Lies, Damn Lies, Racial Integration and Segregation in St. Louis, and Statistics

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In the first City of St. Louis mayoral candidate debate, three-term incumbent Francis Slay stated that while “the ‘Delmar Divide’ is real”, that “on a block to block basis we are one of the most integrated cities in America.” The claim received an audible response of disbelief from some in the audience and was met with derision across social media, including myself. It just sounds wrong. A 29-second video clip was quickly posted to YouTube by an opponent of the mayor.

A good part of the mayoral contest so far has related to this divide, whether it’s the location of crime in the city, the delayed opening of the north side recreation center, or the mayor visiting a neighborhood meeting. It’s hard to avoid the issue. However, the focus of this article isn’t whether or not the city is in fact integrated or segregated, but rather understanding different ways to attempt to quantify the issue.

St. Louis is a racially divided city. This is what one is told when moving here. It’s what one is told growing up here. But is it true? And compared to where? So St. Louis often appears on lists of America’s most segregated cities (here, here, and here). The rankings are generally accompanied by a lament of just how little progress has been made in the nearly six decades since Brown v. Board of Education, then the Civil Rights Act fourteen years later.

What exactly are the numbers used to rank cities measuring? It’s something called the “Dissimilarity Index”. In this case it’s a measure of the degree to which blacks are distributed differently than whites across census tracts. It uses a scale of 0-100 and the value indicates the percentage of blacks who would have to move so that each neighborhood reflects the racial composition of the city as a whole. The degree to which each race is not equally distributed across a city is the Index of Dissimilarity.

This is a measure of black resident distribution against white resident distribution. For instance, a city with five census tracts in which each tract includes 5 white residents and 5 black residents would be judged to be perfectly integrated, a score of 0 (assuming a city of ~50/50 black/white residents). If one of those black residents moved to another tract within the city, the score would then be 20. If all 25 lived in the same tract, 80. All popular “most segregated cities” rankings use this methodology. In addition, this measure uses Census definitions for race. All individuals identifying themselves in whole or in any part as black or African American are considered black. Only those white persons with no other racial identity are considered white.

The critique, from the study examined below, is that the Dissimilarity Index is a “racially-biased approach based on a white majority view of segregation.” It’s an approach that looked at segregation through the lens of white flight and racial “tipping points” for neighborhoods and blocks. The 72.4 Dissimilarity Index for the City of St. Louis (2000 Census) means that achieving a “fully integrated city” would require 113,784 black city residents to move out of their neighborhoods and into majority white neighborhoods. Ranking cities by the degree to which the black population is evenly dispersed, with the goal being to have the same black to white ratio in every neighborhood is clearly biased and flawed.

So is the Dissimilarity Index an accurate gauge of segregation in our cities? Researchers in Milwaukee, often ranked as the nation’s most segregated city, thought maybe not, and introduced the Integrated Block method that takes a different approach. This is the study Mayor Slay is referencing when he says that St. Louis is one of the most integrated cities in America. Instead of seeking a perfectly even distribution of blacks and whites across a city, it posits that an 80 percent white and 20 percent black population should be considered integrated for a residential block. Likewise, an 80 percent black and 20 percent white population is considered well-integrated by this measure.

Another way to state this is to say that if a block has at least 20% black and 20% white residents it is considered integrated. This approach asks what portion of city resident live on mixed blocks. If a city has very few black residents, it will have very few of these blocks. And so while the black population of Chesterfield, MO may be integrated by the Dissimilarity Index, many fewer Chesterfieldians live on a block that is 20% black. Is Chesterfield integrated? Is St. Louis? The Dissimilarity Index shows the Chesterfields and Ballwins to be quite well integrated, to an incredible degree more than St. Louis (Dissimilarity Indices: City of St. Louis, 72.4. Wildwood, 22.1. Chesterfield, 22.4, St. Charles 35.7). The Index is saying, “the black residents we have are well dispersed.” Mayor Slay’s contention that St. Louis is one of the best integrated cities understandably raises more than a few eyebrows. However, the Dissimilarity Index clearly fails to understand St. Louis.

A quick side note regarding why this matters at the macro level (and not just in the St. Louis mayoral race): From the study: By ignoring racial integration occurring in the large urban centers and focusing on dispersal of small African American populations in suburban and exurban areas of metropolitan counties, press coverage of the historic segregation index rankings reinforces the latest anti-urban legend that the nation’s predominantly white suburbs and cities with very small black populations are the most successful models for black-white integration growth in the 1990s. A recent study on black-white segregation used the index to conclude that, the decline in segregation comes about primarily from the integration of formerly entirely white census tracts. Areas that are nearly all non-black are considered least segregated when their small black populations are dispersed. Meanwhile, the racial integration occurring in the major cities of the Midwest is ignored with much of it considered segregation under the old indexes.

