How Gentrification in Washington Changed Local Black Political Power

“It’s like they’re starting to see the money coming in and DC increasing in its desirability or whatever, and I felt like the city leaders were very drunk on that…And they’re still greedy moreover.”

One of the biggest disruptions has been the exodus of the black middle class. DC was once an enclave for black professionals and middle-class black families, filled with all-black neighborhoods with sleek townhouses in some neighborhoods, rolling lawns and settlements in another, and, in the northwest from DC – the Gold Coast – stately homes. But crack hit the city hard in the 80s and 90s. The city center became a ghost town. In recent decades, many of these families have moved to nearby suburbs in search of bigger homes, better schools, or less crime.

“I was born in the 70s,” Bowser said. “So [my family] experienced DC where the schools weren’t good and the neighborhoods weren’t safe. So we saw a lot of people who had good jobs — government jobs, some DC governments, the post office, the subway — who were born and raised DC residents here, picking up sticks and moving to the suburbs.

As a result, DC’s black middle class “doesn’t exist in the same way” today, said Sharon Pratt, who served as mayor from 1991 to 1995, before Barry returned to office in 1995. Wealthier families once flocked to neighborhoods like the Gold Coast, not their children. “They moved to Maryland where they could go home more for less money and where they were more welcomed,” Pratt said. Prince George’s black population was skyrocketing—from 50.7% to 62.7% from 1990 to 2000—while DC’s was plummeting, part of a national trend of increasing suburban diversification. Today, Prince George’s County is one of the wealthiest majority black counties in the country.

Meanwhile, as the black middle class grew in the city, the black-white divide increasingly became an economic divide. In 2012, to address the decline of the city’s black population, the city formed the African American Affairs Commission. In 2017, the commission released a report outlining the staggering gaps between black and white residents in education, employment, and wealth – with trend lines indicating that the black-white wealth gap was deepening.

That report proved prophetic: In 2019, census data showed the median income for white households was around $150,000, compared to $49,000 for black households.

Black households left behind as DC revenues rise

The report ended with 13 policy recommendations to expand affordable housing and increase job opportunities, warning city officials that “growing inequality is putting the African-American community in DC at risk.”

The report was intended as an in-depth call to action. But the city hasn’t allocated the resources needed to turn those recommendations into policy, said Maurice Jackson, the commission’s inaugural chair and associate professor at Georgetown University.

“They were promoting this notion of Chocolate City like, ‘You look good, you’re good, people,'” Jackson said. “But I knew the numbers were quite the opposite.”

Each of the forces at work in DC is understandable. And these forces are not unique to DC: a city trying to get back on its feet; an influx of white professionals driven by luxury condos and fashionable city living; Middle-class black families, seeking, like every other generation of Americans, more room and better schools in the suburbs.


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