The New Black Suburbs of 1992
09-29-2009, 05:10 PM
The New Black Suburbs of 1992
The New Black Suburbs.
David J. Dent;
New York Times Magazine; 6/14/1992, p18, 0p
A generation ago, peaceful civil rights demonstrators faced violent resistance in the fight for a racially integrated society. Years later, Barron and Edith Harvey, who are black, would embody the hopes of that struggle. In 1978, the couple moved into a white, upper-middle-income neighborhood in Fairfax County, Va., a suburb of Washington. During their seven years there, no crosses were burned in their yard and no racial epithets were muttered at them within earshot. There were a few incredulous stares, a few stops by the police, who had mistaken Barron for a criminal, and a run-in with an elementary-school principal over the absence of blacks in the curriculum at the Harveys' daughter's school.
"You expect those kinds of things in a white neighborhood, and, all things being equal, we would have stayed," says Barron Harvey, chairman of the accounting department at Howard University and an international business consultant.
But the Harveys left in 1985 -- not because Fairfax was inhospitable, but because they wanted to become part of another Washington suburb, Prince George's County in Maryland. Prince George's -- a county that George Wallace won in the 1972 Presidential primary -- was fast becoming the closest thing to utopia that black middle-class families could find in America.
What some consider the essence of the American dream -- suburbia -- became a reality for a record number of blacks in the 1980's. In 1990, 32 percent of all black Americans in metropolitan areas lived in suburban neighborhoods, a record 6 percent increase from 1980, according to William H. Frey, a demographer at the University of Michigan Population Studies Center specializing in population and racial redistribution patterns. As an increasing number of black Americans head for the suburban dream, some are bypassing another dream -- the dream of an integrated society. These black Americans are moving to black upper- and middle-class neighborhoods, usually pockets in counties that have a white majority.
The growing popularity of these neighborhoods over the past decade has coincided with the increasing enrollment at black colleges and booming interest in African and African-American history, art, music and literature. These trends seem to represent a retreat from the days of the early post-civil-rights era, when status in the black community was often tied to one's entree into the once-forbidden worlds of white America.
Black suburbs have sprung up across the country. In the Miami area, there is Rolling Oaks in Dade Country. Around St. Louis, black suburbs exist in sections of Black Jack, Jennings, Normandy and University City in St. Louis County. In the Atlanta suburbs, black majority communities include Brook Glen, Panola Mill and Wyndham Park in DeKalb County. And in the Washington area, Prince George's County itself has a black majority.
Racial steering, though illegal, may lead some blacks in the Washington area to the predominantly black neighborhoods of Prince George's. But for most, it is a deliberate, affirmative choice.
"I don't want to come home and always have my guard up," says David S. Ball, a senior contract administrator who works on railroad projects in the Washington area. Ball and his wife, Phillis, moved from Washington to a predominantly black subdivision in Fort Washington, Md. "After I work eight hours or more a day," he says, "I don't want to come home and work another eight."
Ball says his family didn't have to live in an all -black neighborhood. Currently, Ball says, his block comprises seven black families and three white families.
Barron Harvey adds: "We always wanted to make sure our child had many African-American children to play with, not just one or two. We always wanted to be in a community with a large number of black professionals, and to feel part of that community. We never really felt like we were part of Fairfax."
For some Prince Georgians, like Radamase Cabrera, 39, one reason for the move was a profound sense of disillusionment.
"I think the integration of black folks in the 60's was one of the biggest cons in the world," says Cabrera, an urban planner for the city of Washington. Cabrera was one of a small number of blacks attending the University of Connecticut at Storrs in 1970. "I was called a nigger the first week there and held by the police until this white girl told them I hadn't attacked her. You want to call me a separatist, so be it. I think of myself as a pragmatist. Why should I beg some cracker to integrate me into his society when he doesn't want to? Why keep beating my head up against a wall, especially when I've been there."
While the racial balance of Prince George's population of 729,268 may indicate an integrated county -- 50.7 percent black, 43.1 percent white, 6.2 percent other -- census data suggest a segregated county. More than half of all the census tracts in Prince George's are at least 70 percent white or 70 percent black. Some experts predict the county will be two-thirds black by the end of the century.
Some white residents prefer to see the county serve as a model for true integration.
"Here we have a place that is nearly 50-50," says Margery A. Turner, a white resident and senior research associate, specializing in housing, for the Urban Institute. "We should be using this opportunity to show the country there are places where integration can work. I'm not suggesting we limit blacks. But I do think we should avoid resegregating. Separateness sustains prejudice, which sustains inequality."
