Saturday, September 26, 2015

The Environmental Justice Benefits of Increasing Solar Energy

Most people know that how we produce and consume energy is an environmental issue. But is it a moral issue?

Recently I was invited by Salem State's MassPIRG to talk about energy and climate change at their annual Kick-Off event. This year they are launching a campaign to convince Massachusetts Governor Charlie Baker to commit the state to the goal of generating 20% of the state's energy from solar energy by 2025 and to also to pass a law lifting the caps on net metering (allowing excess energy produced by solar panels on residential and commercial buildings to "run the meter backward").

I decided to talk about the environmental justice benefits of solar energy.

Most of the electricity we use in Massachusetts is generated from the burning of natural gas - over 80% as of this year. This is a dramatic change in how Massachusetts used to generate most of its electricity only a decade ago. No doubt, this change is an improvement over reliance on other dirtier fuels, like coal and petroleum.

However, extracting natural gas, transporting it, and burning it all have significant environmental impacts. To the extent that we can replace natural gas with clean, renewable energies like solar energy, we can reduce or eliminate many of these environmental impacts.

But there is also a moral dimension to the issue of energy. Our reliance on natural gas is an environmental justice issue. The environmental benefits and burdens of natural gas are not distributed evenly or fairly. The benefits are simple: cheap, reliable electricity. These benefits are enjoyed by anyone who buys or sells electricity produced from natural gas. But the environmental burdens tend to be borne by other people, often people who are vulnerable and see less of the benefits: poor and marginalized communities, the very young and very old, people who are less healthy. Unlike the benefits, the burdens of natural gas fall on very specific places and very specific groups of people. So, there are environmental justice benefits to promoting cleaner forms of energy in Massachusetts, and these benefits happen at the local, regional, and even global level.

Local Scale EJ Issues

Within Massachusetts, there are about 57 large, fossil-fueled power plants throughout the state. Every year, they emit tens of thousands of tons of nitrogen oxides and sulfur oxides which are pollutants and components of smog and ground-level ozone, all of which are very bad for our health. They are especially bad for children, the very elderly, and people with asthma or other lung or heart diseases. But these power plants are not distributed evenly around the state. Rather, almost all of them are in or near lower income communities or communities of color - exactly the types of communities that are most vulnerable and least able to protect themselves. This is what we call a disproportionate burden or an environmental injustice. To the extent that we displace, or replace, these dirtier sources of energy with emissions-free sources, like solar energy, we reduce these disproportionate burdens.

Regional Scale EJ Issues

There are issues at the regional level as well. Although Massachusetts is very dependent on natural gas, Massachusetts produces no natural gas locally. All of our natural gas must be imported from other places. About 20% of our natural gas comes as liquefied natural gas (LNG) by ship from Algeria and Trinidad to a main terminal in Everett. The remaining 80% comes from wells in the southern US and off the coast of Nova Scotia in eastern Canada. The latter is transported by pipeline. In fact, within Massachusetts alone, there about 1,000 miles of interstate natural gas transmission pipelines. All of this natural gas infrastructure, from the wells to the pipelines to the ships and the terminals carry their own environmental risks and impacts. A lot of us are already quite aware of these impacts. The Northeast Energy Direct pipeline by Kinder Morgan, Inc. would bring in a proposed 180-mile pipeline, running from eastern New York to a transmission hub in the northeastern corner of Massachusetts. The pipeline would carry fracked gas from Pennsylvania’s Marcellus Shale Fields across northern Massachusetts and southern New Hampshire. There is a lot of regional opposition to this pipeline and the disruption and risk it would bring to the communities through which it would pass. However, there is even more concern nationally about the boom in fracking and the threats that this drilling technique poses for water quality and geological stability in the places where this drilling happens.

