonner Springs in Kansas. In 2000, black neighborhoods were 53 percent black on average; they are now 40 percent black.
▪ As black families move out, Hispanic families are moving in. The average black neighborhood is now 10 percent Hispanic. It used to be 5 percent.
“You can see where white people are leaving (such as central Olathe), Hispanic people are moving in,” said Repinsky of the Mid-America Regional Council. “And where white people are moving in (such as around downtown KC) black people are moving out.”
To some, greater integration is either welcome or, in an ever diversified culture, has gone unnoticed.
Nick Klopfenstine, 49, grew up in Raytown. He’s white and has lived in Lenexa for 12 years, currently in a large home off of Prairie Star Parkway. He certainly noticed his neighbors of other races and ethnicities, but hadn’t looked at it in terms of changing demographics.
“It seemed very normal and natural,” he said.
Same for Cindy Ward of Lee’s Summit, who is soon to turn 50 and lives near Smith.
“My next door neighbor is from Libya,” Ward said. Her neighbor is Muslim; Ward is Christian. “I never thought about it one way or the other.”
Rachel Gonuguntla, 37, is white and from Missouri, while her husband, Ravi, 44, comes from southern India, where they met. They have a 2-year-old son and live in Independence. But Overland Park is where they come to literally get a taste of Indian culture, in the restaurants and markets.
“Being a multicultural family, it’s just kind of crucial,” Rachel Gonuguntla said, standing outside of Pan-Asia Market at 119th Street and Metcalf. “It is a little bit more diverse here on the Kansas side.”
Danica Fuimaono, who is biracial, came to Blue Springs as a teen from Wyandotte County in 1990, when the suburb was far less diverse.
“As a biracial student I had a very positive experience coming in,” she said. “I had more educational opportunities.”
She married a Samoan man who had lived in Blue Springs for 35 years, and both are now school principals. The couple had two biological children and adopted their African-American daughter. None of their children, she said, have had any social adjustment problems.
“If I had it to do all over again I wouldn’t change a thing,” she said. “And if you ask my kids I think they would say the same.”
Coping with change
But increased integration doesn’t always come with increased social tolerance.
Blue Springs’ black population has risen from 3 percent to 8 percent in less than 10 years.
In 2017, the city saw a series of racially charged incidents, including complaints from schoolchildren who said they’d been targets of racial taunting. Someone scrawled the N-word across a black girl’s assignment paper. Other black students reported that when they gathered in the high school hallway, some white students called their group “Africa.”
That same year, James Price, who is black and has lived in Blue Springs for 10 years, arrived at the barbershop he owns to find it vandalized with the words “Die (N-word)” written on the windows.
But, Price said, his white neighbors and other business owners showered him with food, money and apologies.
“It was overwhelming, but it allowed me to see that the community does care about what happens here,” Price said last week.
He hasn’t experienced any racism since, nor has he heard about any from his mostly black clientele.
In his own nod to creating better understanding, Price said he and his hairstylist wife are working to set up a nonprofit. The idea, he said, was prompted by the number of white families who have adopted black children, but don’t know the ins and outs of tending to hair of different texture.
The purpose of the nonprofit in the mostly white town:
“To invite families in,” Price said, “and teach them how to care for black hair.”
The Rev. Lia McIntosh, a black United Methodist minister and business owner, was drawn to Lee’s Summit for several reasons.
“We intentionally chose Lee’s Summit because of its proximity to South Kansas City,” said McIntosh, who has three school-age children. “We moved to Lee’s Summit because of its reputation for good schools, good homes and safe community.”
But some 15 years ago, after she and her husband had lived in town for nearly six years, they ran into trouble when they began building in a neighborhood of homes that now cost $300,000 or more. One day when they came to check on the home’s progress, they found the N-word and a swastika on the interior of the concrete foundation.
“I guess someone wasn’t too happy we were moving in there,” she said.
But they moved in anyway. Neighbors welcomed them. She never knew who vandalized the wall. She scrubbed away the N-word, but never quite finished scrubbing the swastika away.
Today, she said, she and her husband have many friends in town who are mixed couples and families.
“And we have dozens of African-American friends who have moved to Lee’s Summit,” she said.
McIntosh is among Lee’s Summit parents who supported the school district’s proposal to hire a consultant to discuss race and equity with district leaders and faculty as the number of students from minority cultures grows.
But in September, other parents packed a school board meeting to voice concerns that district leaders seemed to be paying too much attention to one minority group. One social media post referred to Dennis Carpenter, the district’s first African-American superintendent, as the “race doctor.” The plan to hire the consultant was dropped.
Melodie Chrisman moved from Arkansas to Blue Springs with her family 30 years ago, when few people of color lived there.
“It was predominantly white. It wasn’t near the city it is today,” said Chrisman, who is white.
Now, so many of her neighbors are people of color.
“On a neighbor to neighbor level, I love it,” she said. “Everyone is so welcoming and happy to see people doing well. That is why I have stayed.”
Chrisman is site manager for the Community Services League, a social services organization that works with new residents who are struggling to make ends meet. Many are people of color.
“They move here looking for better options,” she said, “better housing, better schools. What I have found in my work is that trouble or difficulty does not discriminate.”