Cabrera, however, disagrees. "What I reject is this notion that we are aiming toward an integrated county," he says. "African-Americans should be aiming toward an ability to control our own destiny."
THE CHANGING RACIAL COMPOSITION OF Prince George's is not immediately evident when entering the county on Route 495, known throughout the Washington area as the Beltway. Many of the exits off the Beltway lead to neighborhoods with names like Enterprise Estates and Paradise Acres -- subdivisions stocked exclusively with single-family houses for middle- and upper-income families. The county's transformation becomes clear when you enter those neighborhoods and see that most of the girls jumping rope on the sidewalk and most of the boys dribbling basketballs in driveways are black.
Ben Jones, a real-estate agent who lives in Prince George's County, is riding by the manicured lawns and well-kept colonial and ranch-style houses of Paradise Acres. He identifies house sales he has made by the profession of the buyer: a vice president of the World Bank, an assistant superintendent of schools, lawyers, professors and doctors.
Jones went on his own search for a black neighborhood in 1980. While riding through a then-undeveloped Mitchellville section, he saw four elaborate full-brick, four-bedroom ranch houses, a trailer and a black man walking out of the trailer. He decided to stop and introduce himself to the man, who turned out to be a realtor. "I assumed it would become a black neighborhood because there was a black real-estate agent," Jones says. Today all but a handful of the 83 families in that subdivision, Paradise Acres, are black.
Jones, a nuclear-weapons specialist at the Department of Energy at the time, had been living in an all-white working-class neighborhood in Upper Marlboro, the county seat, for a decade. When he moved to Mitchellville, he saw a business opportunity in the large number of blacks moving into the county and eventually quit his Government job to become a full-time real-estate agent. He has sold 355 homes throughout Prince George's County -- all to blacks, with the exception of about four sales to whites. "I don't exclude whites," says Jones. "But most of my sales come from contacts and referrals. There are few whites who will come to a black agent."
The black presence in Prince George's County can be traced to the late 17th century, when blacks were forced into the county as slaves. "Many eventually owned land, and many of their children are still here," says Alvin Thornton, a professor of political science at Howard University who has lived in the county for 20 years.
Descendants of those original black families have lived through segregation, the county's resistance to open housing laws in the late 1960's, court-ordered busing and fears of violence. David Ball remembers that Prince George's was viewed as a rural county full of "rednecks" in which the few pockets of blacks were subjected to police brutality and a citizenry that lived by a brand of justice loaded with "good old boy" rules. Ball never thought he would cherish living in the county he once regarded as racist. Even three years ago, when he and his wife began looking seriously at suburbia, Prince George's County wasn't on the list. They first looked at houses in Montgomery County, but they couldn't find a neighborhood that combined good value for their money and a neighborhood with a significant black presence.
"I really wasn't interested in moving into an all-white neighborhood and being the only black pioneer down there," Ball says.
Harold and Patricia Alexander have grown with Prince George's County. Patricia Alexander's mother, Claudia Sims, bought a town-house condominium in Prince George's County in the early 1970's. Harold Alexander was a premed student at Howard University at the time; Patricia was supporting them both with her salary as a secretary at the university. The couple moved into the county, and the second bedroom of Claudia Sims's town house became the Alexanders' home.
Their migration was part of a population boom, stimulated by the rapid construction of garden apartments and condominiums in the late 1960's and early 1970's. Like the Alexanders, many of the new black residents didn't go deep into the county. Instead, many moved to communities closer to the predominantly black Southeast Washington border.
"When we first moved into the county, it was very uncomfortable," says Patricia Alexander. "We heard stories about the police and racism. So, you know, you go to work, you come home and lock the door."
The new black residents of the 1970's laid the base that eventually drew large numbers of blacks in the 1980's. "You have to look at it in two stages," says Thornton, who has studied the county's migration patterns. "The great surge in the 70's came because many blacks were doing what other people were doing. They wanted better schools, more space, a backyard and less density. But that first period was met with massive white resistance, police brutality and court-ordered busing."
The second stage was inadvertently propelled by the county's Economic Development Corporation. It tried to entice developers to create industries and build houses that would woo white-collar professionals. The selling points of the county were these: the cheaper rural land of Prince George's contrasted with the overdeveloped tracts in neighboring counties; Prince George's road-improvement plan, and the presence of the Goddard Space Flight Center, the world's largest space research facility, Andrews Air Force Base and the University of Maryland at College Park. The campaign reaped $10 billion in new investments in the county, which included the construction of homes for mid- to high-level executives.
