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Black Wall Street Was a Model For Building Strong Black Towns

Scholar Andre M. Perry looks to the promise of asset-based development in African-American communities that builds on what, and who, is already there.
Historic Images From The American 20th Century

Know Your Price: Valuing Black Lives and Property in America’s Black Cities, by Andre M. Perry, Brookings Institution Press, May 2020, 224 pages.

In 1920, the Greenwood District in Tulsa, Oklahoma was home to a thriving black community. Affectionately known as Black Wall Street, here you could shop for fashionable clothes, eat at high-end restaurants, watch movies at luxurious theaters, and deposit money in reputable banksand all of these businesses were owned by your fellow black neighbors. At a time when Jim Crow was the law of the land, Black Wall Street was a place where black folk could live the American Dream too. 

But in 1921, after a trumped-up charge of rape of a white woman by a resident black man, a mob of white people burned the Greenwood District to the ground. Three hundred people were killed, and 35 city blocks were burned (you can read more about the Tulsa Massacre here). This sordid incident typifies a long history of devaluing black bodies, black businesses, and black homes.

I was thinking about the burning of Black Wall Street as I read Know Your Price: Valuing Black Lives and Property in America’s Black Cities. Author Andre Perry is a fellow in the Metropolitan Policy Program at the Brookings Institution. His book is both a bracing look at the systemic devaluation of black property and a rousing call to empower majority-black communities to build wealth through asset-based development. Perry weaves together quantitative research with personal experiences to consider both the scope of the problem of devaluation and also the best practices for creating (and safeguarding) black wealth.

Systemic Devaluation, Not Culture of Poverty

Perry begins by critiquing so-called culture-of-poverty theories for disparities in black wealth. These theories tend to explicitly or implicitly blame black folk for disparities in wealth that are better explained by pointing to the legacy of explicitly racist policy like  redlining, which artificially limited wealth opportunities for black citizens into the late 1970s and the effects of which are still felt today. In my own conversations with white people, I have heard culture-of-poverty theories packaged in statements like, “white people tend to have higher IQs” (i.e. blacks are poor because we’re dumb) and “white people have a greater work ethic” (i.e. blacks are poor because we’re lazy) and “white people have more intact family structures” (i.e. blacks are poor because of our own moral failings). Personal responsibility matters, of course, but statements like these obfuscate systemic injustices. Perry’s book calls our attention to hard facts about racial biases that better explain black poverty.

One central fact in the book is that black properties (residential and commercial) are consistently valued below their actual market rate by bankers, developers, investment firms, and others. For example, regarding housing, Perry’s research has found that “the value of homes in black-majority neighborhoods across the country is $156 billion lower than their equivalents in similar white neighborhoods.” This research controls for factors such as “neighborhood quality, education, and crime,” which further undermines the culture-of-poverty narrative; this research clearly demonstrates racial bias in valuation. Perry explains that “when societal biases lessen the values on homes in black neighborhoods, residents and communities lose the wealth and revenue to develop themselves as well as the institutions that expand the number of options residents have.” This problem is material and concrete: “Home values drive property taxes, which generates the revenue that helps determine school quality, infrastructure improvements, public safety, and recreation.”

Devalued property tends to lead to higher rates of poverty, and with higher rates of poverty, school quality decreases, crime increasesand property is then further devalued. Because poverty rates or crime rates can stand in as proxies for race, banks, investment firms, and developers can then honestly claim to base their lending and investment decisions on variables other than race, even while the practical consequences of their withholding have disproportionate effects on black communities. This vicious cycle begins not with a “culture of poverty” but rather with very real economic injustices that lead to lost revenue.

The first lesson of Perry’s book, therefore, is for black readers: “knowing the worth of our homes, businesses, and communitiesassetsstarts with knowing that our assets are constantly being devalued.” We cannot accept this devaluation, or internalize messages that ask us to blame ourselves for it. Instead, we need to assert our dignity and worth. Beyond that, Perry wants all readers to recognize that the status quo cannot remain: we need reevaluation that accurately assesses and values black properties. And we also need development, especially financed in the private sector, that can transform impoverished areas into thriving economic districtslike Black Wall Street. But when it comes to this development, there are important pitfalls to avoid.

