National Geographic News

Jaclyn Skurie

National Geographic

Published August 21, 2013

It sounds somewhat implausible, but a University of Virginia academic has designed an interactive map that color-codes the geographic distribution of every single American, drawing on the last census.

The Racial Dot Map uses 308,745,538 blue, green, red, and other colored dots to represent the race of every American in the place that person lives.

In what some bloggers have called a work of demographic pointillism, the new map allows users to scroll across the United States and zoom in on any area to view its racial mix.

Dustin Cable, the map's creator and a senior research associate at the University of Virginia's Weldon Cooper Center for Public Service, says the graphic adds a level of engagement that's absent when scrolling through hundreds and hundreds of tables from the 2010 census.

"It puts complex data into context—you are a point on that map somewhere," he says. "You can look yourself up and look at yourself in the context of that neighborhood."

Here are five big takeaways from the Racial Dot Map:

Purple Denotes Diversity

The map uses blue dots to represent those who identify on the census as white, green dots for people who identify as black, red for Asian, orange for Hispanic, and brown for those who identify as another race, Native American, or multiracial.

But the map also features blobs of purple or teal.

Since most of the dots are smaller than a pixel on a computer screen, high concentrations of different colors can combine at wider zoom levels to create a purplish hue, like in this photo of the Amtrak route that runs through Washington, D.C., Baltimore, Philadelphia, and New York. So purple is an indication of diversity on a regional scale.

Still, what looks like racial integration from a distance can change upon zooming. Scroll over Minnesota, for example, and you'll get a nebula of purple and blue dots around Minneapolis. But zoom in and segregation becomes apparent on a neighborhood scale, as more red and green dots emerge.


Even the President Is Included

Since data is taken from the U.S. census, the map includes a dot for every single person at the place they lived on April 1, 2010—even President Barack Obama. By zooming in on 1600 Pennsylvania Avenue in Washington, five green dots (which represent black Americans)  become visible, representing the President, his wife and two daughters, and his mother-in-law.


Racial Divides Get Granular

The data presented on the map is so specific and detailed that zooming in on neighborhoods in highly segregated cities like Chicago can reveal stark, street-by-street racial divides.

"On one side of the street there is one thing living there, and on the other it's predominantly another thing, and you really can see those block-by-block differences," says Cable.


Racial Anomalies Are Explainable

Prison inmates are included in the census, and Cable says map users can detect the location of certain correctional facilities because they appear more green (which represents black Americans) and more orange (which represents Hispanic Americans), compared with the typically rural surrounding areas. An example of this is a women's correctional facility just east of Charlottesville, Virginia, as seen in the image below.


Where We Choose to Live Has Changed Over Time

Geographic distributions of population differ on the East and West coasts of the U.S., which Cable says reflects how development patterns have changed throughout history. On the East Coast, hundred-year-old cities were developed alongside rivers that enabled transportation. The Western half of the country was settled later and reflects greater planning, with highly populated pockets like Los Angeles and Denver. In the Midwest, from Ohio to Minnesota, cities and smaller towns reflect how major highways shaped residential patterns.


To interact with the map, click here.

Follow Jaclyn Skurie on Twitter.

gaabriel becket
gaabriel becket

Blah, blah, so grouchy, you all!  I love this, I loved the surname map that Nat'l Geo ran, too.  Who cares if it isn't 100% accurate at this exact moment? You're expecting too much and reading too much into it.  It was fun to look at this across the country and the differences in populations in different areas.  I printed a pdf and compared it to my state map and found that in the Pacific NW, population areas follow freeways. I was surprised to see some larger areas I hadn't expected on the map and I couldn't figure out what they were or what created them until I saw the freeway system over them.  An ambitious and great project, this map!  I'm going to have fun poring over this with my kids and checking out the histories of the different areas on it.

Richard Saunders
Richard Saunders

Despicable liberals and their obsession with race and the balkanization of America along racial and ethnic lines continues.

Rugeirn Drienborough
Rugeirn Drienborough

It ought to be blatantly obvious that this map does not show "every single American." 

One - the census does not count "every single American" and does not claim to do so. 

Two - quite a few Americans have moved, have been born, have died, have immigrated and have emigrated since the census data came out. 

Three - even if the census did count "every single American" and even if it the data was up-to-date, there would still be errors that would miscount some people.

So could we just drop this ridiculous hype and return to dealing with reality? It would be much appreciated. Especially in a media outlet that purports to some (clearly relatively low) level of "scientific" approach.

John Peterson
John Peterson

@Richard Saunders How ignorant of you.  First, if you're going to use large words, then learn to use proper grammar too.  Doing otherwise takes away from your credibility.  Second, you've made an assumption that this article was written or influenced by liberals; there is no indication of this, and such a statement reveals several flaws in your character. Third, it's indisputable that people have skin of different colors and that the term "race" has been used historically to identify these different skin colors.  Yes, "race" is misused very often, but here it has been applied in accordance with its original use.  The divisions and segregation mentioned in the article are observations of indisputable facts:  people more often live near others of the same skin color than near those of another skin color.  There are many reasons behind this, and I will not delve into them (Google them if you wish).  In summary:  get over yourself, stop being a sheep of the media and your political party, stop being so closed-minded, and go back to school to learn when to really care when someone uses the word "race" (oh, and learn better grammar while you're there).

Penguin Assange
Penguin Assange

@Rugeirn Drienborough What a grouch you are! Any map, made at any time, is only a snapshot in time. An earthquake in Indonesia could make an island sink and thereby making current maps outdated. The Census data IS considered reliable enough to be used to conduct experiments and to create budgets and programs; therefore the data is good enough to be used for this map. I think the map is very interesting. Even if the data is outdated, the variances are not significant enough to make a measurable change in the outcome of this map. You can't ignore the fact that America is largely White with significant concentrations of Blacks and Hispanics in metropolitan areas. When you zoom into these areas, you can also see that there still remains a type of segregation - whether intentional or not. I just don't understand your problem with this map.


@Penguin AssangeRugerin isn't questioning the validity or reliability of US Census data. The article makes a very specific claim, that the race of "every single American" can be seen on the map, which is preposterous and not true.


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