How Are Black Americans Progressing?

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Ten years ago, I lived in Washington, D.C., and would watch cranes dotting the landscape all across the northern banks of the Anacostia River. I was recently back in the city, and now the cranes have been replaced with high-rises. Gleaming riverside walkways lead to new restaurants with water views. The once trash-strewn river is devoid of plastic bags.

A city’s economic development is often called progress. Yet, in most of the city, it has had the effect of shrinking Washington’s Black population to the point that “Chocolate City” is no longer an appropriate nickname. Now, the last predominantly Black part of this once predominantly Black city is east of the river in Wards 7 and 8, in neighborhoods like Anacostia, Congress Heights and Barry Farm.

I was in Anacostia with members of the Headway team, right next to the 11th Street Bridge Park that Megan Kimble wrote about for Headway in August 2022. Residents talked with us about the changes they were seeing in their neighborhood, changes that are often distilled into a single word: gentrification. We have heard from hundreds of longtime residents, newcomers and visitors to the neighborhood over the past several months, and we met scores more of them at the Anacostia Riverfront Festival, where we set up a booth to capture a time capsule of the community.

Progress is complicated for Black people in the U.S. Every time I tell someone that I edit Headway, which tackles stories that explore the world’s challenges through the lens of progress, I think of the glacial, stalled or backward movement for Black Americans on most of the major indicators of socioeconomic status, including life expectancy, homeownership rates and banking access. The issue Headway has covered most is housing insecurity. Black people compose 40 percent of those experiencing homelessness in the U.S., despite being only 13 percent of the population. The reason for this is not mysterious: It is the product of decisions made over decades that have limited progress toward equity for Black Americans.

To many Black people in Anacostia, those high-rises across the newly glowed-up river are dangerous signals. Rents and taxes are creeping up while the percentage of Black home buyers in the area is drifting down. Many residents will tell you that Anacostia has its challenges, and more investment in the community could help. Good parks and better-funded schools are widely appreciated. But the encroaching luxury buildings and long-promised bridge park might also bring displacement, as it has elsewhere in the city over the past several years.

During our time in Anacostia, we looked for examples of majority-Black communities with thriving economies — thriving Black-owned businesses, high Black homeownership rates, high Black wealth accumulation and other indicators of progress toward economic equity for Black Americans. Our exploration brought us back to the neighborhood of Greenwood in Tulsa, Okla., once the financial center of the African American community, which was torn apart 102 years ago by white people in the Tulsa Race Massacre. Victor Luckerson, who conducted more than 200 interviews for his recently published book about Tulsa, wrote for Headway about how the concept of group economics — Black Americans supporting a local Black economy — fueled entrepreneurial success in Greenwood, framing a question: Are there modern-day exemplars for what a mostly Black community can be in the United States?

This is the starting point of an exploration we’re calling Progress, Revisited. We are looking back at historical moments of progress toward racial equity for Black Americans since the beginning of the 20th century, and looking forward to their lessons and legacies in the present day. We are following trails left of scholars commissioned by Columbia University’s Ira A. Lipman Center for Journalism and Civil and Human Rights to explore the persistence of racial inequality in five core ‌‌‌‌‌‌‌‌‌‌‌‌‌‌‌‌‌‌‌‌aspects of life in the U.S. — economics, education, health care, criminal justice and housing. In each of these areas, we are looking for moments when Black communities made notable advancements toward racial equity, and asking how we’re building on or learning from those advances today. In my introduction to the series, I included a quiz to test your knowledge of how far we have and haven’t come toward improving measures of economic equity for Black Americans.

Every attempt to document Black progress in the U.S. owes a debt to W.E.B. Du Bois. Du Bois brought an iconic set of images to the Paris World’s Fair in 1900 — a selection of photographs and distinctive data visualizations. Du Bois intended to supplant the image of Black Americans under slavery with a vision of a free Black nation growing in health and power, despite extraordinary resistance from white supremacy at every turn.

Du Bois, who died on the eve of the March on Washington in 1963, understood progress in generational terms. Among the questions he tried to illuminate are ones that reverberated through my conversations with parents and older adults in Anacostia at the Riverfront Festival, and that I invite you to reflect on with us: Are we doing better than our ancestors? Are we building on their best ideas and learning from their worst mistakes? What sort of future are we preparing the next generation for?

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