Diana V. Jackson, director of development for the corporation, says the majority of those new homeowners were blacks -- something that startled the county's white leadership, according to many political activists and black realtors.
"The county officials underestimated the money within the black middle class in Washington," says Larry Lucas, a Washington lobbyist and former minority-population specialist for the Census Bureau. "It's one of the largest concentrations of middle-class blacks in the country. A lot of the subdivisions were really built for whites, but before whites could come out and buy them, black folks were coming in and buying them and when blacks started buying them, whites wouldn't look at them."
After four years of living in the county, the Alexanders, who by now had two children, were comfortable with the idea of moving farther from the Washington border. In 1977 they moved into a middle-income neighborhood of new four-bedroom split-level homes, and found virtually all the residents on their block were like them.
"The second stage was not met with that resistance because you had some white flight and a coming of age of black identity in the county," says Thornton. "There was a critical enough mass of black people by the 80's so blacks could feel they were a part of the county. That's when you get people who move here because they want to live in a black community."
Harold Alexander has benefited from the influx of blacks. His medical practice has increased, and four months ago, the Alexanders made another move inside the county -- this time into a $1 million mansion.
The increasing number of blacks in the county and pressure from the N.A.A.C.P. have led to major changes in the police department, where 37 percent of the force is now black, compared with 8 percent in 1978. For many, fear of police brutality has nearly vanished.
Hodari Abdul-Ali, who owns a chain of bookstores in the area, says, "I know that what happened to Rodney King can happen anywhere, but there's much less likelihood of it happening here."
Abdul-Ali's main store had been located near Howard University in Washington. Two years ago, after Abdul-Ali noticed an increasing number of customers were coming from Prince George's County, he opened a store there. It outsells his four other stores.
Barron Harvey visits the store at least twice a month, and the books he buys often become grist for conversations at the family's summer pool parties, when the Harveys' backyard is full of neighborhood friends. Edith Harvey, who lived in predominantly white towns all her life, says that in Prince George's, neighbors have comprised the core of her social life for the first time. The Harveys seldom entertained when they lived in Fairfax, but today they have people over at least twice a month.
"When I'm socializing with people who are not African-American, I have to do a lot of explaining," says Edith Harvey, an education specialist for the Department of Education. "It's stressful because you know it's your responsibility to educate whites who have a sincere interest in understanding an issue. But it's more like work when you should just be socializing. If it's a black social setting, it's more like sharing ideas than educating."
The social networks that provide a forum to share ideas in Prince George's have grown over the past decade. Churches and traditional black middle-class social and professional organizations -- like the Links, Jack and Jill and graduate chapters of black fraternities and sororities -- have increased their membership in the county, some by as much as fourfold.
The Ebenezer African Methodist Episcopal Church has revitalized itself by moving its congregation to Prince George's. Membership at the 136-year-old church had dwindled to fewer than 100 members. Since the relocation from Washington in 1983, membership has grown to nearly 7,000, and donations have provided $10 million for the construction of a new church building.
Ebenezer holds forums every month, during which many Prince Georgians hear about the latest news and battles in the county's school system. The school system is now 66 percent black, compared with 22 percent in 1971-72. There is widespread agreement among black and white parents to move away from busing as a means of achieving racial balance, which doesn't occur naturally, because of residential separation in Prince George's. Many parents want the school system to continue to build its nationally lauded magnet programs, which feature specialized classes meant to attract a diverse student population.
But there is dissension over the new multicultural curriculum: many white parents object to it, while some black parents are pushing for an Afrocentric approach.
"I believe it's the next step in the battle," says the Rev. Dr. Granger Browning, pastor of Ebenezer and an advocate for an Afrocentric curriculum in the public schools. "It's a fight for our children, and we will win."
RADAMASE Cabrera and his wife, Denise, a reporter for The Associated Press, moved to Prince George's County in 1987, settling in a formerly all-white working-class neighborhood where blacks were becoming the majority. "It was about 50-50 then, and I knew it was only a matter of time before the white folks would leave and you'd have yourself a nice suburban African-American community."
For Cabrera, life in Prince George's County has become part of a mission. Though he works in Washington, he has become an outspoken activist in his community -- consumed with its demographic, political and economic statistics. "Prince George's County will be, if it is not already, the most educated and affluent African-American community on the planet, and it has the opportunity to be a model of how black folks can control their political, economic and social institutions," Cabrera says. "This place is unique because usually black folks inherit things like a Newark or a Gary when it's depressed and all the wealth is gone and it has no potential."
