Time has its "Person of the Year." Amazon has its books of the year. Pretty Much Amazing has its mixtapes of the year. Buzzfeed has its insane-stories-from-Florida of the year. And Wonkblog, of course, has its graphs of the year. For 2013, we asked some of the year's most interesting, important and influential thinkers to name their favorite graph of the year — and why they chose it. First up? Ta-Nehisi Coates.
My nomination is Patrick Sharkey's look at neighborhood poverty levels for blacks and whites. This is from his deeply troubling book, Stuck In Place. There is some sense — and the president has affirmed this — that racism is no longer a real threat to mobility, that it is now class. This is wrong. And Sharkey's chart is just one reason why. Basically it shows that huge swaths of black people live in neighborhoods with poverty levels that virtually no whites ever experience. And this finding has been consistent across post-Civil Rights history.
If you look at the chart, in the first generation, 62 percent of black people but only 4 percent of white people lived in neighborhoods where 20 percent or more of the people were poor. The numbers aren't much different in the second generation. And in both generations, only a third of black people live in neighborhoods with under 30 percent neighborhood poverty. Only 1 percent of all white Americans lived that way.
The chart basically mirrors something that most black people know intuitively. I was not raised poor. I had two parents. I never worried about food, clothing or shelter. The same could not be said of most of my friends. I was directly exposed to levels of violence that most white people of the same income as my parents rarely experience. I made out okay. A lot of black people did not.
So this idea that we can just change the subject and pretend that middle-class blacks and whites are, somehow, the same is erroneous. They aren't. Black people — regardless of class — live around way more poverty than even poor white people. Incidentally, this is also the reason one should be very skeptical when people say things like "controlling for income" or "controlling for class." For black people, class is racism. We should not be shocked by this. We've had some 350 years worth of policy with that exact goal. America is working as intended.
Ta-Nehisi Coates is a senior editor at the Atlantic, where he writes about culture, politics and social issues. He is the author of the memoir The Beautiful Struggle.
See all the graphs of 2013 here, including entries from Jonathan Franzen, Bill McKibben, and Emily Oster.