The Racial Dot Map

Identity: the fact of being who or what a person or thing is; a close similarity or affinity.¹ But is defining identity just a simple fact? Identity is a social construction; it is developed through our social relations and interactions.  Defining personal identity is often one of the most challenging introspective questions of life, and classifying one’s race is a contentious category by which identity is defined.  This element of defining a geographic identity by race is exactly what The Racial Dot Map forces people to interpret. Race is not a clear-cut genetic distinction; rather, defining race is influenced by society, and in the case of The Racial Dot Map, government-selected classifications.  The depiction of race and ethnicity on The Racial Dot Map oversimplifies the complexities of the question of identity.

The Racial Dot Map was plotted in accordance to data collected from the 2010 Census, a government- run organization.  There are 308,745,538 dots on the map, each one representing a person in the census, which were then placed in the corresponding individual’s “census block” on the map.  Five different races and ethnicities are represented through colored dots: non-Hispanic White (blue), non-Hispanic Black (green), non-Hispanic Asian (red), Hispanic or Latino (orange), and “other” (brown).²   Distinguishing the races by color implies that each race is its own separate entity with no overlap or confusion. The U.S. government considers race to be an important category to study in its attempts to keep sophisticated surveillance on U.S. citizens. The Racial Dot Map uses data from the U.S. Census and to display five different racial categories in accordance to their census block.

The five categories chosen by the government to be used in the Census Data isolate Hispanic as a qualifier in 4 of the 5 categories provided.  This particular focus seems to imply that the government has a high interest in Hispanic demographics and makes every attempt to make sure that respondents only identify as Hispanic or Latino after first ruling out the other categories.  As the fastest growing minority population in the country, it is no wonder why the government is so interested in the changing demographics of the Hispanic population.  It becomes clear through the Census Data questions that the government is interested in tracking the Hispanic growth and geographic distribution.

The government can use these five racial categories in ways to benefit both the society and benefit themselves.  Large cities such as Dallas, Atlanta, Detroit, Washington D.C., and New York City are easy to identify even though the map intentionally omits labeling the territorial borders.  These large metropolitan areas appear to be the few locations where there is a large conglomerate of minority races, which can largely be attributed to the “white flight” during the 1950’s.  The 1950’s were a time defined by riots and civil disobedience, which enticed white people living in racially diverse cities to move out into the suburbs.³  In Marilyn Salenger’s article “’White Flight’ and Detroit’s Decline” she claims, “white flight took hold and left a lasting imprint.”4 The migration of white people out of city centers and into the suburbs during the 1950’s still has a lasting effect on the settlement patterns of people today.  The Racial Dot Map depicts distinct racial segregation that the government can use to make decisions that better society. For example, population statistics are used to determine fair distribution of school funding and programs.  Policymakers can use this data to gerrymander for self-serving or party benefits.  The government holds the power over the people by choosing certain racial categories, and then uses this information in their decision making process.

While the primary purpose of The Racial Dot Map is to display racial distribution across the United States, population density is also clearly depicted.  The Racial Dot Map demonstrates the uneven population distribution across the country.  It looks as if the United States is divided by a vertical line; one side being the populous and colorful East Coast, the other being the less-populated West Coast. It is important to note the population division is not along the Mississippi River.  Over time the racial distribution of the United States has shifted.  New racial distribution patterns along with more complicated racial distinctions are lost in translation because of the techniques and data used to develop The Racial Dot Map.

One of the largest flaws of The Racial Dot Map is that if a respondent completing the form does not indicate themselves White, Black, Hispanic/Latino, or Asian, they are lumped into one giant “other” category.  This downfall is a result of limiting choices to five racial categories the Census Bureau chose to use in their questioning during the 2010 Census. Society looks down on the “other” category–   “others” board planes only after all of the premium valued flyers are seated, there are the popular kids and then the “others,” “others” have to wait in long lines to get through airport security.  How does being classified as “other” influence one’s self-image and identity?  The Census Bureau’s lack of diversity in response choices does not reflect the complexity of the race question.  In essence, the Census Bureau is making people define their identity without properly representing the race.  The “other” category skews the map because such a large portion of America’s population is mixed-race or does not identify with one of the four categories.  This map forces people to choose their ethnicity when it isn’t necessarily a clear-cut decision.

