The Structure of Change
By Michael A. Fletcher
Washington's multilayered, urban black community may be a receding memory, but the city was renowned as a mecca for African Americans long before the likes of New Orleans, Baltimore, Atlanta and even Detroit developed black identities. "This town has always had an appeal to the black middle class," says demographer George Grier. "Even when this town was segregated that held true. There were more good, decent jobs here for blacks than most anywhere else."
Historians say this is largely because of the federal government: Uncle Sam was hiring African Americans in jobs more or less commensurate with their training long before the private sector adopted even the rhetoric of equal opportunity. The presence of Howard University also helped. The "black Harvard," as some people call it, was the first historically black university to offer a full complement of professional schools, from law to dentistry to medicine, to go along with its broad range of undergraduate programs.
Those opportuntities, for education and for jobs, laid the foundations for the black affluence that prevails in the region today. Census figures released in 1995 found that more than one in six African Americans in the Washington area over the age of 15 had a bachelor's degree or higher. There were twice as many African Americans living in New York as in Washington, but virtually the same number of families in both regions earned $100,000 or more. Chicago had 290,000 more African Americans than Washington, but 18,000 fewer with graduate degrees.
But now, the black intelligentsia and business leaders and, indeed, the rock-ribbed middle class of teachers, federal workers and salespeople, are grounded firmly in the suburbs instead of the city. The proportion of African Americans working at government jobs is still large more than one in three but shrinking. And at the same time, government jobs make up a shrinking percentage of all the jobs in the area.
Thirty years ago, the District of Columbia was synonymous with black life in the Washington area. Just under 75 percent of the area's African Americans lived in the city, with 19 percent in the seemingly distant Maryland suburbs and about 8 percent in Virginia. But among those city dwellers of 1968 were a sizable number of householders who had the same desires that had ignited the white exodus a decade earlier: for new houses, big yards, quiet streets, quality schools the good life.
Soon there was a trickle of blacks moving to the suburbs. Then a stream. It has flowed since then unabated.
"In many ways, suburbanization was just a sign of a population growing up," says Janice Hamilton Outtz, a demographic consultant based in Upper Marlboro. "People had been in professional jobs for a little while, incomes were rising, so they could make better purchases." New fair housing laws and liberalized racial attitudes helped them on their way.
"The suburbs have grown much more liberal, much more tolerant of blacks," says Phil Taylor, a Prince George's County activist and demographer. "So blacks had many more options, and they exercised them."
In doing so, they reversed the traditional demographic relationship between city and suburbs: By 1990, less than 40 percent of the area's African American population was living in the District.
The expanding geography of black Washington has had a profound effect on the city the emigrants have left behind. As places like New Orleans, Baltimore and Detroit have grown smaller and more black, the District has become smaller and less black. Since 1990, the District has lost almost 13 percent of its people, leaving it with 528,964 residents, its lowest population since the Depression. Blacks have been a large part of the exodus, making the District the only jurisdiction in the area where the African American population is shrinking. In 1970, the Census found a District that was 71 percent black. By 1990, the city was 66 percent black. Estimates now are that the city is 61 percent black, and could be as low as 57 percent black by 2002. The black population left in the District portends a troubling future: It is disproportionately poor, undereducated and underemployed. A third of District households earn under $25,000 a year.
As the District has receded as the region's black hub, its place is being assumed by Prince George's County. Communities like Lake Arbor and Mitchellville, with their big houses, sleek cars and decidedly upscale and consciously black residents, may still be an anomaly in America, but they have made the county perhaps the nation's best-known black middle-class showplace.
"For many African Americans, Prince George's has just been an oasis of great things happening," Outtz says. "And that is the word that has spread." This is extraordinary, because the county with its tobacco farms, large tracts of undeveloped land and somewhat redneck image was once regarded as an backwater. But in a way, that made possible the modern course of development in Prince George's, by allowing for cheaper land on which developers' dreams could unfold.
The black migration into Prince George's began in earnest in the 1970s. The way was cleared to some degree by unscrupulous real estate agents. Using the tried-and-true tool of blockbusting in which they would sell a house on an all-white block to a black family, then urge other white families to sell out before they got caught in a spiral of declining property values they helped along Prince George's racial transformation.
"This happened a lot of places in Prince George's County," Grier says. "It helped establish a racial pattern that needn't have existed."
As things turned out, the fears that the real estate agents played on proved to be unfounded: As Prince George's grew blacker, it also grew richer (and better educated). Between 1970 and 1990, the median household income in the county grew from $12,450 to $43,127 a rate that outpaced inflation. And of the 105,000 African American households in the region making $50,000 or more in 1995, almost half of them were in Prince George's County.
There was a time when such trends prompted some demographers to predict that Prince George's County would grow into a place where blacks and whites would live side by side, on equal footing, seeing each other eye to eye. But that has not happened. Whites are leaving Prince George's for suburbs farther out as the county's black population grows.
Prince George's, with a population of about 775,000, now is estimated to be as high as 62 percent black, according to a recent survey. It is now home to almost 40 percent of the area's African Americans. It has a larger black population, in total numbers, than the District.
"To some extent, what is happening cannot be termed white flight," says Grier. "It is occurring naturally now. The white population is aging now, and those folks eventually sell their houses. There is also a whole market that has developed out there now. People tell their friends, 'I live there, you should.' It has become a magnet. When properties go up for sale, the most likely buyers are going to be black."
Along with whites, even some blacks are beginning to leave Prince George's. Many of the affluent are now settling in Fairfax or Montgomery counties. Others have headed for the outer suburbs.
This migration in part is linked to concerns about schools or crime. But some economists point out that it also reflects a changing job market. Where middle-class African Americans once worked almost exclusively in government jobs, they now are more likely to be employed by defense-related businesses that dot Northern Virginia or by the myriad other businesses that have diversified Washington's economy. In 1970, 39 percent of all jobs in the Washington area were government jobs. Today, only 24 percent are. Similarly, a smaller share of jobs is now in the city: In 1970, 40 percent of the region's jobs were in the city. That figure is now down to less than 25 percent.
"Whatever homogenization or integration has occurred in the suburbs has an awful lot to do with a shift of jobs in the suburbs and beyond the Beltway," says Stephen Fuller, a George Mason University economist. "Government once offered the best jobs available to African Americans. But they were not the best jobs out there. Now, to the degree that the private market has opened up, African Americans are going after those jobs."
Once, it was the city of Washington that drew the most highly educated black workers. Now, it is the region of Washington. The horizon has expanded at least that much.
Michael A. Fletcher covers racial issues for The Post.
© Copyright 1998 The Washington Post Company