Global Scale EJ Issues

Globally our dependence on natural gas for electricity is significant as well. According to the American Council for an Energy Efficient Economy, Massachusetts was the most energy efficient state in the US for the last 4 years, BUT Massachusetts residents still bear outsized responsibility for greenhouse gas emissions and the resulting climate change. At 10 metric tons of carbon dioxide (CO2) per capita, we are more than twice as emissions intensive as the global average (4.8 metric tons per capita; although not as bad as US as whole - more than 3x!). About one fifth of our CO2 emissions are due to electric power generation from fossil fuels in the state. This greenhouse gas (GHGs), as we know now, is the primary driver of global climate change. And we also know that the impacts of climate change fall hardest on the most vulnerable - poor and marginalized populations both here and abroad. As efficient as we are today, Americans bear a disproportionate responsibility for historic GHG emissions that are causing climate change today, and so we have larger than average moral responsibility to change our behavior and reduce our impact.

There is therefore both an environmental and a moral imperative to moving ourselves away from fossil fuels, like natural gas, and toward renewable energy sources, like solar energy.

Thursday, September 3, 2015

Can a university, like a neighborhood, become gentrified?

Starting in fall 2015, Salem State will host (and rabidly patronize) a new Starbucks coffee shop on Central Campus. It will be situated in the building housing Salem State's newest residence hall, Viking Hall, which also opens its doors for the first time in fall 2015. We already had a Dunkin' Donuts on North Campus. But the contrast between the pre-existing Dunkin' Donuts and the newly arrived Starbucks seems like an uncanny parallel of larger changes.

It seems fitting that a Starbucks has landed where and when it has at Salem State. On Central Campus where the newest classroom buildings and dorms have been built, and indeed, in the newest building of them all - Viking Hall (go Vikings!). In addition to being the newest building, Viking Hall is also the first campus residence building to house a cafe. By contrast, Dunkin' Donuts sits within a building devoted primarily to classrooms and administrative offices - part of an older campus building and, maybe, an older orientation toward students and campus life.

Starbucks has also arrived at a curious transition point in Salem State's evolution. When Viking Hall fills with its 350 student residents, and when one adds this number to the number of students residing in other residence halls across the university, Salem State will house 40% of its full-time undergraduate student body. This number - 40% - marks a significant step in the direction of our President's stated goal of having 50% of our undergraduate students living on campus. It implies, at the very least, a significant move away from Salem State's long held identity as a commuter school (and all that implies). To be clear, Salem State is still mostly a commuter school, especially if you also count part-time students, graduate students, and non-matriculating students. But still. There is a lot of symbolism in this number, in this moment. And Starbucks is here to mark the occasion.

There is certainly a lot of class symbolism for both Dunkin' Donuts and Starbucks. The former is an old staple in New England, associated with blue collar, unpretentious simplicity. The latter, a relatively recent arrival from the 'left coast,' is associated with yuppies (do people still use this word?), non-fat soy lattes, and of course, pretentiousness.

A few years back, a student in my GIS class analyzed the distribution of Dunkin' Donuts and Starbucks coffee shops across the entirety of Massachusetts (over 1,000 stores in all!) and found - without much surprise - that Starbucks tended to be located in slightly wealthier communities than its native rival.

The other students nodded their heads knowingly at this revelation (somewhat smugly, I thought). What no one expected was that Starbucks also tended to be found in communities that are more racially diverse, while Dunkin' Donuts tended to be in communities that were whiter. Keep in mind that he only looked at where the stores are located, not who actually patronized them. But still. It seemed like a provocative finding. The apparent class distinction seemed to agree with their preconceptions (even though one does not discuss 'class' in polite company in America), but they did not know what to do with the race findings. Race is a confusing and uncomfortable topic for my students (as it is for most Americans).

Salem State's demographic trajectory seems to parallel that of Starbucks communities, seeming to confound easy interpretation. Since 2009, an increasing proportion of incoming students are first-time freshmen, rather than transfers (transfer students being roughly analogous to commuters). Over the same time period, the average GPA of our incoming students has gone up, from an average of 2.94 in 2009 (roughly a C+) to over 3.1 today (roughly a B-). And finally, the proportion of incoming students who identify as non-White has consistently gone up as well, from 21% in 2009 to over 30% today. Is this what gentrification looks like? I don't have data on the average wealth of incoming students, but I wonder. More importantly, gentrification implies displacement. If this is gentrification, who is being displaced?

