What Is the Most Racist City in America?

On one level, quantifying racism doesn’t make much sense. From the standpoint of individual experience, two people who suffer discrimination based on their ethnic status might feel equally violated even if the incident differs. Who can say one experienced “more racism” if both feel hurt?

But let’s consider the question at the macro level. Specifically, what is the most racist town/city in America?

I thought of this question a long time ago when I lived in Boston. The city puzzled me. I knew about the strong liberal sentiment among the populace, but I didn’t have to look far to see that racism was part of its historical core. For example, school integration was violently resisted by many of its white ethnic residents. In sports, the city has been home to some of the most extreme forms of racism — check out Howard Bryant‘s terrific book, Shut Out, in which he explores the longstanding bigotry in the Red Sox baseball organization. And I was surprised how openly some of the city’s African-American residents talked about experiencing racism at work, in bars, and on the streets.

Does it make sense to classify Boston on a racism index? Is it any different than other cities?

Before I share some social science thinking on the subject early next week, I turn this over to Freakonomics readers: In your opinion, what is the most racist city in America, and why?

Kristin Mac

Boston is much less racist now than it was in the 80s - 90s. As a life-long Bostonian, I think a lot about the perochialism. Part of it might have to do with geography and a very, very old layout. Unlike say, Chicago or NYC, where one or more large streets run through the entire city, thus connecting and smudging the lines between neighborhoods at their edges, Boston is really a "Hub," laid out like spokes on a wheel, with Downtown as a center. In Boston, neighborhoods (Dot, Eastie, JP, Southie, Downtown, Roxbury, etc.) are physically separated from each by the Charles and Neponset rivers, the Fort Point Channel, the Atlantic Ocean; so blending with others was not easy. Also, the non-water-defined borders of almost every Boston neighborhood are typically very old (1800s) industrial - factories, warehouses and railroads. That is changing quickly as people are starting to live in those areas, and I love it!



I find it surprising with the stimga that surrounds the southern states and their history (racism, segregation, civil war slavery issue, etc)that there are not more southern cities listed. This could be because fewer southerners read this blog... I would like to think that the intervention in the 60's was a critical turning point in racism, at least in the south.

Born in Atlanta and brought up in Nashville, I would say that our problems with racism are no different than other posts above. However, it seems the northern cities named above have a more subversive form of racism than the southern cities.

I think we are fooling ourselves if we think racism is a thing of the past. Every culture fights the urge and desire to classify its people. We are no different. Look at Italy right now with the Roma population.


This is a weird post. In my non-white experience in America, racism depends on which group you refer to. There is a deep anti-Hispanic sentiment in America (specifically California and Texas) disguised as "anti-illegal immigration". There are plenty of European and Asian illegal immigrants that the "average American" does not really want to deport...Of course there's black-vs-white racism in various pockets in the US as well as anti-Semetic pockets (which often gets forgotten since they look white). The anti-Muslim or anti-Arabic descent mentality is HUGE in America, can't pinpoint a city...The point is, it's really too subjective and too hard to answer that question. What's the outcome variable? Wage gaps? Education gaps? Incarceration rates? Unemployment gaps? Residential segregation? Industry segregation? Violent crimes?


To paraphrase Indiana Jones, "Racists? I hate those guys!"
Actually he said Nazis, but what's the difference?

Yo dude

I would argue that any "city," almost by definition, is less racist than a non-city. People come to cities knowing that they are full of "others." The true bigots stay far, far away.


I think choosing to live apart is probably the best observable indicator of racism. Measuring it would therefore use statistics like average distance to the nearest person of another race. I don't know if there's data on this. Or the city for which this distance has increased the most over X years. The initial historical condition should be taken into account - there's probably no way to judge how racist a city is if it has always been racially homogeneous (though it clearly could be so because of racism). I'd look for cities that were once racially heterogeneous that are now relatively homogeneous based on stats like those mentioned (if they exist).


Wasn't there a QJE paper in the late 1980s or early 1990s that looked at (de facto) segregation empirically? Contra expectations, the five most segregated cities were in the North (Chicago was definitely on that list) and the five most integrated in the South.


Any question of race has to not only include whites' biases and prejudices against blacks, but also blacks' biases and prejudices against whites. The Jesse Jacksons of the world don't want to admit it, but racism works both ways.

