Most Black people who live in the rural South tend to reside in less segregated neighborhoods than their urban counterparts do, according to a Daily Yonder analysis using Census data and a statistical tool called the dissimilarity index.

The analysis found that racial segregation of Black residents tends to be higher in major cities even though there are more Black people living in cities than in the rural South. The findings give us a new way to test our perceptions of rural America against what Census data can tell us about how people experience life in smaller communities.

To reach the conclusion that residential segregation based on race can be higher in major urban areas than in rural ones, I created a segregation score that gives us a way to measure how dispersed (or clustered) two groups of people are. 

The following bar graph shows the median segregation scores of cities, suburbs, and rural counties for Southern Black and white residents. The closer the decimal number is to 1, the more segregated the area. In other words, the longer the red line bar in this graph, the more segregated the county type is.

Rural political scientist Nicholas Jacobs said the best way to understand segregation scores is to think about it as the percent of the people who would have to move between different neighborhoods to make a place completely integrated. Complete integration is when the proportion of Black and white residents within a given neighborhood equals the countywide proportion of the Black and white population. For example, if a county’s population was composed of 70% white people and 30% Black people, each neighborhood would have that racial composition.

Since the median index of rural counties in the South is 0.42, that means 42% of the Black or white population in the rural South would have to move to a different area in the county to create a perfectly integrated community.

The index, however, doesn’t measure what many of us think of when we talk about diversity – when there are substantial numbers of different racial populations within a single county. The integration index in our analysis just measures how well distributed (or, conversely, clustered) Black and white populations are within a county. This method does not replace demographic analysis, but it does give us a different way of looking at how people live in different types of communities.

There are other limitations to this analysis. One is that the findings don’t account for segregation at the regional level, such as the swaths of the South such as the Black Belt where a disproportionate share of the Black population lives. I’ve only measured the segregation score within each county. 

Another limitation is that when counties have only a few residents of another race, the index starts to lose its usefulness. For that reason, I had to exclude several counties where there weren’t enough Black residents for the index to work effectively.

The median segregation score of the South’s largest cities is 0.55, the worst score of all the county types. That means 55% of the population would have to move to achieve integration.

Medium sized cities are the second most segregated communities, with a segregation score of 0.51. 

The median segregation score of rural counties (0.42) is 24% lower than the median scores of the largest cities. 

About half of the urban population lives in a county with a segregation score higher than 0.5, while only 27% of the rural population lives in a county with a score that high. 

How Do We Calculate a Segregation Score?

I call this measure a segregation score for the sake of simplicity, but the technical name for this kind of measurement is the dissimilarity index. 

The dissimilarity index works by breaking down a county into smaller units, or  census block groups. You can see how this works In the following map; the larger black outlines are counties in the Atlanta metropolitan area, and the smaller blue outlines are census block groups.

The dissimilarity index measures how dispersed the Black and white population is throughout the block groups in the county. The closer the decimal number is to 1, the more severe the segregation. 

So if the entire Black population in a county lives only in block groups with other Black residents and no white residents, then the county is totally segregated and the segregation score is 1. 

But if every block group contained the same proportion of Black and white residents as the county at large, then the county is totally integrated and the segregation score would be zero. 

The index only allows us to look at two populations at a time. So I decided to focus on Black and white populations for this report since they are the two most populous racial groups in the South. 

For this study, I’ve used the dissimilarity index on race. You can also use the index to look at other demographic factors like age, income, or education. 

Segregation in the South

Of counties where Black residents make up at least 5% of the population, one of the most segregated rural places in the South is Franklin County, Florida. A rural community in the panhandle region, Franklin County is home to 1,400 Black residents. The segregation score in Franklin is 0.66, 57% higher than the rural median of 0.42. Two-thirds of Black or white residents in Franklin County would have to move to make it perfectly integrated.

Segregation scores are generally higher in metropolitan areas. Take Fulton County (Atlanta), Georgia, for example. The segregation score in Fulton County is 0.73, almost a third higher than the median score of big cities in the South. 

In the rural counties surrounding Atlanta, segregation is not as severe. Black residents comprise 27% of the population in Putnam County, Georgia, a rural county an hour east of Atlanta. The segregation score in Putnam County is 0.55, 23% lower than the score in Fulton County. In rural Troup County, Georgia, the segregation score is 0.47, 55% lower than Fulton County.

The trend in Mecklenburg County (Charlotte), North Carolina, is similar to Atlanta and surrounding counties. The segregation score in Mecklenburg is 0.56, 55% higher than the rural North Carolina median of 0.36. 

In Stanly County, North Carolina, a rural community about 40 miles east of Charlotte, the segregation score is 0.47. In rural Anson County, North Carolina, the segregation score is 0.32, 43% lower than Mecklenburg’s 0.56. 

Ten Most Segregated Counties

Even though segregation scores in rural counties are generally lower than urban counties, rural places still make up some of the most segregated counties in the South, since there are more rural counties than metropolitan ones. Four of the 10 most segregated counties are rural. (Keep in mind that little or no racial diversity aren’t part of this analysis because of the limitations of the study.)

Only two of the ten most segregated counties are major metropolitan areas with populations over 1 million residents, while the remaining four counties are suburban. 

(Although this analysis focuses on the South, southern cities are not the most segregated places in America. One of the most segregated regions in the nation is the Midwest, due in part to Chicago’s history of racist housing policies and real estate practices.)

The Daily Yonder’s rural definition is based on the metropolitan classification system from the Office of Budget and Management (OMB). We use all counties not defined as metropolitan by the OMB as a stand-in for rural.

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