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How Columbia could be more segregated than Ferguson

Bram Sable-Smith
Missouri NAACP President Mary Ratliff stands on the corner of Broadway and 8th Street. Ratliff says walking down Broadway is one way to observe segregation in Columbia. She is also the President of the Columbia chapter of the NAACP.

When Mary Ratliff moved to Columbia from Mississippi in 1959, she was leaving one of the epicenters of American segregation and the burgeoning civil rights movement. But that doesn’t mean she escaped experiences of racism and segregation in her new home.

“It was subtle here when I first came," Ratliff said. "In fact I've made the comment many times, that Columbia is 'Big Little Dixie.' It wasn’t a whole lot different from Mississippi.”

And Ratliff says those subtle racial divides in the community have persisted. Actually, since she became president of the Missouri NAACP in 1991, it’s been part of her job to draw attention to them; a message she says is not always well received.

“In fact," she said, "somebody said one time, 'If Mary Ratliff would just leave Columbia, everything would be okay.'”

But Ratliff, who is also president of the Columbia NAACP, says all you really need to do to see what segregation looks like in the city today is take a walk down Broadway.

"We have very few African-Americans down on Broadway," Ratliff said while walking on the street. "We have very few African-Americans, if any, that work on Broadway. And so this is just typical of what you see in Columbia."

There are a number of variables that can affect what we see on Broadway at any given time. Ratliff is observing the street on the Tuesday before Christmas. The students are mostly gone, some families are already gathering for the holidays others are finishing last minute shopping. In one month the street could look wildly different from how it looks today; and that makes statements about broader trends like segregation difficult to make using observation alone.

And that’s a problem University of Missouri journalism professor David Herzog faced this fall as he sought to engage his students around the events unfolding in Ferguson.

“A bunch of us at the University wanted to get together and brainstorm on some ideas for doing some reporting that would be helpful illuminating what was going on there and in other cities around Missouri,” Herzog said.

With his computer-assisted reporting class, Herzog calculated measures of segregation, poverty, and law enforcement disparities in Missouri cities with at least 10,000 people and an African-American population of at least 10 percent, 22 cities in all. Columbia was one of them, and so was Ferguson.

Visualization by Austin Federa / KBIA

For the most part, Columbia’s indicators are middle-of-the pack -- not too high, not too low. But by one measure in particular, Columbia’s segregation is higher than most cities in Missouri including Ferguson.

Dissimilarity is one of the more widely used measures of segregation. It uses U.S. census data to measure what’s called the 'evenness' of a metropolitan area. In this particular a case it measures how evenly, or not, African-American households are distributed across Columbia as a whole.

Of the 22 cities measured, Columbia’s dissimilarity is the seventh highest, meaning the seventh most segregated. And of the 25 census tracts that make up the city, the dissimilarity of one tract stands apart.

Census tract 21 is one of Columbia’s smallest by land area but is home to nearly 10 percent of the city’s black population. The tract itself is 39 percent black, and it’s located just north of the downtown business district; so just north of Broadway.

Broadway has also served as a staging area for protests like one on Dec. 12 that began in front of City Hall.

The protest, which was organized by a group of students called MU For Mike Brown, was one of several held across the United States that week in response grand jury decisions exonerating officers in the deaths of Michael Brown in Ferguson and Eric Garner in New York.

21-year-old Justin Cutts was one of the group’s organizers. He says data and measures like the ones Herzog’s class compiled don’t tell the full story about segregation and the black experience.

Credit Kristofor Husted / KBIA
A die-in protest on Broadway on the evening of Dec. 12.

“You have those people who are interested in seeing, 'What are the facts? What are the data?'" Cutts said. "I prefer to just take people to where I live, take them around my family, get them to ask other black people they might know, any one in a situation of poverty, and see how they have grown up and what experiences they have gone through.”

Sometimes data can’t tell the full story. For instance, one index Herzog’s class calculated is called 'interaction.' It measures the likelihood that African-Americans and whites will interact based on the extent to which the two groups share a residential area.

Columbia rates well in the interaction index, the sixth best of the 22 cities in Herzog’s data set. But the potential for interaction between two groups says nothing about the quality of interaction between those groups. And, to Cutts, that’s an important distinction.

Being the only black person in a room, he says, carries with it an obligation.

“You have to set the example. And it sucks and a lot of people don’t want to step up to that role. But we unfortunately have a tag that has been placed on us since birth," Cutts said.

"We represent a culture, ourselves, our families," he added. "Everywhere we go when you’re the only black person in a room you know that whatever you do somebody is going to form a judgment about every other black person.”

And even some experts agree there are aspects of race relations that can’t be summed up in segregation numbers. Like John Iceland, head of the department of Sociology at Penn. State University and former chief of the Health and Poverty Statistics Branch of the U.S. Census Bureau.

“[Segregation indices] don’t tell us about friendship networks and things like that for example. So they just kind of tell us where people live.”

But Iceland says even just knowing where people live can tell us a lot about their life chances.

“I think residential segregation is important not only as a marker of social distance," Iceland said, "but also the types of neighborhoods that people live in are of unequal quality in terms of their amenities, quality of schooling and so on.”



Take Columbia’s census tract 21 – that’s the tract with 10 percent of the city’s black population. It sits in the attendance area for Benton Elementary, one of the poorest rated schools in the city. 51 percent of its students are black, 79 percent of students are eligible for free or reduced-price lunch, and 23 percent of fifth graders scored below basic in mathematics in 2014 according to data from the Missouri Department of Elementary and Secondary Education.

Compare that with census tract 12.01, which has one of the lowest percentage of black residents and is home to only 2 percent of the city’s total black population. It’s in the attendance area for Fairview Elementary where just 12 percent of students are black, 28 percent are eligible for free or reduced lunch, and only 8 percent of fifth graders scored below basic in Mathematics in 2014.

In fact, a larger percentage of fifth graders at Fairview scored advanced in Mathematics than the fifth graders at Benton who just scored proficient or above combined.

In this case the data suggests the geography of educational opportunity overlaps with the geography of segregation. There’s a question to be asked there. And David Herzog says raising questions is the point.

“I’m hoping that [the data] gives people the ability to measure up their own town," he said. "And maybe use it kind of like a thermometer to say, 'how hot are the problems in our town and what might we need to address here?'”

The data is a tool against which to measure our conceptions about race in Columbia versus reality. And when the two don’t match up, Mary Ratliff says that’s the beginning of the conversation.

“We have to sit at the table and lay it all out at the table and discuss it," Ratliff said.  "Folks have to admit that it is a reality and then we can start working on solutions to try to correct the problems.”

A curious Columbia, Mo. native, Bram Sable-Smith has documented mbira musicians in Zimbabwe, mining protests in Chile, and the St. Louis airport's tumultuous relationship with the Chinese cargo business. His reporting from Ferguson, Mo. was part of a KBIA documentary honored by the Missouri Broadcasters Association and winner of a national Edward R. Murrow Award. He comes to KBIA most recently from the Salt Institute for Documentary Studies in Portland, Maine.
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