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Student researches U.S. streets named for Martin Luther King Jr.

Martin Luther King headshotIn one of his popular television specials, comedian Chris Rock points to the irony of streets and roads named after civil rights leader Martin Luther King Jr., left, — they’re located in some of the most violent neighborhoods in the U.S., even though King stood for non-violence.

“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 famously advised.

UNT graduate student Eric Katzenberger, below, decided to prove or disprove the stereotype held by Rock and others by identifying the location of all streets or roads specifically named for the civil rights leader and demographic information of the neighborhood in which the streets and roads are located, using geographic information systems and data from a past U.S. census.

Katzenberger, who is earning a master’s degree in economics from UNT, worked with Nathan Berg, associate professor of economics, at the University of Texas at Dallas, on the research. Katzenberger had received his bachelor’s degree in economics from UTD in 2008.

Katzenberger and Berg discovered that while more than 80 percent of the 730 streets and roads named for King are located in southern states, King-named streets are also in Colorado, Louisiana, Nevada, Oregon, Wisconsin and other states where little activity pertaining to the 1960s civil rights movement occurred. In Texas, the King-named streets are located in Dallas, Austin, Houston and Galveston, among other cities.

Katzenberger says the idea for the research came from a conversation he had last summer with Berg, a former student in the UNT College of Music who encouraged Katzenberger to attend graduate school at UNT.

“We were discussing inequality of people, and particularly how race is something that can be held against you,” Katzenberger says. “I had also just watched the Chris Rock special, and decided to investigate further.”

Katzenberger says he discovered that most MLK neighborhoods —  U.S. Census blockgroups through which streets named after Martin Luther King Jr. run — are predominantly African-American. However, the residents have average lower incomes compared to residents in other blockgroups with the same percentage of African-American residents.

In addition, Katzenberger learned that, in the MLK neighborhoods, the women-to-men ratio is unbalanced. Fourteen percent of households within MLK blockgroups consist of single mothers with children, twice the national percentage of 7 percent, he said.

“These empirical patterns represent a puzzle in need of further investigation concerning the mechanisms by which city managers, mayors and city councils make decisions about the names of roads and, in particular, the local political dynamics and roles of naming decisions within a broader, political-economic context,” he says.

Katzenberger also is researching U.S. streets named for President John F. Kennedy and Nation of Islam leader Malcolm X. He speculates that urban planners and city leaders may assume that naming a street after a hero among residents in a neighborhood or community may appease the residents, and so feel freer to opt out of proposals focused on community development.

Katzenberger’s research also concluded that:

• Neighborhoods with MLK streets are 39 percent more African-American  than similarly poor neighborhoods without MLK streets.

• Residents of neighborhoods with MLK streets are roughly $6,000 poorer than residents of neighborhoods without MLK streets, as Katzenberger discovered while comparing neighborhoods with the same racial makeup of residents.

• Surprisingly, hundreds of MLK streets exist in predominantly white neighborhoods, and around 20 to 30 of these streets are located in wealthy, exclusively white neighborhoods, Katzenberger says. In one California city, a street was renamed for King in the aftermath of a hate crime that occurred in a white neighborhood, he said.

Katzenberger and Berg will present the research at the Midwestern Political Association annual conference this spring in Chicago.

Eric Katzenberger pictured below in south Dallas.

 Eric Katzenberger student research MLK streets

Posted on: Wed 02 February 2011

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