During the second presidential debate, Donald Trump was asked whether he could be a president to “all the people in the United States.” He had a very specific answer: “I would be a president for all of the people, African Americans, the inner cities,” he replied. Later in the debate, he spoke again of how he was going to help “the African Americans,” who lived in “inner cities,” suffering from high poverty rates, bad educational systems, and no jobs.
There might have been a time when conflating inner cities and African Americans was appropriate shorthand, but it’s just not accurate anymore. The majority of African Americans are living both above the poverty line and outside of the inner cities, rendering Trump’s comments misleading and factually inaccurate.
Elizabeth Kneebone, a fellow at the Metropolitan Policy Program at the Brookings Institution, looked at numbers from the 2010 to 2014 American Community Survey and found that 39 percent of African Americans live in the suburbs, 36 percent live in cities, 15 percent live in small metropolitan areas, and 10 percent live in rural communities. That’s a noticeable shift from 2000, when 41 percent of African Americans lived in cities, 33 percent lived in suburbs, 15 percent lived in small metro areas, and 11 percent lived in rural communities.
There was a time when even more African Americans lived in urban areas: After the Great Migration, many blacks moved north for job opportunities. They were relegated to urban cores because they weren’t allowed to live anywhere else; policies such as redlining meant that they could only buy homes in certain neighborhoods, usually the places whites no longer wanted to live. In 1990, 57 percent of blacks lived in central cities, and 95 percent of blacks in the Northeast, Midwest, and West lived in metropolitan areas, according to Census data.
That has slowly been changing. Today, the majority—52 percent— of African Americans in the nation’s top 100 metro areas live in the suburbs of those regions, according to Kneebone. In 2000, the majority— 55 percent—of African Americans in the 100 largest metro areas lived in the big cities that anchor those regions.
There are plenty of reasons that the distribution of where African Americans live has changed. As Millennials and Baby Boomers move back to urban cores, they’re pushing out longtime African American residents. Often, those residents end up in inner ring suburbs, where housing is cheaper, but where there are fewer services and opportunities for employment.
Many middle-class African Americans, priced out of cities such as San Francisco and New York, are moving to Sun Belt areas such as Phoenix and San Antonio. Between 2010 and 2015, the black population of the Phoenix-Mesa-Scottsdale metropolitan area grew 17.9 percent. The black population of the San Antonio metropolitan area also grew 17.9 percent, according to Aaron Renn, a senior fellow at the Manhattan Institute. Among the other fastest-growing cities for African Americans were Austin, Orlando, Las Vegas, Seattle, Minneapolis, and Dallas. Cities such as Detroit, Chicago, San Francisco, and Cleveland were the cities that lost the highest share of the black population between 2010 and 2015. Renn and other scholars call this “The Great Remigration.”
“Much like the white population who moved to suburbs in search of the American dream: the white picket fence, better schools, no surprise; black families want to own a home and have good schools too,” Renn said. “They’re often choosing to live in suburban environments.”
To be sure, just because African Americans live in the suburbs doesn’t mean they’re no longer poor; as Kneebone has written about, suburban poverty is a growing problem. But it’s important to note that the majority of African Americans aren’t living in poverty today, either. Nationally, 27 percent of African Americans are living in poverty. That’s still very high, compared to the overall poverty rate of 14.8 percent, but it also means that 73 percent of African Americans live above the poverty line. In suburbs, the poverty rate for African Americans is even lower, according to Kneebone: 20 percent.
It’s possible that Trump was referring to African Americans living in areas of concentrated poverty, and according to Kneebone, 13 percent of the nation’s African American population lived in a neighborhood with a poverty rate of at least 40 percent. But only 8 percent of African Americans lived in an area of concentrated poverty located in a big city. In fact, there is no city with a population of more than 50,000 that has poverty rate over 45 percent, Kneebone says.
Of course, Trump’s inaccurate characterization doesn’t mean that inequality, especially when it comes to income and poverty, doesn’t exist. America has a long way to go before a person’s race doesn’t predict where she may fall on on important economic measures. And anyone who is going to be president for “all the people” will have to address the legacy of racism that has led to African Americans lagging behind whites in that regard. But trying to help African Americans by just looking at the inner cities would miss whole swaths of the population: people living in poverty in the suburbs, people living in the South, where the safety net has all but disappeared, people struggling to remain in the middle class. Focusing on those categories of people could help African Americans, and other Americans too.
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