Thursday, June 11, 2009

Mapping Context

I love maps. Always have. I have a profound aversion to using GPS devices on my road trips, much to the consternation of fellow travelers. I like using maps as a puzzle solving device and looking at the terrain to see if it matches what I'm looking at with the map. I see them as a tool for exploration and a way to provide additional context and richness to my adventures.

While I tend to complain about doing demographic and statistical research for my scholarly endeavors, once I am well into it I am stunned at the pictures those numbers create. But what I love more are seeing the ways that those numbers can create a literal picture in a graph or a map. Even when I pull numbers from something like the census, I always look for a mapping option because the full weight of the numbers doesn't hit me until I see it in picture form.

We were talking about ancestry at work the other day and so I immediately went to go print out the ancestry demographics map from the last census and we had a great time talking about different aspects of it (it's an office full of historians so we have odd tastes in entertainment). So in light of that, I thought that I would share some of my maps of choice.

For most of these maps, you can get them directly from the source: the US Census. But their website is a bit difficult to navigate, so when I'm using maps just for conversation, I tend to just google them and make sure that they look right. When I'm printing out a report, then I go get it directly from the Census (and don't forget the Historical Census Browser)...but for blogging purposes, let's go the informal route.

For a quick view of what is out there, one blog has compiled most of the really intriguing census maps in one place. What they also include, though, are the religious maps. The Glenmary Research Center (located in Nashville, TN) compiles and maps out the religious data that comes from the Census. Despite being a Catholic organization, they compile information on all faith groups.

The Bible Belt should perhaps change its name to the Baptist Belt.

Even though Glenmary creates these maps, the best place to browse them is actually from a website operated by Valparaiso University: American Ethnic Geography. There are several things that I love about this map. One thing is that you get a real feel for why religion in the American South is so different. Another is that despite Glenmary being Catholic, they are located in the middle of the Baptist heartland. When people move to Tennessee, they initially think that I am joking when I tell them that many people here don't think of Catholicism as being Christian. But after a look at this map, you can start to understand why that situation has evolved.

While they do not differentiate between the Churches of Christ and the Disciples of Christ (they split in 1906 and now bear very little resemblance to one another), you can clearly see that out in the midst of Baptist Country, there are two Church of Christ strongholds in Tennessee. Those areas happen to be where Freed Hardeman and David Lipscomb campuses are (Church of Christ universities for those not in the know).

Now, when you look at this map and then compare it to the ancestry map, there's a whole different level of information.

Who are your people?

When I first saw this map, I was shocked at the number of people who claim German as their primary ancestry (granted, this is self reported). When you compare the two maps, you see that the German Catholics and the Hispanics account for the large number of Catholic areas in the country. The reason why I was first looking for this map, though was as part of a discussion about why Southerners tend not to celebrate their European roots (I was trying to find a Robert Burns Supper for my grandparents to attend while they visited us in Tennessee and they were shocked that there were none nearby). I'd read an article talking about how the number of people who simply identified themselves as "American" had risen with this past census and that geographically, those people tended to live in the South.

There's a whole host of reasons for this. I could posit that because the South did not experience a great deal of impact from the waves of immigration in our history, the ancestry wars that took place in other parts of the country (people tend to strongly cling to what makes them different and separate when a new group moves in and supposedly "challenges" the status quo). The real battle in the South, until recent Hispanic immigration, has been about whether you are black or you are white. Also, when you take into account the Civil War and dynamics of how people must psychologically deal with a failed revolution (Are we traitors? Are we real Americans?), I think that the need to prove your loyalty by identifying yourself as American takes on a whole new meaning (although, I wonder if "Southern" were an option what people would pick).

But when you look back at the demographics of the American South, you see that while there are a bunch of "Americans," the legacy of Deep South slavery is still present on our landscape. To further that point, this is a map that I found at the US Census website when I was compiling a marketing plan for bringing African American tourists to Tennessee sites.

The American Black Belt still exists.

I am a product of the Southern Diaspora, which consisted of African Americans and Caucasians leaving the South in droves after the Civil War to find work and lives elsewhere. My great grandfather was born on a covered wagon on the trip north (they were from East Tennessee). I am also a part of the newer trend of return migration back to the South. After several generations, many families that left the South a century ago are again returning. While this is true for Caucasians, it seems to be almost doubly true for African Americans. For the first time in a very long time, there are areas in the South that are seeing a rise in African American population. For Southern heritage tourism purposes, there are all kinds of reasons that make the African American tourist audience very attractive to marketers, not the least of which is proximity. And I don't think that you get the full impact of how strong that audience is until you see something like this demographic map.

In terms of my own life, it was a demographic map in a 2007 issue of the National Geographic that made a huge impact on my perception of daily life and my future.

Where the singles live.

I'd been complaining that it was hard to find datable men...and then I saw this. You can clearly see both Murfreesboro and Nashville on this map as dots that illustrate a preponderance of single women. Where are the single men? West Coast. Where am I hoping to get a job once I finish my degree? You guessed it: West Coast. I mean, wow! The census has a similar map to illustrate the issue.
Brokeback Mountain doesn't seem so far fetched now, does it?

The map pretty much sums it up. It also gives me hope for my prospects in other parts of the country. But there are other things to look at in evaluating other parts of the country. The way that I cope with things that worry or frighten me is to research it obsessively. One of the things that I have problems wrapping my head around is the issue of hate. I suppose that in part explains my fascination with religion (there seems to be an element of hate/hope tied into religious practices and congregates). I am a supporter and subscriber to the Southern Poverty Law Center's Intelligence Report. When I want to freak myself out about the scary things that are out there, I peruse their website. In this last edition of the Intelligence Report, it came with a large fold out map that labeled the different hate groups in the country.

2008 Year in Hate

Aside from this being shocking in general, there are several ways that I can be dispassionate and analytical about it. I know that the New Jersey area has seen a spike in hate group membership in recent years and that this coincides with a rise in poverty and the loss of several of their major industries. I was a bit surprised that places in the heartland that have a reputation of harboring fringe elements did not really have a lot of hate group activity. If anything, you come away with seeing that high population areas and poverty stricken areas are where hate seems to thrive. I also noted that South Carolina (the only Southern state I have not visited) continues to struggle with a legacy of racial strife (brings to mind the words of James L. Petigru who in 1860 described his home state thusly, "South Carolina is too small for a republic and too large for an insane asylum.").

In sum total, it is sad. But it also shows the areas where we need to work harder and find better solutions.

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