As a scholar focused on improving the economic well-being of African Americans, Andre Perry often wearied of reports about racial disparities that offered no solutions. Simply comparing the deficits of people who had been discriminated against with the assets of people who benefited from the discrimination got us nothing except an ever-widening economic gap.
More intriguing to Perry was how some Black people managed to make economic progress no matter what — either by organizing for policy changes or increasing individual effort.
“If we can find the places where Black people are doing well, then we can learn from them and maybe replicate some of those conditions in places where Black people aren’t doing as well,” said Perry, a senior fellow at the Brookings Institution, a D.C.-based public-policy think tank.
Perry and Brookings colleague Jonathan Rothwell, working in partnership with the NAACP, have succeeded in finding such places by the hundreds. Most are characterized by the relatively long life spans of their residents. Among the 20 counties with the highest life expectancy for Black people, three are in Virginia: Loudoun (82.7 years), Fairfax (82.2) and Prince William (81.8). One is in Maryland: Montgomery County (81.3 years.)
They also correlate with higher-income Black households.
Areas where Black people are living long and well are widely scattered, in urban and rural areas, in red and blue states, North and South. In both Manassas Park, Va., and Weld County in Colorado, the mean life expectancy for Black residents is 96 years — the highest in the nation.
Perry and his team have created a Black Progress Index with an interactive dashboard that allows users to see predictors of longevity where they reside.
“When you look at racial disparities by lumping all Black people together, and seeing everybody as the same, you lose the nuanced differences as well as the sense of agency that we have in our lives,” Perry said. “Even as we struggle to close racial gaps as a race, we still must be aware of the opportunities to make improvements in our lives and in our communities.”
And knowing how other Black people are succeeding is indispensable.
“In some areas, you’ll see that the Black community has taken civic action to address a problem or organized to increase the minimum wage,” Perry said. “Others will then begin to say, ‘If they can do it, why not us?’ ”
Since the Black Progress Index became operational last month, Perry says, he has been inundated with requests from elected officials and community leaders to learn how to use this treasure trove of socioeconomic data.
But just knowing the characteristics of a neighborhood where residents live long and well is a good start.
Perry’s research showed that the percentage of Black adults ages 25 and over with at least a bachelor’s degree is highly predictive of longer life. The more the merrier.
“The individual effect of education on health is well established, and living near higher-income adults may boost health in other ways, such as by improving markets, safety, or government policy and resources,” Perry said.
The Black college attainment rate is very high in D.C. metro areas, including Howard County in Maryland (54 percent); and Arlington and Loudoun counties in Virginia (51 percent and 50 percent, respectively). Life expectancy for Black adults in these places is also very high, from 79.4 years in Howard County to 82.4 in Loudoun County.
“If America had a Wakanda,” Perry said, referring to the high-tech African kingdom full of promise and potential as depicted in Marvel’s “Black Panther” movie, “it would be the DMV,” or the District, Maryland, and Virginia.
None of this is to excuse the historic and ongoing economic injustices that perpetuate racial disparities. But there are plenty of Black people who know what it takes to survive and even thrive while engaged in the struggle for equal opportunities.
On the opposite end, the Black college attainment rate is just 4.4 percent in Florida’s Baker County, outside of Jacksonville, and Black life expectancy there is 76.4 years. Butts County, outside of Atlanta, has the same low Black college attainment rate and even lower Black life expectancy, at 73.8.
In the poorest sections of Southeast Washington, the average life span for Black residents is 68 years. In Jefferson, Ohio, it’s 63, among the lowest in the country.
Black entrepreneurship — measured by the rate of business ownership — is also a significant predictor of life expectancy. Roughly 1 percent of Black adults aged 18 to 64 own an employer business, and a standard deviation in ownership rates predicts an increase of roughly 0.2 years in life. The Black business ownership rate is as high as 4 percent in Hidalgo County in Texas, where Black life expectancy is 91.5 years.
Also, Black fathers matter in the home. Areas that have dads living in households with their kids tend to be among the more prosperous households. The more fathers living with their children means longer life for the children. However, 57 percent of Black children are not living with their father, according to Census Bureau data. When they are living in the household, Black fathers invest heavily in their children in terms of play, reading, helping with homework and other activities. Studies show that Black fathers spend as much time with their children as similarly situated White fathers. However, when children are apart from their fathers, they spend much less time on positive activities.
“We’re not trying to blame anyone, just point out that there are underlying benefits to having fathers in the home,” Perry said.
Perry also found that having a large share of foreign-born Black adults in the area correlates with long life expectancy. But researchers are not sure why — maybe it’s because they haven’t spent as much time dealing with White American racism, which has been proved to take a heavy toll on Black people who were born and raised here.
“We are seeing Black people pushing in different ways against racism, with some efforts resulting in better outcomes,” Perry said. “We just want more people to know what it takes to get those better results.”