Right before the fall 2015 semester began, I was on Central Campus for a meeting, and I bumped into a colleague I hadn't seen for a while. She now works in a different administrative department, helping students strategize on their finances so that they can afford to stay in school. As we stood in the shadow of the gleaming, new Viking Hall, and looked in through the blue-tinted windows of the soon-to-be-opened Starbucks at its base, she fumed. "What does this say to our students who are struggling to pay for school? Here I am, trying desperately to educate students about spending their money wisely, and then we put this in front of them. Imagine the pressure they're going to feel. It sends the wrong message."

After my meeting, I walked out with another colleague and we found ourselves once again in front of Viking Hall and its Starbucks. This colleague looked around admiringly, not only at Viking Hall and Starbucks, but at all the new buildings around it. "This campus is really looking beautiful now," he said. "The transformation is amazing. It's really changing the look of the school. It's like Salem State was this working class school, and now ..." "It's middle class," I finished for him. We laughed and then headed back to our offices on old North Campus.

Friday, March 27, 2015

Covering Their Assets

Let me say at the outset, before indulging in any snark or sarcasm, that I sincerely appreciate the effort that community organizers, especially Chris and Magdalena at our local CDC, Neighborhood of Affordable Housing (NOAH), and state and local government representatives, have put into thinking about climate change preparedness in my community of East Boston. Okay. What follows is a short summary of a local climate change event. The facts and the absurdity are true, only the names have been omitted because I forgot them.

On Wednesday, March 25, 2015, I attended a Climate Change Workshop at my (brand, spanking new and uber-sustainable) local library in East Boston. It was well attended - at least 100 people in attendance - but like all community meetings with local government, a little less than perfect. Attendance at community meetings is always challenging, but it's awkward when residents are underrepresented.

State, regional, and city officials (as well as outside organizations and the odd graduate student) outnumbered my neighbors 2 to 1. Worse, they had taken all of the good seats and nearly cleaned out the buffet dinner. Residents, like myself, were largely relegated to the margins and forced to scrounge for cold scraps at the break. The irony doesn't end there, of course.

The first speaker, a severe-looking woman in a red suit from Massport (Massachusetts Port Authority), began her presentation with the statement: "At Massport, we have been focused on how to protect our assets." Amazingly, no one else in the room except me found this statement funny (in the picture, I'm the medium-sized guy standing at the back of the room with a bewildered look on his face).

She sped through a series of PowerPoint slides demonstrating that the airport was indeed spending time thinking about how to protect its own assets: modeling flood potential on airport property, investigating how to flood-proof doors, and ensuring that when the next super storm hits, the military would have somewhere to land and save us all. Her overarching message: what's good for the airport, is good for your community. Stirring.

Some agencies are better than others at communicating with the public.

Steve from DOT (Department of Transportation), a serial presenter at these kinds of events, used his classic sleeper move, attempting to bore the audience into submission. Indeed, an elderly woman standing next to me said (somewhat loudly), "This is boring." In place of a PowerPoint slide, Steve actually scrolled through the pages of a PDF report (including the front matter and "this page intentionally left blank" page), providing a halting monologue about the significance of this report. At some point, someone yelled, sarcastically, "You're going too fast," which almost led to him to SLOW DOWN. To our relief, he scrolled on to a page with a map and proceeded to talk about the importance of this map, without actually explaining what it showed. As far as I can tell, the map depicted, in higher-than-average resolution, areas along the central artery highway that are prone to flooding. Again, this interpretation is based on a post hoc reconstruction. 20 minutes down, 230 to go.

The guy from the Boston Water and Sewer Commission (speaking also on behalf of MWRA (Massachusetts Water Resources Authority), who were very sorry they couldn't be here) was a welcome relief. No PowerPoint or PDF. Plain English. These guys are prepared and are thinking critically, AND they know how to talk to residents. What we learned is that the system for drainage and our drinking water is constructed with enough slope that it is not at immediate risk from sea level rise or flooding. With absolutely no hint of sarcasm, he assured us that this gravity-based infrastructure is relatively safe because gravity is still working well. Thank God.

The guy from BRA (Boston Redevelopment Authority) explained that the City now has a checklist which explicitly asks property developers along the waterfront whether they have thought about sea level rise. It's not clear how many have, but they've been asked. On an equally hopeful note, he recounted how many houses are installing solar panels on their roofs. In the event of a power outage, some houses may still have power.