Cartographic choice comes into play in The Racial Dot Map, as it is impossible to include all of the varying combinations of ethnicities present in such a diverse country. The Racial Dot Map is an institutional map meaning there is not a single cartographer responsible for making decisions on what to include in the map, but the individual in charge of developing the map is still responsible for transforming the government data into a tangible entity.  The Racial Dot Map uses data from the Census, meaning the government was in control of the cartographic choice displayed in the map.  David Turnbull explains the selectivity of maps and the meaning behind cartographic choice in his article “Maps and Theories;” he claims that maps are selective and a map’s bias is a result of the bias of the cartographer.  Turnbull continues that maps “do not, and cannot, display all there is to know about any given piece of the environment,”5 which is clearly shown by the decision to have only five flawed categories.  The government is responsible for the selectivity displayed in The Racial Dot Map, and as a result the government is essentially influencing how an individual defines race, and, thus, identity.

The Racial Dot Map displays the results from a census poll meaning that the government is largely responsible for the cartographic decisions made in the map.  The government was in charge of determining the racial categories and their corresponding color representation on the map.  The cartographer of the map stayed true to the Census Data, so in that sense it is in accurate portrayal of data; however, the data itself may be too restrictive.  Using color helped capture the interest of the audience, but the Cartographic choice involved in picking the representation of different races and ethnicities was one of the largest downfalls of the map.

¹Oxford Dictionaries: Language Matters,

²Image Copyright, 2013, Weldon Cooper Center for Public Service, Rector and Visitors of the University of Virginia (Dustin A. Cable, creator)

³Marilyn Salenger, “’White Flight’ and Detroit’s Decline” The Washington Post, July 21,2013, accessed February 23, 2014,

4 ibid.

5 David Turnbull, “Maps and Theories” in Maps are Territories. (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1994), 3.


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4 Responses to The Racial Dot Map

  1. D. R. Edmonds says:

    This blog post, from its theme of identity to its strong analysis on the map, is well constructed. Beginning with a definition of identity was a great hook that immediately placed the map in a new light for me, so that I saw the colors as a strict set of identities that would not be recognizable in reality. And the idea of identity as a social construction ties in perfectly with our class’s discussion of how maps are social constructions. The author also skillfully applies other topics that were discussed in our class, such as the power of maps to over-simplify, the intention and purposes behind maps, and the ‘white flight’ from cities to suburbs.
    This map is worthy of being published as the “map of the week” because it reveals not only the discreet method of data collection in which the United States government differentiates races, but also because it represents the changing identity of our nation as a whole. The fact that the criteria of making this map included being “non-Hispanic…” demonstrates the United State’s focus on the Hispanic population, signifying their growing importance in American society. And the way that the United States identifies itself reflects how we interact with other nations as well, which ties right back in to the class’s focus on the US’s history of globalization.

  2. pg5qz says:

    The Racial Dot Map certainly warrants the title of Map of the Week for how easily it ties into what we are currently learning and doing in class. Even though the map may seem to be objective by using governmental data to depict racial diffusion throughout the continental United States, the author of the blog points out that there were many subjective decisions made in the collection of the data as well as the compilation of the map itself. As I was reading this post, I was reminded of the selectivity of the data our class is currently using to make our map for the Digital Scholarship Lab. The blog insightfully notes how difficult it is for a map to purely and truly depict reality when the information being used to create the map is itself flawed. Also, we can see how wide the scope of a map’s rhetorical life truly is in how even though the map intends to represent race throughout our country, population density was the first thing I noticed when looking at the map. That is to say that a map’s reception by its audience and circulation throughout society is just as important as the cartographer’s original intention in creating the map. The blog’s author did a great job of finding a map which highlights some of the difficulties in trying to be objective during the cartographic process and should be praised for examining various underlying forces at work within the map that an uninformed viewer may not have previously noted.

  3. Brenden Carol says:

    This was a great choice to use as the map of the week. It is both insightful and relates to the topics that we have been discussing in class. Katie’s analysis is spot on and points out many of the subjective choices this author made in a map that appears to be scientific. The only issue that I believed warranted additional discussion was the effects of gentrification in the 21st century. With the rise of gas prices and the changing economy the inner-cities have be steadily renovated for families or individuals with a higher incomes. This has had a huge impact on cities ranging from positive issues such as reduction in crime, reduction in urban sprawl, and increased taxable property values (the argument behind the Shockoe Bottom Ball park); and the negatives effects range from an increase in homelessness, a decrease in affordable housing and a large displacement of less well-off people. It will be interesting as this twenty-first century counter white flight has on the maps as time goes on. For the first time in decades we are seeing suburbs that are actually poorer than the cities themselves. It is a fascinating reverse of a decades old belief that I am personally seeing as my parents are debating between staying in my South Charlotte suburban house or moving to Uptown where they will be closer to work and have more excitement around them. Katie’s analysis was spot on and overall she did an incredible job breaking down a difficult and deep map.

  4. agree this blog , in analysis to map in the world

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