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Maretta McDonald on Wealth Inequality and Housing Values of Black Meccas in the New South

  • Maretta McDonald
  • February 23 2024
  • PC138-2024

Maretta McDonald
Maretta McDonald

Black Meccas are cities where it appears that Black communities thrive more-so than other places in the United States. However, the housing values of Black-owned properties in these areas are substantially lower compared to their white counterparts, revealing the presence of wealth inequality even in cities where Black people are thought to experience better overall economic well-being. In this episode, Dr. Maretta McDonald discusses her recent co-authored paper “Wealth Matters: Home Ownership, Housing Values, and the Model Minority Myth of Black Meccas in the New South.”

Maretta McDonald is a 2022-2024 IRP National Poverty Fellow and an Affiliate Faculty of Sociology at Virginia Tech. Her teaching and research focus on racial inequality, criminology, family, gender, and public policy.

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Taylor [00:00:04]  Hello, and thanks for joining us for the Poverty Research and Policy podcast from the Institute for Research on Poverty at the University of Wisconsin-Madison. I’m Nateya Taylor for this episode, we are going to be talking with Dr. Maretta McDonald about the paper she coauthored titled “Wealth Matters Home Ownership, Housing Values, and the Model Minority Myth of Black Meccas in the New South. “Maretta McDonald is a 2022-2024 IRP National Poverty Fellow and an affiliate Faculty of Sociology at Virginia Tech. Her teaching and research focus on racial inequality, criminology, family, gender, and public policy. Maretta, thanks for joining us today.

McDonald [00:00:43] Thank you. I’m really happy to be here with you.

Taylor [00:00:46] So your paper is about Black Meccas in a new South. Can you define what Black Meccas are and what is the new South?

McDonald [00:00:53] So Black Meccas can be defined as places where, it is assumed or it appears that Black people can thrive in ways that are like a lot different from other parts of the country or in other points in American history. So like when we think of a Black Mecca, historically, we could think about Harlem, right? Harlem was designated maybe it’s the first Black Mecca, and it was because there were Black people of affluence, of the elites live there. There was a lot of culture, a lot of jobs there. And so Black people were thriving in this community in a different way, because that’s where the emergence of the Black Renaissance was and things like that. And so we think of environments where like the possibilities are so rich for Black people. It’s a place that if all Black people could go there and live there, they would be doing well. When we think of the New South, though, the new South is the region. We’re talking about a reverse migration, because when we think of the Great Migration, people moved out of the South into the North from opportunities. But there is this new migration back to the South, where there are a lot of opportunities for home ownership at a lower rate and things like that. Like a lot of people move to the South and end up like, buying what they would consider a mansion in the South compared to what they would pay for a condo, maybe in a larger city in the North. The new South is just cities in the South, and we think about in that form of the reverse migration.

Taylor [00:02:49] So thank you for explaining what Black Meccas are. Can you talk more about how did Black Meccas come into existence, and where did the term come from?

McDonald [00:03:00] The term Black Meccas, a lot of people say that, Philip A. Payton who was a real estate agent in Harlem, may have come up with the term that was to refer to Harlem. And it was supposed to be designed as this new birth for the, for Black people at that time, or as a sanctuary or a capital for Black people. And when we think of a real Mecca, we’re thinking about a place that’s considered like a holy land, right? Present day Saudi Arabia is where Mecca is. And so it’s supposed to be a holy city. And it’s also a place where a group activity or interest is centered and like the birthplace of that. So when we think of a Black Mecca, we’re thinking of like, a sanctuary, a birthplace of culture, a birthplace of Black prosperity. And so in that way, Harlem has been one. But as time goes on and what they wanted to, use the term, they started looking at other cities where they felt like Black people also prosper. The term itself came about when we as Black people, during the late 1800s, early 1900s, were looking for a sanctuary and a place that we could be fully, wholly Black.

Taylor [00:04:21] So you already mentioned Harlem as an example of a Black Mecca. Can you give some examples of other cities that have been categorized as Black Meccas, and what characteristics in particular do these cities have to earn that title?