Other agency representatives spoke, I think.

After the speakings, we were granted a short break before reassembling by sub-neighborhood throughout the library. I dutifully joined my people in the Eagle Hill sub-neighborhood section. Agency people were to circulate amongst the three sub-neighborhoods in 20-minute rounds. Our moderator, who was from Cambridge (for which he apologized, appropriately in my opinion), endeavored valiantly to generate dialog that he could moderate.

In the first round, it was us against the severe lady from Massport and Steve from DOT. It was clear that the agencies, and some of our moderators, were still focused primarily on protecting their assets, rather than people. My wife asked a very pointed question to the Massport lady: "Do you have a plan for protecting the job security of workers at the airport in the event of a disaster or major emergency? For low wage workers, the economic disruption can be just as disastrous. Many people in this neighborhood lost jobs when public transit shut down due to the snowstorms."

Massport lady said, "That is a good point." She then laughed and said, "You know, for me, I just got five days off during the snow storm. I went skiing." She beamed with the memory. Even our moderator from Cambridge looked disgusted.

Our moderator from Cambridge asked, "Could the airport possibly be a place that people in the neighborhood could be evacuated to in the event of an impeding hurricane or other disaster?"

Massport lady said, "Well, at some point, the neighborhood has to take responsibility for itself. If a hurricane is coming, there shouldn't be anyone here." Our soon-to-be state representative (an Eagle Hill resident) pointed out that all three assisted living homes in the neighborhood are in flood-prone areas and those people cannot be easily evacuated. His mother (head of the Eagle Hill Civic Association) observed that there are no ambulances on this side of the harbor. If the tunnel to downtown Boston is closed in the event of an extreme flood event, the only emergency vehicle is at the airport.

The elderly lady I was standing next to earlier (i.e. "This is boring"), an Eagle Hill resident, threw all caution to the wind and deliberately asked Steve from DOT a question. I do not recall what he said, or maybe I just ran out of space in my head to remember his response.

In round two, it was us against the guy from BRA and a young woman from MEMA (Massachusetts Emergency Management Agency). This time, our moderator from Cambridge came in swinging, asking residents who hadn't said anything yet to please say something. I asked, "Is there a plan for encouraging more green infrastructure? One of the challenges in East Boston is the very high level of impermeable surfaces, which exacerbates flooding." After an uncomfortably long stretch of silence, the young woman from MEMA said, and I quote, "Rest assured, we are working on that." Rest assured? Has she not read the orientation manual for all incoming bureaucrats that says, "Do not, under any circumstance, respond to a member of the public with the words 'Rest Assured' unless you have traveled back in time to 1955. And you are wearing a black suit and black sunglasses"?

In round three, it was us against the guy from the Boston Water and Sewer Commission. This time, it wasn't personal. This guy listened AND he admitted that he did not know the answers to some questions. I know. He didn't even try to make up an answer. This was profoundly reassuring. Even our moderator from Cambridge was compelled to thank him for not being obnoxious.

While I think many of my neighbors walked away somewhat more informed, a number of us were left feeling even less confident and more worried about what the future might hold with regard to climate change and sea level rise as a result of these encounters. To be clear, it's not just the water we're afraid of.

I understand that this is a necessary process, and that it is messy. Kudos again to NOAH for shepherding this messy process along and bringing agency folks to the community. This is something that must be done and there is a lot of work and education that needs to happen, and much of it needs to happen with agency folks.

Wednesday, February 25, 2015

How long would it take to melt all the snow from Boston’s streets and sidewalks?

tractor emptying snow into snow melter

Record snowfall this year – at least 100 inches since late January 2015 as of this writing – has nearly brought the City of Boston to its cold knees. The City has made a valiant (or maybe quixotic) attempt to attack the problem head on by employing diesel-powered snow melters. The Mayor has touted the tonnage of snow melted as a measure of progress. The city has use of four (borrowed) snow melters, with a combined capacity of melting 700 tons of snow per hour. That sounds impressive, but how big of a dent does it make? Let’s figure it out.

