The Washington area leads the nation in African American prosperity, including the number of black homeowners and of black households with $100,000-plus incomes. The region also ranks at the top of metropolitan areas in the number of college-educated black residents, according to the 2000 Census.
While the District and its suburbs have long been known for upwardly mobile black residents, that distinction solidified during the past decade. The number of $100,000-plus black households, for example, grew nearly 70 percent after adjusting for inflation.
That dramatic growth in a class of affluent African Americans stems from several factors, including a booming local economy in the 1990s that lifted income for most households. At the same time, black baby boomers were moving into their high-earning years and minority workers here continued to benefit from the federal government's anti-discrimination policies.
One in four black adults in the region holds a college degree, according to the census figures. Roughly one in eight black households has an income of $100,000 or more, and half of black households here are homeowners.
The Washington region, with 1.3 million African Americans, has as many top-income black households as New York, which has 1 million more black residents. And it has more black homeowners than New York or Chicago, whose African American population of 1.6 million also is larger than Washington's.
The region also compares favorably on measures at the low end: It ranks at the bottom nationally in black poverty and high school dropouts.
The epicenter of the affluent black population locally continues to be Prince George's County, which has more than 40 percent of the region's black households with $100,000-plus incomes.
But that group is gaining in other suburbs as well. And increasingly, the census numbers show, the gains for black households have come in the suburbs more than in the city. The number of black homeowners in the District, for example, did not grow, but increases in the suburbs pushed the overall number up 53 percent, to 233,728. That lifted the region from fifth-ranked to first among big metro areas.
Despite their economic advancement, the region's black residents did not close the money gap with white residents, whose incomes also rose sharply during the 1990s. The median black household income in the Washington area is two-thirds of that for whites, a ratio that is no better than the national average.
"Blacks are doing well in a place where everyone is doing quite well," said William H. Frey, a University of Michigan demographer who studies metropolitan areas. Although black incomes have not caught up to white incomes, he said, "they are both going in the same direction, which is not the case in other places."
Experts agree that the federal government jump-started the rise of the black middle class here by opening professional jobs to minorities in the 1960s, giving the area an edge over other regions. Government employment and contracts still play a major role, although black private-sector employment is rising, too.
The black baby boomers who went to work for the government in the 1970s and 1980s are now established and in their peak earning years. But the region also is drawing younger black professionals and retaining children of the baby boomers.
That critical mass of affluent black residents made it easy for Caryn M. Bailey to accept a job here as a development specialist with the National Society of Black Engineers. She started looking for a job in Washington because her fiance and some friends lived here. Bailey, 27, moved from Ohio this summer, bought a condominium in Alexandria and hopes to find a house.
"I love the diversity of the culture," Bailey said. "At any given moment, there is something to do. Also being around a lot of professional minorities, and seeing minorities do well -- I really like that."
Bailey fits right in with the area's workaholic culture, too: She sometimes works a 60-hour week, and she hopes to upgrade her master's degree in public policy to a doctorate in the coming years.
George Mason University economist Stephen Fuller said that rising education levels helped African Americans find higher-paying work and that the Washington economy of the past decade was one where "the better jobs grew faster than the not-so-good jobs."
Some academics argue that the fact that black incomes in the region still trail those of whites, a gap that barely budged in the 1990s, should not be ignored.
"I think you could say that blacks got a share of the gains of the '90s but that whites got a bigger share," said Bart Landry, a University of Maryland sociologist who wrote a book about the black middle class and is now studying the software industry. "While the tech boom reached blacks, it probably was especially capitalized on by whites."
But Roderick Harrison, a former U.S. Census Bureau analyst now with the Joint Center for Political and Economic Studies, said that the persistence of the gap "reflects ironically the good economic integration of blacks into the economy here. For every black college-educated person moving here, there is a white college-educated person."
The gap is closing, Harrison pointed out, in counties such as Charles, Loudoun and Stafford, where small black communities have been enlarged by the arrival of more-affluent African Americans, and in Prince George's County, where some affluent whites are leaving.
The census figures reflect the economy in the spring of 2000, before the downturn. Some specialists think the impact of the recession could be muted among well-off black households because they were less invested in technology businesses that went bust. But Landry argued that recessions hit hardest the most recently hired, who are disproportionately minorities.
During the past decade, black homeownership grew faster than white homeownership. One reason may have been that lenders were turning more attention to first-time home buyers and those with unconventional credit histories, who are more likely to be minorities. In addition, said Robert E. Lang, director of the Metropolitan Institute at Virginia Tech, the region's housing prices were flat in the early 1990s, making home-buying more affordable. The District also began offering a tax credit for first-time home buyers in 1997.
Washington now faces growing competition from other regions to attract skilled black professionals, a fact that Frey said reflects the spread of private-sector opportunities for minorities. For example, Atlanta, although still behind Washington in numbers, had much sharper growth in college-educated black residents and high-income black households in the 1990s.
Still, Frey said, this region likely will remain an attractive destination for African Americans both because of "the trump card of government" and the networking possibilities here.
"I know I get tons of [job] applications because this is the nation's capital," said Iris McCollum Green, a D.C. lawyer who is on the board of governors of the predominantly black National Bar Association.
The region's reputation as a black mecca, she said, "is one of the big drawing points. Once people get here, they don't want to leave because of that. You appear to be more in control of your destiny. You can have something to say about it."