McDonald [00:04:38] So when I think of other cities, you automatically think of maybe Chicago. And so the characteristics of those cities were a large, thriving Black population. Thriving Black middle class and elite, and, social organizations to support them. Right. They make higher incomes than in other places in the country and things like that. In my, study, I just focused on cities in the South that have been characterized as Black Meccas. So in the study, I looked at Houston, New Orleans, Memphis, Birmingham, Tampa, Florida, and of course, Atlanta, of course, Atlanta. Atlanta, like right now, has been seen as a Black Mecca for a while. People are moving to Atlanta. There’s thriving Black cultural spaces in Atlanta. That’s where a lot of Black elites live. Large Black businesses like movie studios and things like that. Because these cities were considered cities that had favorable industries and in migration from other regions of the country, and they felt like Black people were thriving more there.

Taylor [00:05:56] So in the paper you include literature from scholars who believe Black Meccas are an illusion. Can you explain why some scholars believe that?

McDonald [00:06:06] Yes. So when you think about. Black people as a group. You always hear this saying we’re not a monolith. We are different across Blackness, right? Even though we’re all Black. Share a common struggle of dealing with racism and discrimination, even at different levels. There are also different groups within the Black existence. So when you think about Black Meccas on their own and the prosperity of Black people in these places, we are only thinking about the middle class and elites in these places. Right? And how they compare to white people in those areas. But what we’re not interrogating is working class and poor people in their areas, right? So how are they faring in those same areas? So every Black person is an elevated and just a certain group is elevated in this place. Is it truly a Black Mecca? You know, if only the middle class is doing well, but the, working class is still making minimum wage in those areas, which is not a living wage. Then is it truly a Black Mecca? And those are some of the things that they are talking about. They also talk about residential segregation. So are cities still highly segregated? They talk about, are we fully engaged in the political system in these places? We need to interrogate how all Black people are doing there just not a select group. And that’s why a lot of scholars say that this whole Black Mecca places that Black people, all Black people, can do well at, can seem like a myth or an illusion.

Taylor [00:07:56] With the claim that Black Meccas are an illusion. You discuss three frameworks to help understand Black Meccas: respectability politics, the myth of meritocracy and the model minority myth. Can you explain what each of these frameworks are in how they help us understand Black Meccas.

McDonald [00:08:14]  So when we think about the idea of Black people doing well in society, a lot of times it’s couched in these conversations of how well they are adjacent to what the rules are of a person or a group that can do well in society. Right. So when we talk about the politics of respectability, which is a concept from Evelyn Brooks Higginbotham, the Black Baptist Church women in the early 1900s, they came together to devise a strategy so that Black women would not be as disrespected within society or as degraded. So they put together these rules that say, if you do act this way, then you are more likely to be accepted. So if you ascribe to cleanliness, being a saver, not a spender, not doing any kind of alcohol and being outside loud. Make sure your children are always well kept and that you’re working and you’re putting it into society and being polite to everyone that you meet, then that should shift the way white people see us, right? At that time, they had to devise some kind of strategy. So this was like a basically a social movement to try to internally figure out how to make ourselves more acceptable. The politics of respectability basically turned into respectability politics is that if you got to act a certain way, look a certain way, and talk a certain way to be accepted in society. And when we think about the myth of meritocracy. One of the big things we talk about in the ideology of the United States is that we are all individuals. If you work really, really hard, you can make it. All you gotta do is follow the the linear path to success, get your education, get married, get a job, and then everything will be fine. And part of meritocracy is that the best people with the best talents are the ones that are prospering, and the hardest workers are the ones that prosper. But if you interrogate this critically, we’ll see that the ones who started higher are the ones that ended up higher. And it’s a lot harder for you to leave a poor, background and end up as a CEO, right? And I have not seen anyone work any harder than people that do manual labor. They work hard all day, every day, and but they are no closer to being a millionaire. When you think about the model minority, especially when you think how society thinks differently about an American born Black person, than a foreign born Black person, right? So Black ethnicity matters and understanding so-called Black Meccas. There are certain races and ethnicities that in the hierarchy, of, of race in our country that are thought of as better, not white, but better. So at the bottom in United States society is American born Black people. But then there are Black people with different ethnicities that come from maybe the Caribbean. They come from the African continent or even from Europe. Right. And often white people assume that they are culturally different. Therefore they work harder and they aren’t as likely to have all these bad cultural habits that are assumed that Black people have. Right. And so this model minority myth would also have a factor in, whether the Black people, as we say, is a group that’s very diverse. If certain groups of Black people are doing better than other groups of Black people in, especially in areas where all Black people are expected to be doing better. If you have a lot more of your attributes that are considered model like, yes, this person went and got a college degree. This person works a white collar job, so you are not like the others. You’re not like the rest of the Black people. You are not like the rest of the Latinx community. You are a model of your minority, right? And so if you do all of these things, you should prosper, right? So when we think about how Black Meccas work and how we talk about that in Black Meccas, middle class people are doing so much better and they’re doing as well as white people in these areas that we also have to look at. Okay. You said that if we did these certain things right, if we get our education, if we get married, and if we behave in a certain way, we are equal. And I’ll have the same advantages as you. And so if we don’t look at that, we miss critically interrogating. Some of the things that we are taught in our society. And if we don’t interrogate it we can’t push back, right. So, those are the things that we wanted to look at when we talked about Black Meccas is okay. How are Black Meccas actually good for everyone? And how true are these things that society says makes us all equal if we do everything that you say? The way you say it, we should be doing just as well as the white people in our society, right? And so we use this theoretical lens in order to try to talk about how things we were taught aren’t necessarily true when we talk about certain groups. So when we talk about Black people and the idea of doing everything we’re supposed to do to be successful, is it actually enough to get us to the same place that white people are?