According to MassDOT data, there are approximately 1,332 miles of roads and rights of way in Boston. If we take into account the widths of these roads and rights of way (including sidewalks), we calculate a total area of 10.71 square miles or 298,643,564 square feet.

Let’s assume 100 inches of snow has fallen uniformly across Boston, which equates to a depth of about 8.33 feet of snow (taller than Big Bird!).

The volume of all this snow is then Area x Depth = 2,488,696,367 cubic feet of snow on Boston’s streets and sidewalks. Whoa.

 Because it’s been so cold, we can assume that the snow has been fairly light and fluffy (yet no less annoying). Let’s assume a density of 10 pounds per cubic foot of snow.

The combined weight of all that snow is then Density x Volume = 24,886,963,667 pounds of snow. At 2,000 pounds per ton, that comes to 12,443,482 tons of snow on Boston’s streets and sidewalks. Double whoa.

At 700 tons of snow melted per hour, the time it would take the City’s snow melters to clear Boston’s streets and sidewalks is 12,443,482 tons ÷ 700 tons/hour = 17,776 hours!

So, running around the clock – 24 hours per day, 7 days a week, 52 weeks a year - it would take just over 2 years to melt all the snow from Boston’s streets and sidewalks!

At that rate we should be ready for the next big snowstorm by late February 2017 (assuming it doesn’t snow again before then).

Of course, this whole exercise may sound a little unrealistic, since we all know that the City makes no effort to clear snow from sidewalks.

pedestrian standing in front of snow pile

Tuesday, November 11, 2014

Are We All Ferguson?

How unique is the situation in Ferguson, Missouri - racially speaking?

What does the shooting of Michael Brown in Ferguson, Missouri and the ensuing debates and protests say about race relations in America?

Salem State's Center for Diversity and Multicultural Affairs recently organized a panel and discussion on the issues raised by Ferguson, which I had the privilege of being on, along with three co-panelists: Dr. Tiffany Chenault – Sociology, Dr. Forrest Rodgers – Criminal Justice, and Deputy Director Rahsaan D. Hall Esq. - Lawyers' Committee for Civil Rights and Economic Justice.

Each of the panelists was given full license to talk about any aspect of the issues raised, and I focused my 15 minutes on the issue of segregation. As a geographer, I thought it appropriate to look at how racial tensions play out spatially.

Before I get too far, let me lay out the more counter-intuitive take-home points I want to make:

  • The US is an increasingly diverse nation, and it is still very segregated
  • The most segregated racial group is Whites
  • Race relations in America are not Black and White; they are multi-racial and multi-ethnic 
  • School children are the most diverse and the most racially isolated amongst us
  • Our regional stereotypes of where segregation is a problem, and where it is not, are probably wrong
  • Ferguson, Missouri is no different than any other community in America, and that's the problem

Measuring Segregation

What is segregation?  At its most basic, segregation is the separation of groups of people - by race, class, religion, etc - within a country, community, or establishment. Actually identifying and measuring segregation, however, is not so simple.  In fact, researchers have been debating how to measure segregation for decades, and dozens of segregation indices have been proposed. In the late 1980s, Douglas Massey and Nancy Denton, two lions in the field of race studies, cleared the deck somewhat by performing a systematic analysis of 19 of these segregation indices. They concluded that segregation is not a singular phenomenon, but rather can be understood as consisting of 5 dimensions of spatial variation:

  1. Evenness
  2. Exposure
  3. Clustering
  4. Concentration
  5. Centralization

Nearly two decades later, Sean Reardon and David O'Sullivan proposed an even simpler conceptualization of  residential segregation consisting of only 2 dimensions:

  1. spatial exposure/isolation: the extent that members of one group encounter members of another group (or their own group, in the case of spatial isolation)
  2. spatial evenness/clustering: the extent to which groups are similarly distributed
Reardon and O'Sullivan offered the following graphic to illustrate this two-dimensional idea of segregation.

Reardon and O'Sullivan. 2004. “Measures of Spatial Segregation.” Sociological Methodology 34(1):121-162.

