In September, a San Francisco computer programmer named Eric Fischer used census figures from 2000 to make maps of major U.S. urban areas that showed where various ethnic groups lived. He posted them on his Flickr account, and they received a fair amount of attention from bloggers and pundits around the country. This week, The Commercial Appeal published the Memphis map.
Each blue dot on the map represents 25 African Americans; each red dot, 25 Caucasians. Large portions of the county are mostly monochromatic, either blue or red, indicating that when it comes to where we live — with a few notable exceptions — Shelby Countians are still primarily segregated by race.
I suspect that the 2010 numbers will show some improvement, but the bottom line is that most people live where they can afford to pay the rent or a mortgage and where their kids can get a good education. Until we break the cycle of poverty, not much is going to change. Memphis ranks 60th out of 95 U.S. cities in the percentage of its population with a high school degree. A more educated population means a more affluent population, a lower crime rate, and more people who can afford to live wherever they choose.
My wife, whose heart is bigger than her zip code, has for the last few years been helping a 15-year-old Memphis girl — let's call her Leslie — break the cycle of poverty. Here is what Leslie is up against: She's black, lives with her grandmother (a recovering addict) and two siblings in a two-bedroom apartment in a crummy neighborhood near the airport. They are on welfare and get food stamps. They have no car.
Leslie is gifted, ambitious, and has dreams, a rose growing from the asphalt. She gets up at 5 a.m. five days a week to catch a city bus (with a transfer) to a high school near LeMoyne-Owen where she can take college entry-level classes. My wife counsels and mentors her and lends her her laptop on weekends so she can type her papers. With luck, she'll get into college somewhere and rise out of poverty.
There are thousands of Leslies here, living amidst poverty, drugs, and bad influences of every stripe. They need a helping hand. They need a chance. If more of them succeed, the quality of life for all of us in Memphis will improve — no matter the color of our neighborhood dots.