I was struck by two apparently unrelated stories this past week. The first was the announcement by the Census Bureau that more poor Americans now live in U.S. suburbs than in cities. The second was the New York Times article that finally, officially, conceded what most of us already knew: That Washington, D.C., no longer qualifies, anymore, to be called “Chocolate City,” now that only 50 percent of its population is Black.
It took me about a minute, but I did finally figure out that these two stories were not actually unrelated, at all. In fact, they are each a part of the same, growing phenomenon, and it’s not just Washington. Among other cities, it has also impacted Harlem, New York, the iconic cultural center of Black America, which is now no longer a majority Black neighborhood.
There’s clearly a plan in place and it’s being carried out with great, or frightening, efficiency, depending upon which side you stand. Those who believe that most Black people shouldn’t continue to be “priced out” of major U.S. cities had better wake up and smell the coffee.
There was a line in one of Ray Charles’ songs, that he had “lifted” from the old spiritual “Amazing Grace.” It took on greater significance, and exponentially higher levels of “hipness,” when it was sung by “Baby Ray,” who, as you know, was a blind piano player and musical genius.
The line, which I’ll never forget, was: “I once was blind, but now I see.”
What made it all so “hip,” of course, was that we all knew that Ray wasn’t using the line in that Amazing-Grace-kind-of-way; but, instead, in the “Now, I finally realize what’s going on around me, and I will no longer be fooled” kind-of-way.
If we, in the national Black community, could be at least as enlightened and insightful as Ray Charles was, in that one song, we might finally be able to develop plans that will slow down this decades-long trend of having the most desirable “inner city” real estate, which was previously owned by us, claimed by wealthy, former suburbanites, while we’re being unceremoniously displaced to rapidly declining, terribly inconvenient, now-less-than-desirable suburbs.
As I’ve said in this space previously, major U.S. cities are starting to look more and more like beautiful, downtown Johannesburg, and our country’s former, middle- and upper-middle-class suburbs are starting to look more and more like Soweto.
As most readers are already aware, Soweto, short for South West Townships, is a 99 percent-Black suburb of Johannesburg, that became home to what is now 1.3 million indigenous South Africans, when the Apartheid government implemented its “resettlement” program, systematically evicting Blacks from South Africa’s cities.
While it may seem extreme, to some, to compare Apartheid South Africa, in any way, to the United States, the federally sanctioned and private-sector-driven population shifts, by race, in this country, are difficult to deny.
That doesn’t prevent major media and government leaders from pretending that it’s not really happening. Take, for example, the 2010 Brookings report on the “Suburbanization of Poverty,” which was cited by “Dateline” in producing its one-hour special last Sunday on the topic.
Among other things, Brookings pointed out that by 2008, U.S. suburbs were: “Home to the largest and fastest-growing poor population in the country.” Curiously, in its entire 16-page report, Brookings opted not to mention, at all, the implications of racial demographic shifts on suburban poverty. Hence, the “Dateline” story, while purportedly designed to explain increasing poverty in suburban America, didn’t include a single, Black or Hispanic “economic victim.” In fact, the only African-American presence in the entire show was the network’s reporter, Lester Holt, who, so far, is not living in poverty, as far as we can tell.
By no means am I implying that encroaching poverty among whites is any less important or painful than Black or Hispanic poverty. On the other hand, it is virtually impossible to explain the new suburban poverty phenomenon ( though Lester Holt certainly tried) without including the fact that white Americans, who generally are more fully employed and have substantially higher net worth levels, are moving into America’s cities, and that Blacks and Hispanics, who are disproportionately unemployed, underemployed and without wealth, are moving (or, being moved) out of those same cities, and into the suburbs. It’s not rocket science; heads don’t have to be scratched.
For example, according to the Census Bureau, 35 percent of suburban residents are now minorities, similar to minority representation in U.S. cities. In addition, more than half of all minority groups in large metro areas, including Blacks, now reside in suburbs.
In fact, of the 100 largest metro areas, from 2000 to 2010, almost one third (32) experienced an absolute loss of white residents and, in the last decade, for the first time, more than half of Blacks (51 percent), in large metro areas, now reside in the suburbs. That’s an increase from 44 percent, in the year 2000, and 37 percent, in 1990.
If we want to continue to test our Soweto comparison, we need to understand how and why so many Black folks are winding up outside the city limits, in the first place.
Mainstream media would have us believe that African Americans (51 percent of them) have moved to the suburbs, as a result of “Black flight,” i.e., African Americans wanting to move far away from other Black city residents, to find “better” schools and suburban tranquility.
I have no doubt that there is a relatively small percentage of middle-class Black people who did attempt (too late, it seems) to follow the “American Dream” into the wooded suburbs. There’s no denying that. I’m happy for them.
On the other hand, I’m also convinced that the country’s banks have not found sufficient religion, overnight, to provide suburban mortgage loans to 51 percent of the Black population. So, there must be another reason.
No, a more accurate cause of Black migration to the suburbs can be traced directly to the movement of whites — both younger “singles” and “empty-nesters” — into the cities that their families deserted when they sought “red-lined” FHA mortgages and “better schools” for their children, in the mid-20th century.
Once they moved to the ’burbs, however, they slowly realized just how much they were sacrificing city-based access to cultural and entertainment venues, how much valuable time they were losing each day in tedious commutes, and how much gas prices continued to rise, among other things. In response, they developed a new strategy.
Incentivized with massive, multiple-year tax abatements and other lures, they moved, in droves, calling themselves “urban pioneers,” back into long-term Black and Hispanic communities, raising property values and tax rates, to the point where the former residents could no longer afford to stay. In some places, such as Atlanta, the white population has increased by five percent, since the year 2000, and in Washington D.C., a similar white population increase has called into question its George Clinton-inspired “Chocolate City” pseudonym.
When you combine all of the above with the strategic, Hope VI financing provided by HUD over recent decades, to reduce population density in predominantly Black public communities, you get, not surprisingly, a virtual elimination of low-income housing options in cities such as Chicago and Washington, and a reduction of previously affordable housing options in places such as Philadelphia’s Richard Allen Homes, where the Black family count, after HUD-financed demolition and new construction, went from 1,324 units to 408.
Now, do those two stories — the one about poverty in the suburbs and the need to rename “Chocolate City” — make more sense, now?
Maybe now you can run out and buy yourself one of those Ray Charles T-shirts, the ones that say, in bold letters, on the front: “I once was blind, but now I see.”
A. Bruce Crawley is president and principal owner of Millennium 3 Management Inc.