Special Report

The Worst Cities for Black Americans

Detailed Findings & Methodology

One factor contributing to racial inequality is residential segregation. Discriminatory lending practices and housing policies have historically separated black and white residents along geographic lines. In many of the cities with the worst racial inequality, poor black neighborhoods and wealthier white neighborhoods are physically separated by a highway or other infrastructure.

Such residential segregation hurts educational outcomes for African Americans. Most public school funding comes from property taxes, with less than 10% of school budgets coming from federal sources. This means that schools in poor, black neighborhoods tend to be drastically underfunded. Despite the outcomes of the Brown v. Board of Education supreme court case banning segregation in public schools more than 50 years ago, many school systems remain divided along racial lines.

Recent economic trends have worsened racial inequality in some parts of the country. While the manufacturing industry was once an engine of achieving greater economic equality, providing well-paying jobs to low-skilled workers, the decline of the U.S. manufacturing industry has reversed much of the progress it once helped to achieve. Many of the metro areas with the worst racial inequality are industrial cities in the Midwest, where manufacturing jobs are in steep decline.

One of the largest contributors to racial inequality in the United States is the disparity in arrest and incarceration between white and black Americans. Today, 1,408 in every 100,000 black Americans are incarcerated in state prisons, an increase of nearly 200% since 1960. Meanwhile, the white incarceration rate is 275 per every 100,000 white Americans.

Numerous policies have contributed to the racial disparity in incarceration. A broad set of policies related to the war on drugs have disproportionately targeted African Americans, and they are largely responsible for the increase in black arrests and longer sentences for black Americans. For example, sentences related to crack cocaine, an illegal substance more common among black drug users, are far harsher than sentences related to powdered cocaine, a substance more common among white drug users.

Perhaps nowhere is inequality clearer than in the disparities in poverty — as well as the social and economic difficulties that accompany it — between white and black Americans. Disparities in income, as well as in education, unemployment, health, and incarceration can exacerbate each other and deepen the overall divide between black and white prosperity in the United States. Cities with large racial disparities in one socioeconomic measure often have disparities of similar degree in most other measures.

To determine the 10 worst cities for black Americans, 24/7 Wall St. created an index of eight measures to assess race-based gaps in access to resources and opportunities in each of the nation’s metropolitan areas. Creating the index in this way ensured that cities were ranked on the differences between black and white residents and not on absolute levels of socioeconomic development. For each measure, we constructed an index from the gaps between black and white Americans. The index was standardized using interdecile normalization so outliers in the data did not skew results. We excluded metro areas where black residents comprised less than 5% of the population or where data limitations made comparisons between racial groups impossible.

Within the index, we considered 2016 data from the U.S. Census Bureau’s American Community Survey on median household income, poverty, adult high school and bachelor’s degree attainment, homeownership, and unemployment rates. Data on incarceration rates came from The Sentencing Project, a nonprofit dedicated to criminal justice reform, and is for the most recent available year. Because states, rather than metro areas, are responsible for the prison population, incarceration rates are for the state where the metro area is located. If a metro area spans more than one state, we used the state in which the metro area’s principal city is located. From the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, we used age-adjusted mortality rates by race for each U.S. county from 2011-2015 to calculate mortality rates at the metro level using a variation on the indirect standardization method. Incarceration and mortality rates are per 100,000 residents. Data on median household income used in maps are for all census tracts in a metropolitan statistical area, and are estimates for 2011-2015 from the ACS. Shading is dependent on household income, with the darkest census tracts in the bottom 10th percentile of income, and the lightest tracts in the top 10th percentile for income in the city. Census tracts where the number of black residents as a share of the population is in the top 20th percentile for all census tracts in the metropolitan area have pink borders.

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