Neighborhood Effect: Gun violence & segregation in Charlottesville

Yes, our gun violence problem is complicated, but it’s odd leaving one of the key complexities - segregation - out of the discussion.

This Daily Progress article [“Resolving Charlottesville's violence problem is a complex matter”] provides one of the most detailed reports we’ve seen on our gun violence problem. And that’s a good thing. However, it comes dangerously close to advancing the kind of “problem neighborhood” argument that prompts communities to think gun violence can be solved by greater police presence in those neighborhoods. Ironically, we have our own Police Chief pushing back on that notion here, saying that community investment and opportunity creation in these neighborhoods is the solution and that “we all are responsible for the co-production of public safety in Charlottesville.”

What’s missing here, however, is any direct mention of the link between segregation and rates of violence. Indeed, the word “segregation” is not even used in this article, and yet studies have shown that cities with the greatest geographic segregation tend to have the highest rates of violence, the result of what sociologist refer to as the Neighborhood-Level Effect, where the neighborhood, and by extension, the “reality” one lives in determines how one’s life unfolds. Indeed, it is safe to assume that the “reality” of the situation that this article explores is completely foreign to a lot of people living in nearby neighborhoods in Charlottesville. You could even go so far as to say that the people living and growing up in these neighborhoods are completely untouched by this kind of street violence. However, as a New York Times article pointed out in 2018, segregation can cause students in Charlottesville’s public school system to have dramatically different academic experiences and outcomes. Basically, different realities. Yes, our gun violence problem is complicated, but it’s odd leaving one of the key complexities - segregation - out of the discussion.

“With isolation, poverty, and political impotence on top of each other, that produces a series of cultural responses that can, in a variety of ways, intensify people’s economic hardship and can also contribute to criminality and gang formation,” Brooklyn College sociologist Alex Vitale told The Cut several years ago, talking about the correlation between racial segregation in Milwaukee, the most segregated city in the country, and its high levels of gun violence. Vitale also noted that “the same doesn’t carry over for wealthy people living in geographically isolated communities that are nonetheless connected with education, transportation, and other resources.”

We also know it's no accident that neighborhoods are segregated and city-wide zoning laws and deliberate disinvestment in minority neighborhoods helped create this situation. Because it was actual policy to corral racial groups into confined geographical spaces. For that reason, the discussions happening around the proposed Future Land Use Map for the city are also relevant to this discussion about gun violence. A nod here to the Weldon Cooper Center’s Racial Dot Map, based on the 2010 Census, which provides a visual representation of how our cities are segregated, including Charlottesville, and which was used to bolster much of the research and analysis presented here. [Note: the Weldon Cooper Center has said it wants to update this map based on the 2020 Census, but so far they have not been able to secure funding for the project.]

Weldon Cooper Center’s Racial Dot Map of Detroit, the country’s most violent city. It’s hard to imagine a city more rigidly segregated. White (blue), Black (green), Asian (red), Hispanic (orange), Other (brown).

“Segregation changes people’s networks,” Yale University sociologist Andrew Papachristos told Science of Us several years ago. He studied Chicago, one of the top 10 most segregated cities in the country, and found that 70 percent of the city's gun violence happened within a network that accounted for about 6 percent of the city’s total population. Most cities in Virginia, according to the Racial Dot Map, show that neighborhoods are segregated by race to some degree, but the cities that are most sharply segregated, with clear concentrations of people isolated in certain neighborhoods, also happen to be the cities in Virginia with higher rates of violent crime, which include Richmond, Roanoke, Norfolk, Petersburg, and Portsmouth.

Indeed, some sociologists compare gun violence to a virus, spreading within these closed-off social networks precisely because those networks are isolated from the social, political, and professional networks that other members of the community have access to. Alternatively, studies have shown that cities that welcome immigrants, who often move into poorer, isolated neighborhoods, have experienced the most significant drops in rates of violence.

Again, the DP provided as good an analysis of our gun violence problem as we’ve got, but we need to steer away from the “problem neighborhood” way of thinking about this and acknowledge that continuing segregation has real consequences.