Prince George's now has more than 8,000 black-owned businesses. Financing for the smaller businesses -- beauty parlors and home-based companies -- often comes from a black-owned bank and a black-controlled savings and loan in Washington. Some of the county's larger black-owned companies -- high-tech firms and a million-dollar-a-year trash-hauling business -- have received financing for expansion by established banks in the county.
Although commercial development in the county has grown, many retailers have declined the county's invitations to open stores there while entering counties with a lower median income but a larger white population. Nordstrom and Macy's have opened stores in Baltimore County, which had a median household income of $38,837, compared with $43,127 in Prince George's County in 1989. But Baltimore County is 85 percent white. Many Prince George's shoppers, like Linda Williams-Brown, often ride two counties away to shop, pouring tax dollars into other communities. "For me to go to a nice mall with a Saks and a Macy's, I have to go all the way to Virginia," Williams-Brown says. "When they put new stores in the shopping centers here, they put in a T. J. Mack, in a place like Mitchellville, across the street from $200,000 and $300,000 homes that black people own. Why?"
Daniel Russell, who spent 20 years as a private developer based in the Washington area and who now runs a development-training institute and consulting firm, has spent the past five years meeting with retailers, trying to bring them into the county. "In meetings, they say they don't know how to merchandise to a market like this or how to do promotion for this market or other excuses, like the people won't buy the merchandise, when what you have is people going to other counties to buy the merchandise."
An editorial in The Prince George's County Journal last year implied retailers like Saks Fifth Avenue and Bloomingdale's were snubbing the county. Spokesmen for both stores deny race is a factor. Some white county officials say the county's image still carries the baggage of its blue-collar days. "We've just now become a white-collar community with a large expendable income," says Prince George's county executive, Parris N. Glendening, who is expected to enter the 1994 Maryland race for governor. "The market hasn't caught up to us. But it will."
However, Douglas Massey, a professor of sociology at the University of Chicago, would not be surprised if it did not. "I think that a group that raises residential segregation to be an ideal is going to cut itself off from many of the benefits of society," he says. "You make it easier for the larger white population to eventually decapitalize it, and it basically becomes an easy target for racist attitudes. It becomes isolated politically.
"It's not a matter of liking whites. You don't have to want to live near whites or like whites. If you talk to Mexicans, who are more integrated than blacks residentially, they may not like Anglos and may prefer to live in Mexican neighborhoods, but they realize services are better in integrated neighborhoods than in Mexican neighborhoods."
Economics aside, the rapid racial change has created a sense of political uncertainty for many white politicians. Alvin Thornton led a citizens' group that lobbied to carve a new Congressional district. Two black candidates won the primaries in March, thereby guaranteeing that Prince George's will have its first black Congressman this November. Thornton's group also lobbied for the redrawing of the county council lines that will give five out of nine districts a black majority in the 1994 election. Currently only two of the nine council members are black.
Some black activists in the community have complained that the council makes zoning decisions to benefit developers who don't live in the county. "We need to look at this zoning process and get the council members, who allocate the county's financial resources, to distribute that wealth with the business people who live here and care about the county's future," Thornton says. "Otherwise Prince George's will become like cities where banking and commercial corridors are owned and controlled by people who don't live there. All we'll own are our nice houses."
However, some black Prince Georgians don't live in nice houses, but in rundown apartments. These pockets of poverty, inside the Beltway, closer to the Washington border, seem far away from the well-kept lawns of Enterprise Estates. "This is now one of the wealthiest black Congressional districts in the country," says Thornton. "If the county wants to maintain that image, it's going to have to redevelop many of the inner-Beltway communities. If it doesn't, you are going to have the same separate cores of poverty and affluence that you find in many inner cities."
The distance between the two worlds of the county leaves many in the middle class with a false sense of comfort, according to State Representative Michael E. Arrington, 36, who grew up in Prince George's.
"What's missing is a sense of activism," Arrington says. "Part of the problem is that you have a lot of people here doing well, and they don't see the problems in other communities firsthand."
Some black middle-class Prince Georgians say inner Beltway problems are thrust upon them, no matter how many miles separatethe two communities. One week after Jack B. Johnson, a Prince George's County prosecutor, spent hours discussing the Rodney King verdict with his three children, his 13-year-old son came to him with another incident. One of his classmates, Joseph, a straight-A student from an inner Beltway neighborhood, was gunned down, caught in the crossfire between two drug dealers.
