“Hard With Luminous Edges”: The Geometry of Incarceration

1 May 2016

“Imagine a vast sheet of paper on which straight Lines, Triangles, Squares, Pentagons, Hexagons, and other figures, instead of remaining fixed in their places, move freely about, on or in the surface, but without the power of rising above or sinking below it, very much like shadows—only hard with luminous edges—and you will then have a pretty correct notion of my country and countrymen.” -Edward Abbey, Flatland (1884)

In July of 2013, Dustin Cable, from the Demographics Research Group at the University of Virginia, gave the world an invaluable document: The Racial Dot Map.

The map displays 308,745,538 dots, one for each person residing in the United States at the location they were counted during the 2010 Census. Each dot is color-coded by the individual’s race and ethnicity…Whites are coded as blue; African-Americans, green; Asians, red; Hispanics, orange; and all other racial categories are coded as brown.

One could spend all day reading Cable’s map. I zoomed straight in on Rochester, NY, where I live. The map reveals the racial topography; natural and man made boundaries carve up the surface like an X-Acto knife:1

Screen Shot 2016-04-24 at 9.10.50 PM

The purplish semicircle to the southwest, pushing out into the Genesee River, is the University of Rochester. Across the river to the west is the 19th Ward, almost solid green. The green and orange dots continue in a clockwise arc toward the northeast, in an area known as The Crescent. In a 2003 article in the New York Times, Michelle York reported that “[t]he crescent is home to 27 percent of the city’s residents and 80 percent of the city’s homicides.” According to the article,

The reasons behind the burst of violence…include the lagging upstate economy, a steady migration of residents to the suburbs and a growing number of abandoned houses prone to become centers of drug sales and use. Rochester also has a school system that performs poorly. Only a quarter of high school freshmen last four years and graduate. Some 93 percent of school-age children live in poverty…

Just south of The Crescent, past the sharp boundary of East Main St., is a wedge of deep blue—the upscale East End. According to its web site, “The East End…is Upstate NY’s premier destination for fine dining, nightlife, entertainment and the arts, doing business and living an urban lifestyle.” Blue dots scatter to the east, south, and west, dissolving into seemingly thin air.

I zoomed out from the Rochester map and started scrolling to the left, to visit Buffalo, when a tiny, dark blip caught my attention. At first, I thought it was another scratch on my antediluvian MacBook, but it was moving. So I zoomed in:
Screen Shot 2016-05-01 at 10.39.23 AMThe blue sprinkles at the top represent the village of Attica. The rectangle at the bottom center is Attica Correctional Facility; the smaller one to its right is Wyoming.

At this point, it became like a game, as I zoomed out and scrolled around the map. Whenever I encountered a dark spot, I zoomed back in for a closer look. It was always a densely populated polygon, situated near, or in, a field of scattered blue dots. Here’s Gowanda:

Screen Shot 2016-05-01 at 10.59.05 AM

And Clinton:

Screen Shot 2016-05-01 at 10.52.08 AM

And Albion:
Screen Shot 2016-05-01 at 11.02.20 AMAnd Five Points:

Screen Shot 2016-05-01 at 11.15.57 AM

And so on. Try it with your own state. For best results, click on “Remove Map Labels” first, to let these color-coded shapes speak their own hard truths.

For example: Things have not improved in The Crescent since Hill wrote her article. If anything, they’re worse. Paul Jargowsky, in a 2015 report for the Century Foundation, titled “Architecture of Segregation: Civil Unrest, the Concentration of Poverty, and Public Policy,” found that Rochester has the 4th highest Black concentration of poverty in the United States, jumping from 34.2% in 2000, to 51.5% in 2009-2013. Buffalo came in at #6. Syracuse was #1.

What this means for the cycle of incarceration is clear. In the words of Tony Gaskew, Associate Professor of Criminal Justice and Director of the Criminal Justice Program at the University of Pittsburgh,

The road to redemption for an incarcerated Black male returning to his community is paved with temptations, disappointments, and failures. When he goes home, unemployment will still be high. Our educational system will still be broken. He will still have the greatest opportunity to be victimized by a person within his own community of similar race or ethnic background. There will still be more liquor stores than schools in his neighborhood.2

James Baldwin captured this process in his short story, “Sonny’s Blues“—which is itself almost 60 years old—during a cab ride shared between the narrator and his brother, who had just been released from prison: “So we drove along, between the green of the park and the stony, lifeless elegance of hotels and apartment buildings, toward the vivid, killing streets of our childhood. These streets hadn’t changed…”

And we wonder why recidivism rates are so high.

“These neighborhoods,” says Jargowsky, “are not the value-free outcome of the impartial workings of the housing market. Rather, in large measure, they are the inevitable and predictable consequences of deliberate policy choices.” The Racial Dot Map reveals the consequences of those choices. The problem is clear, hard with luminous edges. Can the same be said of our national resolve to fix it?


1 Images Copyright, 2013, Weldon Cooper Center for Public Service, Rector and Visitors of the University of Virginia (Dustin A. Cable, creator)

2 NEW DIRECTIONS FOR COMMUNITY COLLEGES, no. 170, Summer 2015 © 2015 Wiley Periodicals, Inc. Published online in Wiley Online Library (wileyonlinelibrary.com) • DOI: 10.1002/cc.20145

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2 Responses to ““Hard With Luminous Edges”: The Geometry of Incarceration”

  1. sdalton43 Says:

    Thank you, Mike. You have certainly helped me see the problem more clearly.


  2. Very interesting. I zoomed in on my own hometown. The blue dots converge on neighborhoods; every other color is concentrated on what I know to be apartment buildings. I live in a college town. We can conclude that white professors and their families own houses, while students, a younger, more diverse group, mostly live in high-rises.

    Except, many of the neighborhoods are also made of rentals. So white students rent houses from local landlords, students of any other race rent apartments in the large blocks owned by out-of-town companies. And the further out from the center of town the apartment buildings get (less desirable, less expensive), the less white people live there.

    I agree, it’s definitely not an accident.


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