The authors explain the graphic this way:

"In the upper half of the diagram are two patterns where black and white households are evenly distributed throughout space. Both of these patterns have low levels of spatial clustering (or high levels of spatial evenness). In the pattern on the upper right, however, there are more black households in the local environment of each white household (and vice versa) than in the pattern on the upper left; this means that the white-black exposure is higher on the right, and the white isolation is higher on the left. In the bottom half of the figure, both patterns show greater clustering—but roughly the same levels of exposure—than the corresponding patterns above."

Here is another way of looking at it.

Imagine a town (large box on the right) in which 3/4 of the people are blue and 1/4 are red. The town's overall population is represented by the larger people figures on the left. Now, assume that the town is made up of 4 neighborhoods, each of which is represented by the smaller, interior boxes. Imagine that each of these neighborhoods is also made up of 3/4 blue people and 1/4 red people.  The populations of the individual neighborhoods are represented by the smaller people figures. In such a scenario,we can say that the groups are evenly distributed across the town because each neighborhood has the same proportion of blue to red people as the town as a whole. Red people have a high degree of exposure to blue people, but not to other red people. In any given neighborhood, the average red person is exposed to three blue people. By contrast, the blue people have less exposure to red people - only one out of three other people - and more exposure to their own kind.

Here is an alternative scenario with the same overall town population of 3/4 blue people and 1/4 red.

In this case, three out of the four neighborhoods consist entirely of blue people, and all the red people are confined to the fourth neighborhood.  It's the same overall town population as the previous example, but the distribution of the groups amongst the neighborhoods is much different. In this scenario, we can say that there is a very uneven distribution (i.e. clustered). It is uneven because the group proportions in each neighborhood are very different from the proportions of blue and red people for the town as a whole. In addition, there is even less exposure of the two groups to one another, and a lot more exposure to their own kinds (i.e. they are isolated). This latter scenario is what I think most of us imagine when we think of segregation.

Growing Diversity, Persistent Segregation

How segregated is America, and is it becoming more or less so?

In evaluating the degree of segregation, we start by looking at the aggregate demographics of the country as a whole.


The US is a mostly White country - approximately 63% non-Hispanic White in 2013, and conversely, 37% non-White (i.e. Hispanic, non-Hispanic Black, Asian and others).


If there was a completely even distribution of these groups (i.e. not segregated), we would expect every state in the country to have the same proportions of White and non-White people as the country as a whole. This is clearly not the case.  If we change the scale of our analysis, looking at counties rather than states, we see a more complex pattern, but the basic unevenness of the distribution is still plainly evident.


The country's demographic profile is always changing of course.  The US population continues to grow larger, albeit increasingly slowly. Both the White and non-White groups are growing, although that growth is also uneven, both geographically and mathematically. The greatest growth of the White population is occurring largely in the West and Southwest, largely as a result of internal migration.


By contrast, growth of the non-White population is greatest in those areas that are currently most White - central and northern parts of the country and Northeast.


Equally important, the non-White population is growing much faster than the White population, as a result of both greater natural increase (i.e. births outpacing deaths within the country) and immigration. These two facts - the geographic spread and greater mathematical increase of the non-White population - have led many to conclude that the US is becoming an increasingly diverse nation.


This is correct. The US is increasingly diverse because the number of racial-ethnic groups in the population is increasing and the sizes of these groups relative to each other is evening out.  However, increasing diversity of the nation is not the same as decreasing segregation of its neighborhoods.

The US2010 Project, which sponsors research to analyze demographic trends, including segregation, has identified the following trends in its most recent reports on segregation:

  • Almost all communities have grown more diverse, although there is still a wide range of diversity profiles, from predominantly white communities (a shrinking number) to minority-majority and no-majority ones (an increasing number).
  • Black-White and Asian-White residential segregation have been declining consistently since 1990
  • In racially diverse metro areas, Whites increasingly occupy diverse neighborhoods
  • In racially diverse metro areas, about half the Black population and 40 percent of Hispanics still live in neighborhoods without a White presence
  • Since 1990, the highest residential segregation has remained between Blacks and Whites
  • Hispanic-White residential segregation has been on the increase since 1990, especially in the West.

Segregation At a School Near You

When we talk about segregation, we tend to talk about residential segregation. However, segregation is a pernicious problem that manifests in a variety of spaces, like schools. Segregation in schools is surprising for at least two reasons: 1) this is the part of the population where demographic change is really most evident and 2) this is a space that the country has been deliberately trying to desegregate for more than half a century!