Taylor [00:14:45] So also included in the paper was a study measuring the economic well-being of Black Meccas. Can you explain how you conducted the study.

McDonald [00:14:55] In order to interrogate this we looked at one of the things that is supposed to be also other than education an equalizer and that society, right, which is home ownership. And so you would assume that people of the same, educational background, the same earning capacity. Right? The same family structure should be able to have houses that are of the same value. Because if I got my education, I got married and I started my family and I did these other things that are supposed to make me a raving example of an individual in the United States, then everything should be all equal. And the reason that is not is because someone’s lazy or someone didn’t value education is what we’re told. And so we use housing values as a way to look at that, right, to see if we, you do all these things that we say that you’re supposed to do in society as a Black person, at the same rate that, a white person does, then we should be equal. So our first, hypothesis is based on the fact that we believe that meritocracy is a myth. And that the model minority myth and part of respectability are not enough to combat racism. Our hypotheses are that Black households and southern Black Meccas have lower housing values than their white counterparts. So what we did was we took our data and we looked at Black Americans and we looked at, their household demographic characteristics, like whether they had a bachelor’s degree or not, whether it was a female headed household, what was the age of the head of household, the housing value itself? So whether you have a bachelor’s degree or not, looks at that, respectability politics and looks at the myth of meritocracy, whether you’re married, looks at that, the politics of respectability. Because if you’re respectable, then you’re married, right? Also, we look at whether it’s a female headed household, because if it’s a female head of household, then you’re not as respectable, right? Because the husband is supposed to be in charge. And so then we look at the age of the head of household, because we think of older heads of households that means they did things right. They got their education, then they got married. So we use those to look at how Black people versus white people are doing in these Black Meccas. And we did it over time. We looked at 1990, 2000, 2005, 2010 and 2016. All of them are ten years apart, except for 2005 and 2016, because that was the most recent data we had when we did this paper was the 2016 data and we did 2005 because that was around the time of the Great Recession, and 2010 was around the time when they say we should have recovered from the Great Recession. And so what we looked at was the ratio between Black households and white households, housing values and homeownership. And then we controlled for all of these other factors that we talked about age and gender, black ethnicity, education. And then that’s how we got our results to see if there was a difference between white households and Black households in their housing values. After controlling for these things that are supposed to make a difference. When we talk about, whether, individual in America is prosperous or not.

Taylor [00:19:00] So after conducting that analysis, what conclusions did you come up with about Black Meccas?