What does the Integrated Block method show? Among all major Midwestern cities, St. Louis has the highest level of black and white integration. Twenty-seven percent of city residents lived on integrated blocks (2000 Census). Nationally, St. Louis ranks fifth, only behind Jacksonville, Nashville, Charlotte and Virginia Beach. Among cities with near equal black and white populations, St. Louis ranks as the most integrated. The lowest level of integration in the Midwest was found to be in Chicago (6%). In general, the Midwest cities that dominate the “most segregated cities” rankings are among the most integrated using this method.

Why doesn’t this ranking of integration resonate with us? Here are five reasons: 1) we’re repeatedly told that we’re a segregated city. “Look, we made another Top 10 list!” 2) As a near 50/50 black/white city, there are large pockets of nearly all white and nearly all black residents. This is easier to see than integrated blocks. 3) Mapping where black and white residents live provides a stunning visual. 4) Promoting the “fact” that we’re segregated serves political purposes, providing a scapegoat. 5) The very real and powerful history of segregation in St. Louis doesn’t allow us to consider alternative evidence. Challenging this history is very difficult for individuals and a community.

What if a mayoral candidate addressed the issue this way:

“Segregation is a problem in our city. Any time residents feel isolated or marginalized it’s a problem. Any time a resident feels underserved because of the color of their skin, it’s a problem. Our city has near equal populations of black and white residents and many of us live in neighborhoods that are almost exclusively black or white. If we’re to be judged by this, the solution would be for thousands of our black residents to leave their neighborhoods and relocate. This is what many so-called segregated city rankings quantify as a solution. We love our neighborhoods, we’re proud of them, from O’Fallon to Patch and Downtown to Demun. What’s important is not that we rearrange ourselves into some homogenous mixture, but that we treat our residents and neighborhoods equitably.

“On another measure of integration St. Louis does exceptionally well. If we consider the number of residents who live on integrated blocks, those blocks where there are at least 20% black and 20% white residents, our city is one of the most integrated in the nation. Black and white, we live together as neighbors as do few cities anywhere. That’s something to take pride in. Now, that fact gives us an opportunity to be better, to act with kindness and understanding to one another and that’s what we should dedicate ourselves to doing.”

Perhaps that all doesn’t fit exceptionally well into a mayoral candidate debate.

graph_integrated block*data source Racial Integration in Urban America – UW-Milwaukee


dissimilarity index*data source New Racial Segregation Measures for Large Metropolitan Areas: Analysis of the 1990-2010 Decennial Censuses

Mapping black and white residents provides stunning visuals. Do these skew our understanding of integration or simply reveal reality?





One dot = 10 persons. Blue = black resident, Red = white resident.

Racial Integration in Urban America: A Block Level Analysis of African American and White Housing Patterns in the nextSTL Scribd library

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  • Daron

    Is Alex running for mayor or just creating hypothetical mayoral statements?

  • thebizkramer

    I know this is an old post, but I’ve just found it today. Thank you, Alex, for sharing these two measures. While imperfect, I now finally have some justification for my ever-ongoing argument that Chicago is far more segregated than St. Louis, and that is one of the main things I hated about it.

    Also, this is new, but seems like it might be relevant to this conversation about what do you do with this information:

    • Alex Ihnen

      Thanks – very interesting!

  • John R

    Just noticed this…. “Our city has near equal populations of black and white residents and many of us live in neighborhoods that are almost exclusively black or white. If we’re to be judged by this, the solution would be for thousands of our black residents to leave their neighborhoods and relocate. This is what many so-called segregated city rankings quantify as a solution.” Or whites moving to North City….. perhaps the biggest challenge for the city is to improve North City to the point where is at least stabilizing in population and beginning to attract some level of increased integration.

    • Eric Cooney

      “Or whites moving to North City” – That’s one of the writers points. The old index bases its numbers on how many black people would need to move to white neighborhoods. That reveals a huge bias in the old index.

  • neroden

    The ‘integrated block’ method is giving fishy results. Shouldn’t it be normalized by the percentage of black people in, say, the whole state?

    There’s only 6.6% black population in California, so you wouldn’t expect 20% on any block in San Diego if you had full integration. On the other hand, there’s a 38% Hispanic population in California, so for full integration you’d really want to see 38% Hispanic people in every block.

    • John R

      Certainly there are flaws with both models. For Saint Louis City, I think breaking things down into the 3 corridors is quite instructive… the North is extremely segregated, the Central is very integrated, and the South is pretty integrated. However, the Central Corridor is losing black population and increasing non-black population so that is something to watch.

  • Eric

    “What does the Integrated Block method show? Among all major Midwestern
    cities, St. Louis has the highest level of black and white integration.”

    That’s nice. But like the “St Louis is the most violent city in the US” claim, it is distorted by the artificial boundary of St Louis City. What is the Integrated Block ranking for the whole St Louis metropolitan area, and how does it rank?

  • Joe Schmoe

    On my trips to Chicago. I have found it starkly more segregated than St. Louis, but you hardly ever see this issue brought up as much there. Racism is an huge issue in Chicagoland, but I bet most St. Louisans think Chicago is more racially harmonious. Let’s not forget that a lot of so called “liberal” or “progressive” cities had major race riots in the 60s. St. Louis was one of the only major cities that didnt have one during the civil rights movement. Our decline has been more of a slow decay.

