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.
Go-go is the conga-drum-inflected Black popular music that emerged in Washington, D.C., during the 1970s. The late guitarist Chuck Brown, the “Godfather of Go-Go,” created the music by mixing sounds borrowed from church and the blues with the funk and flavor that he picked up playing for a local Latino band.
Born in the inner city, amid the charred ruins of the 1968 race riots, go-go generated a distinct culture and an economy of independent, almost exclusively Black-owned businesses, which sold tickets to shows and performance recordings. At the peak of its popularity in the 1980s, go-go could be heard around the capital every night of the week, on college campuses and in crumbling historic theaters, hole-in-the-wall nightclubs, back yards and city parks.
Although it was published mere weeks prior to the death of Brown last May, “Go-Go Live: The Musical Life and Death of a Chocolate City” (Duke University Press, $22.95) presents a social history of Black Washington as told through its go-go music and culture. Encompassing dance moves, nightclubs and fashion, as well as the voices of artists, fans, business owners and politicians, Natalie Hopkinson’s Washington-based narrative reflects the broader history of race in urban America in the second half of the 20th century and the early 21st. Hopkinson, a contributing editor of TheRoot.com, is a former writer and editor at the Washington Post.
“Go-go is Washington,” Hopkinson wrote in The Washington Post. “The music never made a real national splash, but it has come to reflect this city, its artistic pulse and the often painful reality of life for many of its Black residents.”
In the 1990s, the middle class that had left the city for the suburbs in the postwar years began to return. Gentrification drove up property values and pushed go-go into D.C.’s suburbs. While the region deals with gentrification, at its heart, D.C.’s distinctive go-go musical culture, continues to beat.
“You know it’s go-go by its signature, slow-driving conga beat,” continued Hopkinson. “The music sounds like a grittier kind of funk, with a ‘lead talker’ calling out fans, a rapper and an R&B vocalist singing original songs and go-go versions of hits by artists from Ashlee Simpson to Ludacris.”
On any given night, there’s live go-go in the D.C. metro area. Now is the time to catch it while you can.
Every since Washington was carved from two slaveholding states in 1791, it has been a special place for Blacks. Nowadays, most Black Americans know the nation’s capital by the moniker “Chocolate City.” By the 1960s “Chocolate City” was the center for “Black Power” in America. The “most important city in the world.” D.C. was a symbol of pride and power for African Americans advancing in lifestyles and “power positions.” The country should be on the alert that now that Washington is no longer considered a “Chocolate City” and other cities are likely to follow suit.
Back in the day, African Americans in Washington were experiencing unprecedented political, social and economic status. In the 1970s, D.C.’s Blacks made their move from the streets to the suites. Black professionals moved up private sector and government career ladders and became the policy and decision-makers on rules and regulations that benefited Black people and institutions.
Marion Shepilov Barry Jr. exemplified a machine boss who dominated politics for more than a decade, serving as the second elected mayor of the District of Columbia from 1979 to 1991, and again as the fourth mayor from 1995 to 1999. Barry is remembered fondly as a champion of the young, the aged and the poor, having plowed hundreds of millions of tax dollars into summer jobs programs, senior centers and an array of social welfare programs that ranked among the most generous in the nation. He also used the city’s bureaucracy as a vast employment program that fostered the growth of a Black middle class that have the highest paid municipal jobs in America.
All of that is long gone. The people that Barry made middle class have taken their salaries and taxes and moved out of D.C. to make Prince George’s County, “America’s wealthiest majority-Black county.” As the Blacks of means leave D.C., more whites, Asians and Hispanics are moving in. The District of Columbia’s Black population is less than 50 percent. The city that once had a 70 percent Black population has dropped down to just 301,000 Blacks of the city’s 601,700 residents. The “Black Power Elite” that came to be in the ’60s and ’70s are eroding in power and prestige. The “Black Power” way of life is at an end in D.C
Back in our days of dominance, Calvin Rolark got his calls to City Hall returned promptly. Dr. Rolark was an influential community leader as publisher of The Washington Informer newspaper and head of United Black Fund. Today, Rolark’s daughter, Denise gets scant attention and few “call backs” from current D.C. Mayor Vincent Gray.
The awarding of D.C. government advertising contracts is a case that should be a cause célèbre for majority-Black populations and governments across America. [Public Notices] are advertisements that generate billions annually in America. Public notices placed in newspapers include contract opportunities, foreclosures, unclaimed property, community information and more. The issue and controversy in D.C. is about a $30,000 contract to advertise unclaimed property in the city.
Washington Informer publisher Denise Rolark Barnes claims that her paper was denied a chance at the contract by the Office of the Chief Financial Officer because her paper’s coverage centers on Washington’s Black residents. Barnes has filed a protest over the awarding of the contract. The conflict, a test-case in reverse-discrimination, hinges on whether The Washington Informer counts as a “newspaper of general circulation.” In her complaint, Barnes quotes a city contracting official saying that The Washington Informer‘s editorial focus toward Black Washingtonians means it isn’t a “newspaper of general circulation.”
(In the interest of full disclosure, I have assisted in getting publicity for this cause).
Are Blacks headed toward being invisible in America again? In recent generations “Black Power” is on the decline in D.C. and across America. D.C. illustrates that government sector contracting is fundamental to the successes of minority-owned businesses such as The Washington Informer. As Blacks in every locale should, Blacks in D.C. are concerned that the 47-year-old Informer publication has been deemed “irrelevant” by the decision-makers who currently occupy the top realms of D.C. government.
William Reed is head of the Business Exchange Network and available for speaking/seminar projects through the Bailey Group.org.