Current polls show that whites are split about evenly between Obama and McCain, whereas 90-something percent of blacks favor Obama. That clearly shows a racial bias in the hearts of blacks across the country. One could argue that's really a Democrat vs. Republican view, not a black vs. white, but a similar disparity occured in the Obama/Clinton contest.

The bottom line is that no group will see racism toward it eliminated until they first eliminate racism in themselves. Sadly, we won't likely see that in our lifetime unless Earth is attacked by space aliens.


I would have to say Chicago, but most of the racism I saw was Blacks being racist against Whites and Latinos.

There were neighborhoods on the south side where you could not walk into a store as a white person without being harassed or called names.


The comment portion to the question is fluffy as people are basing their answers almost solely on personal experiences. For instance, I grew up in Washington, D.C. and firmly disagree with the commenters that labeled it the most racist city. If anything, the comments seem to be revealing our own biases, our cityism, against or for certain cities.


Having traveled around a bit I would have to say the Northeast. I can cite examples of various forms in all regions but in the Northeast it seems most divided. As an example, I remember eating dinner in the mid 90's in Indiana with a male black colleague who is quite educated, worked for a major chemical company in their business division. We were on a business trip. The restaurant employee only acknowledged me in taking orders so I ended up having to order for both of us. Very embarrassing for us both.


I would say Lexington, Kentucky is racist. Mostly because of the University of Kentucky, and Keeneland (Horse Race Track). While people are not outright racist, they all seem to have a sense of entitlement, and wish they could go on living without having to work--and having people of color work for them instead. Even the most educated white individuals in this city condone putting up the confederate flag. Also, the fact that it is so close to a horse track reinforces the cultural beliefs that whites should be on top, just like in them good ol' days. UK programs constantly reinforce the good ol' boy networking as well.


Hands down, Philadelphia. I grew up there, so I should know. I live in Boston now, and I don't see racism as much as I see elitism.


I live in the Deep South (Alabama). I think you would be hard-pressed to find cities more racist than the small towns down here. That being said, I think every city that has blatant, obvious separation of races is equally racist.


Cincinnati all the way. That city needs some SERIOUS race relations help. Uneducated White policeman from the West side meet inner-city blacks = recipe for disaster.


America. Oh wait, I mean, the whole world.

white racist/anti-racist in pittsburgh.

Grateful and impressed to have a public discussion about racism in America. Thank you to Sudhir Venkatesh and everyone who has posted comments so far.

It seems like the underlying question here is:
---------------> How Do We Define Racism?

From the postings that I skimmed through, it seems we usually think of racism as being the same thing as prejudice.

--> But does Racism = Prejudice?

I think this definition is deceptive and incomplete.

For one thing, the amount of blatant prejudice actually doesn't correspond to the economic realities of people of color.
In the nineties, reported prejudiced ideas about people of color dramatically decreased (see the 1997 Gallup Poll at http://usinfo.state.gov/journals/itsv/0897/ijse/gallup.htm) while the wealth gap dramatically increased ("white families' median net worth rose from $71,300 in 1992 to $120,989 in 2001, while the net worth of most families of color actually fell" writes Lui et al. in The Color of Wealth, New Press, 2006.)

For another thing, those who are the most outspokenly prejudiced aren't necessarily the ones who are most undermining the lives of people of color. The outrageous and loud prejudice of people with relatively little power can often mask the more insidiously violent policies enacted against people of color by those with more power.
For example, Lani Guiner (author of Meritocracy, Incorporated) points out that, while Little Rock's Central High School was being racially integrated in 1957, a new school in the wealthier part of town was being constructed. As Little Rock was being integrated racially, it was being re-segregated along class lines. Working-class white students, who had previously been integrated with the wealthier white families at school, were about to lose all access to the networking and resources of that community, while the black students were given access to the white school just as its quality was about to be majorly compromised. When learning about the bussing riots in Little Rock, I was always taught to perceive the racists of the situation as being all of the rioting working-class white people. Meanwhile, those who designed, approved and implemented a policy which abided by the mandate to desegregate with the minimum possible real improvement to the lives of the black population, get off scott-free, (as do every citizen who could have stepped in to object to the new school arrangement, but didn't).
[interview at http://www.dollarsandsense.org/archives/2006/0106guinier.html]

--> So what are we leaving out of the equation?