  • BPowderly

    Overlap household income and that will tell you everything.

  • South-Northsider

    One advantage to being an old dude is that you have some perspective, a sense of history, and some patience. Being a life-long resident of St. Louis now in my sixth decade, I can say that while we have a long journey ahead of us, we have come very far. For the first 10 years of my life, I grew up in the all-white neighborhood of North Pointe. Over a period of 18 months, beginning in 1969, my block changed from 100% white to 70% African American. There is a great deal I could write about those times, but two things stick out. First, I was exposed to my first taste of racial prejudice, as departing “friends” warned the we would be murdered in our beds by savages. Second, I was impressed by my father’s decision to stay in our house. He was not an advanced thinker by any stretch (he did not get past the 6th grade), and his opinions now seem paternalistic and condescending, however, he not only disregarded the advice of his friends, but he welcomed our new neighbors and friends. I lived into that house until I married, when I moved into a house near Tower Grove Park. This neighborhood was nearly all white 30 years ago. Over time, Vietnamese, African Americans, Latinos, Eritreans, Bosnians, etc., have moved into the neighborhood. There were some whites that bolted for the hills at the first sign of “those people” (one of them became a political leader in St. Chuck), but the majority stayed put. And unlike my experience in 1970, whites continue to buy property in my neighborhood. I am not a pollyanna, and I know that there is a great deal of work to be done, but we should not forget how far we have come. We should not pat ourselves on the back, retire from the field and say “our work is done”. But it is important to occasionally pause and get our bearings by looking over shoulders at where we have been, before again turning to the road ahead of us.

  • DannyJ

    The difficulty I have with this is that many people will read this and want to congratulate ourselves for being a racially progressive city, when in absolute terms, we’re not. The Integrated Block method shows us that 27 percent of city residents live on integrated blocks. That’s a comparatively high percentage, and that’s great! However, you can see on the thematic maps that these 27% are concentrated into a pretty contiguous one-third of the geographical area of the city, roughly east of Kingshighway and south of Delmar. Just west of this area is almost solidly White and mostly middle class. In the entire geographical northern half of the city, we are clearly solidly Black with most residents in crushing poverty. What we have then is 1/3rd of our city which is well integrated. And that is my, and probably most people here, favorite part of the city. But then at the same time, we have 2/3rds of our people who in their daily lives will probably not interact with someone of the other race in a meaningful way. That’s not a good mark for integration in our city. And that speaks nothing of the class differences between races in the St. Louis metro in general or the difference in services the northern half of the city receives in comparison to the southern half. And after living in both and being involved with city service distribution in the northside, I can attest that there is a difference. So while it might be nice for a mayoral candidate to say something like you wrote, it wouldn’t really mesh with what the vast majority of residents in St. Louis really experience on a daily basis. We’ve got a long way to go.

    • HMS

      There are very few neighborhoods in StL City in which you could leave your home and NOT interact with someone of a different race. Those neighborhoods are all on the Northside, and I agree there is work to do to make sure those almost exclusively black neighborhoods receive adequate city services. But the reality is that there are basically no neighborhoods in StL City that are completely or even close to completely white. If we’re going to be honest about the issue of racial segregation in our city, we need to acknowledge that. We have neighborhoods that are integrated to one degree or another, and then we have all-black neighborhoods. There is no such thing as an all-white StL City neighborhood, and there hasn’t been for a couple decades. Even the Patch is 17% or 18% black, depending on which numbers you believe.

      • T-Leb

        I live in Patch, many of my neighbors are african-american. There are about a dozen Ukranians in my building that moved here from Chicago, all work for Charter as techs. They all play soccer on Weds together somewhere.

      • DannyJ

        You make a good point- most neighborhoods that aren’t well integrated in the city are all-Black neighborhoods. (I will say though that there are neighborhoods with much less racial diversity than the Patch. St. Louis Hills is mostly White with less than 3% Black.) Although I don’t think the fact that roughly half of the city consists of mostly to all-Black neighborhoods is an especially strong mark for racial equality in our city. Particularly when most of those neighborhoods are at the bottom for household wealth and income, violent crime, vacancy, abandonment, etc.

  • T-Leb

    Talking about “skin color integration” is kind of a low information discussion. While it says something about African-American history and that people group together by obvious differences, it says little about Asian, Latino and White. For instance, what does “Asian” percentages tell us? Are they from Vietnam? Japan? China? Thai? Cambodian? Refugees from wars or immigrants? Russia is in Eurasia/Asia, but I’m sure they fall under White. Take “White” and examine it. Are the Whites Easter European Jews? Italian Catholic? Irish Catholic? English Protestant? Russian Orthadox? Bosnian Muslim? Croatia Catholic? And obviously everyone that speak Spanish and identifies as Latino are not from Mexico. It becomes clear that White neighborhoods, like most neighborhoods, are incredibly ethnically diverse, even if everyone has the same skin color.