Johnson, an active member of the Coalition of 100 Black Men and the graduate chapter of his fraternity, often spends hours in mentoring programs for low-income males. "There are so many programs here to help teen-agers," he says. "There are a substantial number of black middle-class people who are out in the poorer community."
OTHER BLACK middle-class parents say they must first keep their children free of the racism and peer pressure that leads to social alienation, crime and teen-age pregnancy. Those parents are reaching back to the days of segregation to extract the elements of black culture that nurtured self-esteem and a commitment to family and community.
Both Frank and Kathryn Weaver grew up in segregated black communities. Frank Weaver, who holds a B.S. from Howard and an M.B.A. from the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill, says his academic and professional successes are rooted in the intellectual grooming, pride and discipline instilled in him by his parents, his church, his segregated neighborhood and his high school in Raleigh, N.C., from which he graduated in 1968. "I was always taught I could compete with the best," says Weaver. "Out of the top 10 of my class, two became Harvard lawyers, one a Duke medical doctor. All of us went on to college and graduate school. I find today many of us are searching to rediscover what some of us took for granted while growing up in a segregated society."
Frank and Kathryn Weaver say they don't want to re-create a segregated society for their daughter, but they do want their daughter to grow up with an appreciation of her heritage and culture as they did. They fear she will not be able to compete with others as equals if she is conditioned to see herself as a subordinate American. "Although we mix and mingle in the mainstream culture, we are proud of our African past," says Frank Weaver. "Our daughter does not have to shade everything black or wear a dashiki or kente cloth, but I want her to develop a sense of pride in her identity as a black person."
Could sheltering black middle-class children from racism and the inner city produce black adults with a vision of the world as narrow as that of many upper- and middle-income whites? The Alexanders have struggled with that question. They say they don't worry about their children's ability to interact with whites, since their daughters attend private, predominantly white schools. They did send their youngest daughter, Starsha, 11, to dance classes in the heart of Washington so that inner-city culture wouldn't seem alien to her. While accompanying Starsha to class one day, her mother and older sister, Shelique, 14, passed a group of winos sitting on the street outside the school. Shelique turned her nose up at the winos. Her parents were stunned. "That's when it hit me," Patricia Alexander says. "She said she had never seen anything like that."
Harold Alexander adds: "We both grew up in single-parent working-class situations. We are sensitive to problems in the inner city, and we want our children to have that same sensitivity."
Parents say their children do need protection from racism, poverty and the negative images of blacks that flood the media. "Two doors down from us is a black cardiologist," says Barron Harvey. "There's a dentist on the block, a couple of lawyers, an airline pilot, a college professor, an entrepreneur. My daughter needs to be exposed to that."
Ball adds, "If my son grows up to be a knucklehead, it won't be because I didn't expose him to other possibilities."
In some ways, the need for black role models embodies the powerful impact of racism in defining achievement in America, according to Bart Landry, a sociologist and the author of "The New Black Middle Class." Landry says the sight of a white achiever doesn't offer strong signs of encouragement to many black children. "In this country, where we are polarized along racial lines, seeing a white cardiologist doesn't reaffirm their abilities. That's those people achieving. That's not us achieving. What their parents want them to see is us achieving."
The decision to live in a black community should not be equated with a desire to live in a one-race world. While many black Prince Georgians say integration shouldn't be a priority, they also say they wouldn't move away if more whites moved into the county.
"If they want to come and enjoy, help build the county and take advantage of the economic benefits of living here, that's great," says Fred Sims, who owns a management and secretarial company that grosses $5 million a year. "But we are not begging them to come."
Most residents of the black neighborhoods in Prince George's County work or function in other ways in the integrated American culture. "One of things black folks never really have to worry about in America is being outside the realm of integration," says Harvey. "We will always have to interface with the other culture."
The rise of affluent black neighborhoods could enhance the relationship between the races, Landry says. "I think to the extent that it strengthens feelings of self-worth, it's good for integration, because you have to believe you are O.K. first before you can mingle with others."
Even Radamase Cabrera can see a slight ray of hope for the cause of integration in a strong black community. "Creating black wealth, black power and black stability will enable my children to go hand in hand in society with little white children. My children can integrate society from their own cultural base, their own historical base, and meet on a level playing field. Right now, there is no level playing field. How are you going to successfully integrate something that is historically disparate?"
For the Harveys, the move to Prince George's may not be a step away from the Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King Jr.'s dream, but a step toward the realization of that dream. "We are advancing," says Barron Harvey. "We were fighting for the right to go where we want to go, to make the choice to live where we want to live. We have the freedom of choice, which we have exercised."
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