The Civil Rights Project at UCLA. 2014. Brown at 60: Great Progress, a Long Retreat and an Uncertain Future.

While a little over 1/3 of the US population is non-White, half of school children are now non-White. The school population is the leading edge of a demographic wave that is sweeping this country.

However, the experience of the average school child belies this monumental fact.

The Civil Rights Project at UCLA. 2014. Brown at 60: Great Progress, a Long Retreat and an Uncertain Future.

The racial exposure of children of different races is still very uneven, despite the increased diversity of the population of school children as a whole.  In the graphic above, note that the average White student (first column) attends a school where 72.5% of the children are White. Black students (second column) attend schools where about 48.8% of children are Black and 27.6% are White. Latino students (fourth column) are in schools that are 57% Latino and 25.1% White.  Asians (third column) are the only racial group (albeit a very large and diverse one) that is exposed more to other groups (especially Whites) than to their own. Asians are a special case who warrant a separate discussion.

In general, we can say that school children in America (except for Asians) have relatively low exposure to other racial groups. Latino school children are the non-White group that is most isolated; least exposed to the dominant group (i.e. Whites) and most exposed to their own racial group. However, it is White school children who are least exposed to other racial groups, and thus most racially isolated. We might even go so far as to say that White school children are actually the most segregated group. But we need to be careful with how we interpret the latter statement.

As the authors of Brown at 60: Great Progress, a Long Retreat and an Uncertain Future point out, "Segregation is typically segregation by both race and poverty. Black and Latino students tend to be in schools with a substantial majority of poor children, but White and Asian students are typically in middle-class schools." This poverty is not just of the individual children, but of the school and the community and their resources and opportunities. The impacts of segregation are not equal, which is one big reason why the Civil Rights Movement has fought so hard against the idea of "separate but equal."

The crusade to desegregate American schools has resulted in major change, especially in the South. In the wake of court-rulings forcing desegregation and other desegregation policies starting in the mid 1960s, schools in the South have become much less segregated.

The Civil Rights Project at UCLA. 2014. Brown at 60: Great Progress, a Long Retreat and an Uncertain Future

However, these accomplishments are fragile. Since the late 1980s, school desegregation policies have been deliberately dismantled as a result of new court rulings, and changes in attitude by the political leadership. As a result, schools have been re-segregating. However, the current state of affairs is still significantly better than it was 50 years ago before these policies were implemented. All of this speaks to the power of policy.

What's equally interesting is how these trends play out on a regional basis. While the South has long suffered under the burden and stigma of its history of racism and segregation, it is now the model of integration, and it is the rest of the country that needs to take a look in the mirror.

The Civil Rights Project at UCLA. 2014. Brown at 60: Great Progress, a Long Retreat and an Uncertain Future

The graphic above shows the level of racial segregation for Black children in schools for different regions of the country between 1968 and 2010. Over the last 40+ years, the South has experienced the largest drop in segregation, followed by the West, and these two regions now have the lowest levels of school segregation for Black children. The Midwest and Border regions (i.e. the historic border between "free" and "slave states") have had modest decreases in segregation. The Northeast, by contrast, has only grown more segregated since the late 1960s and now represents the most racially segregated region of the country for Black school children. This may be a little upsetting to people who still harbor the myth of the liberal and tolerant Northeast (too often set in contrast to the stereotype of an irredeemably racist and intolerant South).

Ferguson, Missouri

How segregated is Ferguson, Missouri, and is it becoming more or less so?

Ferguson is a smallish suburban city (population ~21,000)  in St. Louis County, Missouri. It is part of the Greater St. Louis metropolitan area and a part of the Midwest.  While most of St. Louis County is White, Ferguson and neighboring towns are predominantly Black. According to the ACS 2008-2012, Ferguson is 67% Black and 31% White.


