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Black Cities are Valuable, Brookings Scholar Says

Majority-Black cities are generally portrayed by some media, politicians and policymakers as run-down, economically depressed, crime-ridden areas that have little hope of a bright future.

However, a scholar with the prestigious Brookings Institution in D.C. said the characterization of majority-Black cities as “islands of hopelessness” has no basis in truth.

“People who have that perception are clearly ill-informed,” said Andre Perry, who along with Brookings colleague David Harshbarger, co-authored the report “The Rise of Black Majority Cities: Migration Patterns Since 1970 Created New Majorities in U.S. Cities.” “Black folks have what White people covet. While it is true that in some majority-Black cities, education and crime are concerns, it is also true that housing prices are lower. Let me clear, this is an attempt to devalue Black properties and to take them over by acquiescing them for cheap.”

The report noted the number of majority-Black cities increasing since 1970. In 1970, 460 cities had African Americans as their main populations but by 2017, 1,262 had Black majority status, according to U.S. Census data.

Cities such as Detroit, Baltimore and Memphis have Black majorities and are on the rise, according to the report. Smaller cities that have majority-Black populations such as East Cleveland, Ohio, Wilkinsburg, Pa., and Ferguson, Mo., received a mention in the report.

Perry, who received his doctoral degree from the University of Maryland, College Park, said he and Harshbarger worked on this report when he noticed that development and growth occurred in places where Blacks populate in large numbers.

“Black-majority cities have substantial assets in terms of investment,” he said, noting that the report said $609 billion in owner-occupied housing exists in African American cities that have 10,000 public schools and three million businesses. “We don’t pay attention to these assets but we initially devalue and overlook them because they are located in predominantly Black areas. We need to uplift and highlight these assets.”

Perry said while the physical assets are substantial, the people who reside in majority-Black cities are phenomenal.

“None of these assets are greater than the people and culture within Black-majority cities,” he said in the report. “Black-majority cities matter like the Black lives in them. The fight for leaders to retain autonomy and sovereignty-while demanding respect-reflects their recognition of the value in Black-majority cities.”

Baltimore has a 63 percent Black population and has serious issues with a skyrocketing homicide rate, crumbling schools and slacking economic development in African American neighborhoods. Nevertheless, City Council member John Bullock, a political scientist, agrees with Perry’s conclusion that majority-Black cities, including his, are untapped assets.

“Black-majority cities like Baltimore offer leadership and opportunity,” Bullock said. “It all depends really on who is running the government and what type of leverage can Blacks in the city use to get the type of services that they want and need. This type of activism needs strong advocacy and policy transformation.”

Bullock said even under strong advocacy in majority-Black cities, “every problem won’t be solved overnight.”

“We have been locked out of the opportunity to make a difference for so long it will take time to move the needle,” he said.

Eugene Grant, who has served as the mayor of Seat Pleasant, Md., since 2004, said he understands the dynamics that Perry talks about in his report and said leaders of majority-Black cities “are able to speak to our people and encourage our people in a language that others could not.”

Grant serves as the fifth Black mayor of Seat Pleasant, a city founded by Whites in the early part of the 20th century and didn’t become majority-Black until the 1970s. Seat Pleasant has approximately 5,000 residents, 91 percent of whom are Black, according to the 2010 census.

Grant said he has been able to proactively move his city forward despite negative forces that seek to discredit Seat Pleasant because of its Black majority.

“We are able to positively impact Seat Pleasant through increased and enhanced service delivery in ways that other races would not for the Black community,” he said. “Because of this, Seat Pleasant has been able to position itself as the world’s first authentic small smart city. This enables us to engage, educate and empower our people.”

Perry said policy makers and politicians on the state and national level must understand that majority-Black cities “won’t go away” because of the country’s changing demographics shifting from majority-White to people of color. He said investment in majority-Black cities shouldn’t be an option but a required by political leaders so that “people can be treated well inclusively.”

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