Data Points is a new series where we explore the world of data visualization, information graphics, and cartography.
Racial tensions among communities, police forces, and elected officials are as immediate as today’s headlines. But to understand those tensions, data scientists have turned to 2010 U.S. Census data, and a novel way of mapping it.
The mapping technique was pioneered by the University of Virginia’s Weldon Cooper Center for Public Service. To create a visual representation of how some cities and neighborhoods divide along lines of race, the Cooper Center’s data scientists assigned each person counted in the census a dot, with different colors denoting the person’s race.
In the patterns of dots on the map, "there's a confirmation of segregation that may contribute to racial tensions," says demographer Qian Cai, director of demographics research at the Cooper Center. "After 50 to 60 years [since the Civil Rights Act], some cities are still starkly segregated."
Some American cities, primarily those on the East Coast, show an almost binary level of segregation between white and black. Sometimes—for example, in Detroit—that split can be seen along a single street. In Washington, D.C., the upper-income quadrant known as Northwest has historically been predominantly white while the adjacent quadrant, Northeast, remains mostly black. Cities on the West Coast appear generally more integrated, owing in large part to alternate patterns of settlement, racial history, and economic growth.
Integration is a slow process, demographers say, when it happens at all. A 2012 New York University study on integrated communities found that shifts tend to be tied to population increase, and that mostly white neighborhoods are far more likely to become integrated than largely minority ones.
Dustin Cable, the data scientist who devised the racial dot map (and now works for Facebook), says he doesn't expect the racial dynamics to appear dramatically different in the 2020 census. The newest colors on the map may come from growth in Hispanic communities and among those identifying as multiracial, an option only recently added to the census.
Explore the racial demographics on dot maps of America's five most populous cities above. Find your community on the full Racial Dot Map.