A view of Memphis along Poplar Avenue from the i-Bank tower in East Memphis.
Almost all of Memphis’ whitest neighborhoods sit alongside Poplar Avenue, pictured here from i-Bank tower in East Memphis. Most of its Blackest neighborhoods lie to the west of Airways Boulevard/East Parkway. Photo by Andrea Morales for MLK50

It’s nearly impossible to find a white person who lives in Westwood, Klondike, or the southern end of Whitehaven. And it sure isn’t easy to find a Black person who lives in High Point Terrace or Central Gardens.

In Memphis, there are 17 neighborhoods — as defined by census tracts — that are at least 98% Black, and there are five that are at least 90% white, according to 2015-2019 data from the U.S. Census Bureau American Community Survey. 

Even though the city of Memphis as a whole is racially diverse, Memphis remains one of the nation’s most segregated cities. And that’s because there are wide swaths of the city that have almost no white residents, according to a new data analysis by the Othering & Belonging Institute at the University of California, Berkeley.

5 Blackest and 5 Whitest Neighborhoods in the Memphis Metropolitan Area

The census tracts highlighted in yellow are the city’s Blackest, all with populations that are at least 98.8% Black. In blue are the city’s whitest, which are all at least 90% white.

Racial segregation in Memphis is the result of intentional government action and individual choices. The effects of segregation on Black communities are well documented: It usually leads to fewer opportunities for Black families — with Black neighborhoods being underinvested in, underserved by school systems and devalued by home purchasers

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In the Mid-South, most of the segregation occurs within Memphis’ city limits — something the Othering & Belonging report calls “within divergence” — as opposed to between the city and suburban municipalities in the eight-county Memphis metropolitan area — something the report calls “between divergence.”

Using “within divergence,” Memphis is almost as segregated as the nation’s most-segregated cities: New York, Chicago, Milwaukee and Philadelphia.

The top 5: Memphis’ five Blackest and whitest neighborhoods and those most and least like the metro area

Stephen Menendian, the institute’s assistant director, said differences between municipalities are increasingly becoming the way Americans are segregated. By this “between divergence” metric, Memphis scored better than 66% of American cities.

While most other southern cities have higher “within divergence” than “between divergence,” only Atlanta, New Orleans and Baton Rouge have as stark of segregation between their neighborhoods as Memphis. 

The study also compared the racial makeup of Memphis’ census tracts to the racial makeup of the metro area, which is 43% white, 47% Black, 6% Latino, 2% Asian and 2% other. (For the purposes of this story, census tract and neighborhood are used interchangeably.)

Neighborhoods that look most and least like Memphis metropolitan area

Census tracts that are “least like Memphis” (in yellow) are those in which the racial makeup is furthest from that of the Memphis metropolitan statistical area. “Most like Memphis” (in blue) are the tracts closest to the metro area’s racial mix. The metropolitan statistical area includes eight counties: Shelby, Fayette and Tipton in Tennessee; Tunica, DeSoto, Tate and Marshall in Mississippi; and Crittenden in Arkansas.

If the racial makeup of a neighborhood was wildly different from the metro area’s racial diversity, then it’s considered to be the most segregated. If a neighborhood’s racial makeup is close to the metro area’s, it’s considered the least segregated.

Of the five neighborhoods that are least segregated, three are in Cordova — the formerly independent suburban area in eastern Shelby County that Memphis annexed in the 1990s and 2000s.

Four of the five neighborhoods that least resemble the region are more than 96% Black and less than 0.6% white. The fifth is a census tract in Berclair that is 55% Latino, 38% white, 3% Black, 2% Asian, and 3% other.

Compare Memphis’ Blackest and whitest neighborhoods to the region

The data cited in this article was collected by the U.S. Census Bureau and analyzed by the Othering & Belonging Institute at the University of California, Berkeley. Only census tracts with at least 90 residents inside the Memphis city limits were included in the rankings. This excluded a census tract near Memphis International Airport with less than 85 residents, and some tracts adjacent to Shelby Farms. When data was rounded to the nearest full percentage point, MLK50 used the Othering & Belonging Institute’s roundings.

Jacob Steimer is a corps member with Report for America, a national service program that places journalists in local newsrooms. Email him at Jacob.Steimer@mlk50.com

Gregory Blumenthal, principal of GMBS Consulting, contributed data analysis for this story.

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