I've read a lot of different definitions of racism. One that I like (though there are many with different strengths) is the one Beverly Daniel Tatum includes in her book, Why Are All the Black Kids Sitting Together in the Cafeteria?. She defines racism as "a system of advantage based on race." She recognizes the part that prejudice plays in justifying and perpetuating this system of advantage, but emphasizes that the prejudice is only relevant so long as it is used by people with power to keep that power away from people of color.

--> What else could we use to measure racism?

As a white person, I have managed to remain blissfully ignorant of many of the ways in which racism operates and undermines the lives of people of color. This spring, though, with the immeasurable help of many critical writers on racism and many patient conversations with my friends, I have begun to learn more about racism and to think more about my part in perpetuating it. It has been a challenging trip for me, and I am a very slow learner with a lot of work left to go. But if I waited until I had 'the answer,' I would be waiting for my entire life.

In the meantime, thinking about the ways in which I am racist, I am brainstorming ways to measure a city's racism.... (apologies for any repetitions here. great ideas so far).

- economic disparities in the racial groups of the city.
- local government resource distribution, such as schools, roads, and public transportation. (I know that in Pittsburgh, where I live, the loud crowded diesel bus servicing the mostly black neighborhoods costs the city $16/rider while the quiet environmental light-rail-transit servicing largely white neighborhoods costs the city $105/rider. [Highway Robbery: Transportation Racism and the New Routes to Equity. eds. Bullard, Johnson, Torres. S. End Press. 2004])
- how many non-profits servicing communities of color are run by people of color.
- how many governmental representatives of communities of color are, themselves, people of color.
- data on prices quoted people of color on housing, cars, etc... or on salaries at jobs...
- who is in prison
- and how many white people are angry about it and doing something about it...

I hesitate, even, to use these kinds of data, though, because they assume that to be racist, a city needs to have people of color! And, as many comments have pointed out, a gated community of rich white people can be pretty racist! What are some things that can measure racism where there is less diversity? (Here, I draw on ways in which I am racist)...

One big thing is: where is the money going to (and coming from)?
- Are citizens on the payrolls of companies that regularly exploit people of color or their cultures? Are people investing in companies like this? Shopping at places like this?
- Does the local porn store make most of its money in Blackxploitation? Does the new age bookstore sell books about how to perform 'real native ceremonies'?
- What non-profit contributions are being made? Any to organizations that fight racism, or does it all go to Harvard? Any to organizations headed by people of color?

And related to this is: awareness of racism
- What do residents know about racism?
- Do people know about The Battle at Wounded Knee or about discrimination in the administration of the GI Bill?
- What is taught in the local school about racism and its history?
- Are residents aware of local and national racist policy?
- Are they doing anything to stop racist policy?

And I could go on... What do others think about these? Some would definitely be more difficult to measure than others...

Thanks again, everyone, for the opportunity to discuss this and for all your thoughts.

white racist/anti-racist in pittsburgh.


Mary Helen Ramming

Just ask the taxi drivers in any city. My husband and I have long considered this question - raised in the south and speaking with a southern accent in say - San Francisco, Boston, Chicago - virtually anywhere north of the Mason-Dixon line will draw leery looks from vast legions. A San Francisco cab driver once told us he thought the south was the least racist place he had worked. Now living in Atlanta for more than 10 years and traveling all over the U.S. in the news biz, we are convinced that the northeast (as this blog has effectively demonstrated) is the most racist and certainly the most self-righteous about it. California comes in second. We are all much happier down here living and working it out together.


The comments demonstrate that the majority of Times readers live in the Northeast. Most believe (insist?) that the most racist city is in the northeast. Anyone see a problem with that? Most of them, apparently, have never lived in the South. I was born and raised in the Northeast and have lived in the South for 12 years and in my opinion there is no comparison. Not even close. The South is by far more racist. Comments by Southern readers seem to be ignored, and Northeast readers will continue to pick on Boston. One conclusion may be that the readers from the Northeast need to have the most racist city from their region. This kind of illogical bias (narcissistic?) may make this kind of survey useless.


As someone who has lived in both Detroit and Los Angeles, I must say LA is much more racially divided. Detroit is a very integrated city, whereas LA is very segregated between black and white. The Latino influence is a little more pervasive, but that is mostly economic. (People willing to work for lower wages will always be allowed communities near those they work for.) Having lived in Detroit for many years, moving to LA was interesting, and a cultural shift I am still exploring.