Blacks were once a minority in Ferguson. In fact, in 1990, White residents made up 74% of the population, while Blacks were only 25% - the opposite of today's situation. But the city's demographics were shifting; White families were moving out to surrounding suburbs, and Black families were moving in.  By 2000, Ferguson's White population had declined by nearly 50%.  Whites were still a majority in 2000, but the trend was clear. This process by which communities change racially is sometimes described with the benign label of "neighborhood succession," although it may often be described as "White flight."  It is a an all too familiar phenomenon, one process by which the geography of segregation is created and maintained.

The most commonly used measure of segregation is the dissimilarity index. The dissimilarity index reflects the relative distributions of two groups across neighborhoods within a city or metropolitan area; a measure of evenness. It can range in value from 0, indicating complete integration, to 100, indicating complete segregation.  According to the Population Studies Center at the University of Michigan, the greater St. Louis metropolitan area had a 2010 Black-White dissimilarity score of 72.3, meaning that 72.3% of White (or Black) people would need to move to another neighborhood to make Whites and Blacks evenly distributed across all neighborhoods. 


The level of segregation, as measured by this dissimilarity index, has actually dropped by about 6% since 1990. However, the St. Louis metro region is still the 7th most Black-White segregated major metropolitan region in the US.


Not surprisingly, the racial exposure of different groups in the St. Louis metro region is also uneven. In the figure above, the rightmost column shows the racial composition (or diversity) of the metro area as a whole. The first five columns represent the average racial composition of the neighborhood of a person of a given race. Note that the racial diversity of the St. Louis metro region is not reflected by the racial exposure of its various groups. If racial exposure matched racial diversity, you would expect all six columns to be identical; that a member of any racial group was exposed to roughly 77% White residents and roughly 22% Black residents in her neighborhood. This is clearly not the case. Amongst non-White groups, Blacks are the most racially isolated. However, Blacks are still less racially isolated than Whites. Whites, once again, are the most racially segregated group; the group with the least exposure to other racial groups.

Are We Ferguson?

How segregated is my community - Salem, Massachusetts - and is it becoming more or less so?

Salem is a midsized suburban city (population ~42,000)  in Essex County, Massachusetts. It is part of the Greater Boston metropolitan area and a part of the Northeast.  Like most of Essex County, and the Commonwealth of Massachusetts, Salem is mostly White, although less so than the county or the state; Salem is 74% non-Hispanic White compared to 80% or more for the county and state. Within Salem, the largest non-White group is Hispanic. Hispanics make up 15% of the city's population, and Blacks about 5%.


According to the Population Studies Center at the University of Michigan, the greater Boston metropolitan area had a 2010 Black-White dissimilarity score of 64, meaning that 64% of White (or Black) people would need to move to another neighborhood to make Whites and Blacks evenly distributed across all neighborhoods. This level of segregation has declined since 1990. Out of the 102 largest metro regions, the Boston metro region is the 27th most Black-White segregated metropolitan region in the US.

What about Hispanics? The Boston metro region had a 2010 Hispanic-White dissimilarity score of 59.6, meaning that 59.6% of White (or Hispanic) people would need to move to another neighborhood to make Whites and Hispanics evenly distributed across all neighborhoods.While this segregation score is less than that between Whites and Blacks, this Hispanic-White score makes the Boston metro region the 5th most Hispanic-White segregated metropolitan region in the country. Salem is not unlike the rest of the Boston metro region in this respect.


As with the St. Louis metro region and Ferguson, the racial diversity of Salem is not reflected by the racial exposure of its various groups.  If racial exposure matched racial diversity in Salem, you would expect all six columns to be identical; that a member of any racial group was exposed to roughly 74% White residents and roughly 15% Hispanic residents in her neighborhood. This is clearly not the case. Amongst non-White groups in Salem, Hispanics are the most racially isolated. However, Hispanics are still less racially isolated than Whites. Whites, once again, are the most racially segregated group; the group with the least exposure to other racial groups. 

Again, we must keep in mind that the impacts of segregation, and its meaning, are not equal.

Are We All Ferguson?

The country is certainly diversifying, but segregation is a persistent and real phenomenon. It is not an accidental thing, and its impacts are not the same for each racial or ethnic group. Are we all Ferguson? In too many respects, yes.

The biggest questions that we are left with are familiar ones: why does this continue to happen and how can it be addressed for the long term harmony of society?