McDonald [00:19:08] Well, we came up with that Black Meccas are not the panacea or the fix it for Black oppression and that, there is a relationship between race, place and class, right? We expected that there would be this variation in housing values across race that couldn’t be explained by factors that are promoted as this direct pass from poverty to affluence, like college education or building up their families to marriage. So we found that race, though, continues to be the factor in these values of homes, regardless if Black as a group, whether they adhere to all of the things that we are told, like being married or getting your education. In the study, we looked at each city individually across the different time frames that I gave you, showing that in each of these cities, there’s a wide gap between the housing values of married, white middle class households and married Black middle class, college educated households. So overall, when we looked at education, there was still a big gap, whether you had a college education or not. For black households of about $16,000. So that doesn’t close the gap. And Atlanta, there is a roughly 60% gap between Black and white House and values. So Black houses are worth 60% of what white houses are worth if they are situated the same. In Alabama we found that there is about a 57%, ratio, which means that Black houses are worth about 57% of what a white House is worth, and Houston is about 63%, and Memphis is about 65%. New Orleans, which was one of the worst. It’s about 67%. The best place in housing values is actually Tampa, Florida, with like 80%. If, the same house for a Black person is worth $80,000, it’s worth like $100,000 for white people. So not only does the middle class that we say are are actually the ones doing better in these places, are lagging behind white people in these Meccas that you have to imagine, how the Black people who have relatively low socioeconomic status and power or lower, asset ownership are doing in these places. And so that was very interesting to me to find that even over time, even though the gaps got a little bit smaller. After the recession and then got wider again as time went on. Right. We still see that regardless of if you go to school the way you say that you should get married and start a family like you should. Racism still has an effect on the ability to amass wealth, which is what a house does it’s like your first entry into the ability to amass wealth. And we always talk about the wealth gap, when we talk about between Black and white people, because it means so much for social mobility and the future of our families. Right? And so racism still impacts this most central idea of home ownership in the United States, even in places where Black people are said to be doing better than in other places.

Taylor [00:23:13] So now that we know these results, what further research or solutions do you suggest would help bridge the wealth gap and improve the economic well-being of people living in Black Meccas, or Black people in general?

McDonald [00:23:29] Some of the future research that I wanted to do on this specifically was to not just look at housing values, but next to look at like the school districts in those areas, right. And see if how education, because we know that education is also segregated, and there’s different levels of education that different groups receive based on their racial stats. So in these places that are considered Black Meccas is and where this middle class is putting in their tax base for better schools, are they are the schools actually better? You know, how is the education system in that area too? That’s another aspect of this because that means a difference also for wealth, right? When we talk about even though we know from this study that getting your college education, your home may still be less than a white person, but we also see that they actually there is a higher level of home ownership in these areas as well. So some homeownership may be better than no homeownership. And so if we talk about the education part as well, to help show how even though that racism impacts this thing, that’s also supposed to be a level setter. So we hear with this education and we need to get higher. In order to get to the university and make more money for ourselves if the education level doesn’t help set you up for to be prosperous there. Then people fall out of the middle class all the time, right? And so what’s one of the things that I also want to look at is how the education system is impacted in these areas with, large and Black middle classes. But when it comes about the wealth gap in general, there are a lot of scholars doing a lot of good work about what reparations would look like about these, what baby bonds would do. And so I don’t have a solution. I think we probably have to look at to those scholars, my part in this and the research that Dr. Martin and I did with this paper, was to interrogate these places that people are saying Black people are doing so much better. But and so, yes, they may be doing better than their counterparts in other places, but we still are lagging behind white people because of racism. So racism still exists in these areas even when we are doing well. And so how do we address this in Black Meccas? I say improving the minimum wage in those areas to give people a living wage. And also interrogating our attachment to extreme capitalism. But other than that, we have to look at the Sandy Darity’s and economist to try to get some solutions.

Taylor [00:26:33] Well, Maretta, thank you so much for joining me today and talking about your research. It was very insightful and I enjoyed learning more about what you studied with Black Meccas.

McDonald [00:26:45] Thank you so much for having me. I really enjoy talking about this.

Taylor [00:26:49] Thanks so much to Dr. Maretta McDonald. She joined us to discuss the article she coauthored. “Wealth matters. Home Ownership, Housing Values and the Model Minority Myth of Black Meccas in the New South.” You can find a link to the article in the program notes for this episode. The production of this podcast was supported in part by funding from the US Department of Health and Human Services. Office of the Assistant Secretary for Planning and Evaluation. But views expressed by our speakers don’t necessarily represent the opinions or policies of that office or of any other sponsor, including the University of Wisconsin, Madison. Music for the episode is by 808xri. Thanks for listening.


Economic Support, Economic Support General, Housing, Housing General, Inequality & Mobility, Place, Place General, Racial/Ethnic Inequality, Wealth