Look at Streets Named for Martin Luther King Jr. Shows We’re Still Far From the Promised Land

James Ragland, Dallas Morning News, January 17, 2011

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Here ’tis: What do the hundreds of roads and streets that bear King’s name–many of which run through racially segregated and dirt poor neighborhoods–say about racial progress in America?

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Comedian Chris Rock wryly observes in old stage routines that some of the most dangerous neighborhoods in America are those that intersect with roads named after King.

“If a friend calls you on the telephone and says they’re lost on Martin Luther King Boulevard and they want to know what they should do, the best response is ‘Run!'” Rock once exhorted.

Rock’s stereotypical assessment was enough to spur University of North Texas grad student Eric Katzenberger and his former teacher Nathan Berg, a University of Texas at Dallas associate professor, to dig deeper.

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They started by identifying all the streets that bore King’s moniker. They turned up 731, more than four-fifths of them in Southern states. Florida leads the way with 335 MLK neighborhoods; Texas boasts 85, including a Dallas boulevard that was named after King 30 years ago.

The researchers also found that most “MLK neighborhoods”–the census block groups through which streets named after King run–are largely African-American.

No surprise there. What’s a little surprising–and disturbing–is that residents of MLK neighborhoods tend to have lower average incomes than residents “in other block groups with the same percentage of African-American residents,” the researchers found.

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The researchers don’t know why the MLK neighborhoods tend to be poorer.

“We certainly don’t claim that the street name is causing the income gap,” said Berg.

The reality is that many of the MLK streets are on what we euphemistically call the wrong side of the tracks.

“You could say that,” Berg said, before pointing out that hundreds of MLK streets also exist in predominantly white neighborhoods. And 20 to 30 of the streets are in affluent, exclusively white neighborhoods.

Even in Dallas, Berg said, “the ethnic diversity [of MLK Jr. Boulevard neighborhoods] may surprise some people who don’t go down there that much.”

Still, another troubling stat is that “the women-to-men ratio is unbalanced” in MLK neighborhoods, with 14 percent consisting of single moms with kids. That’s twice the national average.

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“The average MLK street is economically isolated and . . . racially isolated,” Berg said. “But there is far more heterogeneity along MLK streets than popular conception suggests.”

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