How Racial Segregation Shatters a City

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Racial segregation literally breaks a city into separate, isolated chunks. In the worst cases, neighborhoods are wholly delimited by the descent of its denizens, rather than its topography or history. This is how a metro area comes to resemble an archipelago–a series of homogeneous islands connected by proximity and late-night bus routes. Even still, it’s often hard to imagine the extent of segregation in a city when you weave between its neighborhoods on a day-to-day basis. Though they may be in the heart of the hustle and bustle, smaller inner city communities can be staggeringly isolated from each other.

Sensing the urgency of this lingering social issue, software developer Jim Vallandingham programmed a data visualization that shows many of the top 10 most segregated cities breaking apart along racial lines. Take, for example, St. Louis, Missouri (pictured above). In Vallandingham’s animation, the mostly black core of St. Louis is abandoned by the first-ring suburbs, leaving a vast cultural moat between neighborhoods. Exurbia, for all of its sprawl, remains a tightly knit (or at least similarly skin-colored) community. (Pro Tip: The program runs much better on the Google Chrome web browser.) On his website, Vallandingham explains the math behind his data visualization:

[I]f a ‘mostly white’ tract is connected to another ‘mostly white’ tract, then the connection is short. If a city had uniform proportions of races in each tract, the map would not move much. However, longer connections occur where there is a sharp change in the proportions of white and black populations between neighboring tracts. These longer connections create rifts in the map and force areas apart, in some ways mimicking the real-world effects of these racial lines.

To some extent, Vallandingham’s program rehashes some foregone conclusions about race, demographics, and urban life, but it does so in a more visceral way than your average infographic. Not that static images can’t be powerful–for evidence, check out the segregation maps by Eric Fischer, Remapping Debate, and the University of Michigan Social Science Data Analysis Network.

Chicago, Illinois.

Milwaukee, Wisconsin.

Images courtesy of Jim Vallandingham.

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