OPINION: Black mecca more a work in progress than a promised land

The article traced the movement of Black people to the South from the 1990s to the present. These were middle-class people, driven by economic decisions. Some had jobs or hoped they would find them in a thriving economy. Some wanted affordable housing and to build the kind of generational wealth that eluded their parents and grandparents because of redlining and discriminatory housing practices.

While these Black Americans found large concentrations of Black residents in cities like Atlanta, Charlotte and Dallas, none of them felt like they were living in a promised land.

My parents moved from the South to Chicago at the end of the first Great Migration in the 1960s. About 40 years later, I left Chicago for good. By the time I arrived in Atlanta in 2006, I had lived in every region of the country.

When you look at Black migration patterns over the past 50 years, Atlanta does appear to be a mecca. From the late 1980s to 2010, Georgia led all states in Black migration gains, according to data from the Brookings Institute.

But despite claims of this reverse migration, Pew Center Research shows the total percentage of the Black population living in the South has remained within a few percentage points of 55% in each decade from 1970 to 2010.

When I moved here, I didn’t realize that I was part of the so-called reverse migration. I didn’t think I was searching for a mecca, but maybe I was. I wanted to be in a place where I could build a career, buy a home and maybe experience the same upward mobility my parents found when they moved North.

In Atlanta metro, an income between $48,000 and $141,000 qualifies as middle-class status but that doesn’t factor other things like personal debt, career opportunities and investments, which all have a hand in determining actual wealth. It also doesn’t measure social or intellectual capital which might also help someone get a foothold in the middle class.

Still, if most of the Black people migrating to Atlanta are middle class, and if Atlanta is the Black mecca, why does the metro area rank highest in the nation for income inequality? Why is the rate of homeownership for Black residents declining? Why does Black upward mobility in Atlanta feel more like a treadmill than a ladder?

What has happened to Atlanta’s Black middle class?

By the 2010s, when Black migration to Atlanta began to decline, 87% of Black residents in the metro area lived in the suburbs, said Todd Michney, associate professor in the School of History and Sociology at Georgia Institute of Technology and author of “Surrogate Suburbs: Black Upward Mobility and Neighborhood Change in Cleveland, 1900-1980.″

“There is something about suburbanization that disconnects people ... from a more face-to-face community,” Michney said. Middle-class Blacks who reside in the suburbs may feel a sense of success even if they are one paycheck away from poverty or homelessness and the lack of an urban core may reduce the traditional sense of community that often comes with prescriptive behaviors. But the same disparities in health, housing and wealth that plague the city also exist in suburbs which don’t have the same resources as large cities to tackle those issues, he said.

Homeownership has traditionally been a primary pathway to a middle-class existence but homeownership rates in Atlanta are on the decline. For Black residents, the legacy of redlining, low incomes and lack of financing made it more difficult for them to achieve the same gains from housing as other residents, Michney said.

“Housing is the most valuable asset that Americans own,” Michney said. “Whenever we seem like we are within range of adjusting it so that it is fairer in terms of access, something comes along to exacerbate the situation.”

The homeownership gap between Black residents and other residents was at its lowest in 1980, according to data from the Atlanta Regional Commission. The gap widened dramatically during the ‘80s, then narrowed for several decades before stalling in the 2010s.

Housing is only part of what determines Black middle classdom in a unique city like Atlanta, said Maurice Hobson, associate professor of African American studies at Georgia State University and the author of “The Legend of the Black Mecca: Politics and Class in the Making of Modern Atlanta.”

A hub of Historically Black Colleges and Universities, a fertile environment for Black businesses that largely benefitted from the city’s segregation, several decades of Black political empowerment and, more recently, the city’s Black expressive culture, have all boosted the city’s legacy as the Black mecca, Hobson said.

But that may not be enough to stabilize an influx of Black migrants seeking a middle-class lifestyle, particularly if they haven’t already achieved that lifestyle or if their middle-class standing is tenuous.

The goal should be to have political power to change the condition of your life , Hobson said, and have some money in your pocket to create generational wealth.

In the future, we may have to expand our understanding of what a Black mecca is, he said. “Maynard Jackson and Andrew Young helped it gain traction in meaningful ways, but Atlanta has been struggling since then,” Hobson said. “Atlanta is an ever-changing city and it still is not who it is going to be.”

That Black people have spent 100 years searching for a Black mecca says something about just how elusive it must be. Black Americans have operated under the illusion that a single city has the power to overcome pervasive structural inequalities. Leaving those problems unaddressed means there may never be a true Black mecca.

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