Against Urban Development

In those instances when the public and private sectors do attempt to aid struggling black communities, such efforts often reflect the ivory-tower ideals of the urban development and urban planning fields. Typically these efforts are technocratic, centralized, and top-down. White planners use white neighborhoods as their starting ideal, and then ask, “how can we make this black community resemble the design plans that our firm has created?”

This model of development typically leads to gentrification: a concentrated influx of capital that does not benefit long-term residents but that attracts new residents who are not attached to the community. The end result is soaring rent prices, leading to the displacement of the long-term residents, the very people the developers were ostensibly trying to help in the first place.

To avoid this pitfall, Perry is adamant that we understand that “places already exist.” Authentic development does not begin with developers imposing their vision onto a place, but rather from developers who get to know a communityits history, its culture, its rhythms of lifeand who leverage this intimate knowledge and the relationships built with key community stakeholders to create an organic vision that is place-specific and that builds on the assets that a community already has.

Perry also exhorts us to tread carefully in terms of the speed of development. The model here is not one of macro-scale transformation through snap-to-grid plans that build penthouses and microbreweries overnight. Instead, Perry writes that “we must restore value iteratively in ways that empower and support those who have committed to the neighborhoods without pricing them out.” Perry notes that “adding value to communities requires community development in the truest sense of the term. We must build up the people in neighborhoods, block by block.” Of course, this requires a model of philanthropy and urban development that is patient, and that has a long-term horizon. Return-on-investment won’t be immediate or dramatic, but patience with the process will yield positive results. The fruit of this slower process of development is sustainable growth that benefits everyone.

Restoring Our View of Black Communities

Lecrae Devaughn Moore (known professionally as Lecrae), is a Grammy award-winning hip-hop artist. As a Christian rapper, his lyrics are often markedly contrary to mainstream rap: he does not celebrate wealth or prestige as markers of success, he eschews gang-affiliated violence or womanizing as sources of masculine identity, and he calls his listeners to cultivate virtue as the path of human flourishing.

Lecrae is also an entrepreneur who respects black hustle and who recognizes that black poverty is often the direct result of devaluation and a lack of critical investments. And that’s why Lecrae is using his platform to invest in black businesses. In  an exclusive interview with Black Enterprise earlier this year, Lecrae explained that he wants to “restore the view the black community has of itself.” Lecrae adds: “We can change the narrative, empower the disenfranchised, and close wealth gaps. We can restore the dignity that was stripped from us.”

Besides running his own record label, Reach Records, Lecrae is also part of an Atlanta startup called Collab Capital, which invests in innovative black businesses in the area, and he is starting to partner with real estate developers to help develop black properties. He also serves on advisory boards, including a school board in a historically impoverished area. Whether through his music or his business ventures, Lecrae invites us to see that “there’s always hope, healing, and restoration available if you seek it.”

Andre Perry’s book underscores the importance of the work that Lecrae is doing to leverage assets and close wealth gaps. And I am deeply encouraged by it. But we desperately need many more people like Lecrae who will participate in this kind of work. We need organizations to fund this work. And we need white allies in the private sector who will speak up about unjust devaluation and who will advocate on our behalf at the bank, the equity firm, and the local council meeting or planning meeting. Together, we can reclaim the legacy of Black Wall Street, and help black-majority communities in places like Detroit, Ferguson, Baltimore, and all throughout America, to experience genuine growth and lasting flourishing.

Anthony M. Barr is a recent graduate of the Templeton Honors College at Eastern University, and a recent Fellow at the Hertog Foundation in DC. He is currently pursuing his MPP at Pepperdine University. Anthony has done research on political theory, education policy, and civic and moral virtue for various nonprofits, businesses, and independent publishing companies.


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