District of Columbia Displacement Trends: 1950-2010


J. Sarah Sorenson (’11)

Environmental Studies Program

Colby College, Waterville, Maine



This project displays census tract data, namely racial statistics, in the District of Columbia over a time period from 1950-2010. By using graduated color symbols to represent racial group densities and ratios, a visual representation of population movements is achieved over time. Racial densities are also compared to medium household incomes to determine if wealth distribution is an indicator of population movement. From these statistical trends, it is possible to extrapolate the data into the future resulting in hypothetical district statistics for 2030 and 2050. The purpose of this study is to visually show past and future projected demographic trends in the District of Columbia, paying particular attention to the movement of black citizens.




The District of Columbia is a demographically diverse city of 601,723 people that has seen a lot of change in the past half century. As a relatively small city, the District has always had a large Black population and is often referred to it as the “Chocolate City” by residents and visitors alike. However, over the past 50 years, there has been a lot of movement within the District’s populations as the black majority is slowly shrinking while White and Hispanic populations are growing. Many attribute this trend to gentrification, or the displacement of people that results when wealthier people acquire properties in low-income areas because of high rents, mortgages, or property taxes. Within D.C., displacement and gentrification are widely recognized as issues of concern given that the city's historical black majority is slowly being diminished.




Census tract data from 1950, 1970, 1990, 2000, and 2010 were used to define the census tract areas of study of which there are from 95 to 182 (depending on the year). These data, taken from the US Census Bureau and DC Office of GIS, provided the racial makeup of people within the DC region. GIS data was not available prior to 1990, so I converted census tract population data from 1950 and 1970 from online scanned documents into Excel tables which I then joined to the historic census tract layer tables. Using Geographic Information System software and modeling, these data layers were then used to show trends across time by calculating the ratio of Black to White percentages in each census tract. Additionally, the same ratio layers were converted to graduated symbols to represent Black population densities as they relate to medium household income. In order to standardize the data, income for 1950 and 1990 were adjusted for inflation according to the CPI index rate. Data were then taken to visually represent percentage changes over time in line graph. Hypothetical data were calculated for years 2030 and 2050 based on trends between 1970-2010.




This analysis shows the general population movements of Black and White racial groups within the boundaries of the District of Columbia. Before 1970, there was a White majority (65%) in the city. The Black population made up approximately 35% and was largely focused in the central region of the District. Between 1950 and 1970, these percentages suddenly switched as the Black population took over as the majority, making up 70% of the total population. Since 1970, the District has been predominately Black indicated by the Black to White percentage ratio greater than 1.00 throughout much of the city. However, Black percentages have been steadily declining as more White populations are moving back into the city. While the Black populations still retain the majority percentage, their regional densities have shifted to the outer and far eastern regions of the District. This is especially stark in the central census tracts of D.C. which use to have a very high Black to White ratio in 1950 and 1970, but now show a ratio less than 1.00. This indicates that today more Whites reside within these historically majority Black census tracts. These changes are also apparent in the eastern regions of the district that use to be predominantly White and are now overwhelmingly Black as depicted by the darker shades in the maps above. The movements of racial groups are also compared to changes and levels of medium household income. As the District’s average income rose for certain tracts, it is apparent that Black populations moved out of the central tracts and into tracts depicting lower average incomes. These maps also point to the movement of high Black densities to areas outside the city center.

Figure 1: Population percentage change 1950-2010, hypothetical percentages 2010-2050



Table 1: District of Columbia population statistics



























Table 2: District of Columbia racial demographic data in percentage and change in percentage


White %

Black %

White % Change

Black % Change
































According to the census tract data from 1950 to 2010, it is clear that much has changed demographically within the District of Columbia. The data points to how Black populations have moved from being historically located in the central of the city to the outer regions, especially to the east and southeast. This trend is classified by some as evidence for gentrification or displacement of Black populations. However, given the data for 1950, it is clear that prior to 1970, there was a majority White population in the District. Therefore, it can be argued that these racial population movements are not a case of displacement as the District was not historically majority Black prior to 1970. In fact, with the estimated future percentages for Black and White populations, the city will still retain its Black majority with the addition of other racial groups (Hispanic, Asian). Additionally, between 1950 and 2010, the overall population of D.C. has declined and is just now rising for the first time in 60 years. Therefore, it can be argued that the decrease in Black populations were in line with the overall population trends and since numbers are now rising, the Black population will also rise. This analysis does not take into account the various social and political factors that may contribute to the issues surrounding gentrification/displacement as it only accounts for statistical data trends.




1. Racial population densities have shifted over time. Black populations have moved from central D.C. to the outer regions, whereas White populations have moved more into the central regions of DC since 1970.

2. Medium household incomes have increased over time in the District but lower income households follow the movements of the Black populations

3. It is unclear whether or not this is a case of displacement




I would like to thank Philip Nyhus for his exceptional guidance and support at all hours of the day and night as well as Manny Gimond for taking so much of his valuable time to help me with all my GIS “crises”.