Posted on August 18, 2021

Goodbye, Chocolate City

Megan McArdle, Washington Post, August 14, 2021

For more than 50 years, Washington, D.C., was “Chocolate City” — the nation’s first major majority-Black city, a center for Black arts and culture and a hub of Black political power. But that title has officially been erased, new 2020 Census data reveals.

The latest figures show that D.C. residents who identify as White, alone or in combination, now outnumber those who identify at least partly as Black. While every other ethnic group increased in number between 2010 and 2020, the Black population actually fell by almost 10,000.

This is obviously a story about gentrification and the structural economic disadvantages that left many Black families unable to compete with Whiter and more affluent newcomers for a limited supply of housing in the urban core. But the numbers also tell a more complicated story — one that might have had a happier ending if we made different policy choices.

D.C. became majority-Black in 1957, part of a larger national phenomenon that Alan Ehrenhalt has dubbed “the Great Inversion.” Historically, Ehrenhalt notes, the affluent tended to live in urban cores, where everything was conveniently close, pushing less affluent workers to the urban fringe. But American cities abruptly reversed that pattern mid-century.

This “White flight” was partly driven by court-ordered desegregation of housing and schools. But there were other, non-racist reasons that people left for the suburbs. First was a decades-long crime wave. People also liked single-family homes with yards, and cars made it possible to have one while working in the city.

White people, who didn’t face labor market discrimination or the legacy of slavery, got there first. But plenty of Black people wanted houses with yards and disliked crime, too. As the Civil Rights Act increased economic opportunity, D.C.’s Black population peaked in 1970 at 537,712, then began declining. Decades before any significant increase in the city’s White population, nearby Prince George’s County became the wealthiest Black-majority county in the nation.

Some of the departing residents were replaced by Hispanics, owing to an immigration wave in the 1990s. Meanwhile, America’s Great Inversion began to revert as crime fell and young people stayed single longer. Since 2000, Washington’s population increased by more than 20 percent and diversified so that no racial group had a majority.