These enormous wealth disparities did not arrive with the housing crisis or recession. Black people in DC have faced more than two centuries of deliberately constructed barriers to wealth building, and some of the highest barriers were embedded by design in law. Whether enslaved, barred from jobs in lucrative sectors, diverted from a stake in land giveaways, seeing their neighborhoods targeted for “urban renewal,” or watching their housing options squeezed by federal redlining, Black families in the District have had little chance to build wealth.
A short history of the barriers to building assets
“Free” Black people are governed by Black Codes that prohibit them from owning and operating eating establishments and taverns and that deny them licenses for any trade other than driving carts or carriages.
Reparations to Former Slaveholders
White people who enslaved Black people in the District are compensated for their “financial loss” after emancipation in the District, but Black people are not compensated for being held in bondage.
Land returned to Confederates
President Johnson returns most of the land confiscated during the Civil War to Southern Confederates. His actions constrain freed Black people from building wealth by acquiring land and limit Black people to working for others and obtaining whatever income they can under highly restrictive conditions.
Barry Farms demolished
Barry Farms, a community developed at the end of the Civil War by 500 freed Black families, is largely demolished to create space for public housing and is further devastated by the decision to have Suitland Parkway cut through the community, destroying individual and community assets.
White flight to suburbs begins. Black families are excluded from most suburban developments, confining them to central cities. The White population in the District falls 33 percent, and the Black population climbs 47 percent.
Urban renewal sweeps cities “clean.” DC’s largely Black southwest neighborhoods are targeted by eminent domain. More than 500 acres are bulldozed, along with 1,500 businesses—including many Black-owned businesses—and 6,000 homes. Approximately 23,000 residents, predominantly Black, are displaced with little compensation. The 5,800 new homes are to be inhabited by 13,000 middle- and upper-middle-class residents.
White households in DC have a net worth 81 times greater than Black households. In 2013 and 2014, the typical White household in DC had a net worth of $284,000. Black American households, in contrast, had a net worth of $3,500.
Home values are significantly lower for Black families. Much of Americans’ net worth is in their homes. Yet here, too, there are sharp disparities. The typical home value for Black households in DC is $250,000, about two-thirds of the home value for White and Latino households.
More distressing, homeownership disparities are not a function of education. Higher education is closely tied to higher incomes, which should make homeownership more attainable. But in DC, 80 percent of Whites with a high school diploma or less are homeowners, while fewer than 45 percent of all Blacks in the District are homeowners. Fifty-eight percent of Black households do not own homes.
Samuel DuBois Cook Center on Social Equity Duke University
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