Chocolate City? Not anymore.

That’s because while the District of Columbia’s overall population has grown for the first time in 60 years, the city’s Black population has shrunk, putting the nation’s capital on track to lose its long-held status as a majority Black city—if it hasn’t happened already.

That’s the conclusion being reached by demographers and others in the wake of recently-released U.S. Census figures that show while the city’s overall population increased by more than 29,600 to a total of 601,723 – a 5.2 percent increase from 2000 – the percentage of the Black population in D.C. has dropped from 60 percent in 2000 to 50.7 in 2010. The city’s White population grew by 31.4 percent, from 30.8 to 38.5 percent, during the same period.

“It’s happening faster than we expected,” said Benjamin Orr, a research analyst with the Greater Washington Research at The Brookings Institution, a District-based nonprofit policy organization, in reference to the ongoing decrease in the percentage of Black Washingtonians.

Before the District’s census figures were released in late March, Orr predicted that the Black population in D.C. would lose its majority status by 2014.

“But with this new information,” he said, “it’s probably happening sooner than that, because we’re right at 50 percent in 2010…and the trend is downward, so it’s probably happening now.”

Orr said he couldn’t state with certainty what is driving the trend, but that the Greater Washington Research project that he is a part of will be examining the matter in the coming months. However, Orr speculated that the trend was being driven largely by government and private sector jobs that are attracting more college-educated individuals to D.C. from throughout the United States.

Census figures show that 18.1 and 21 percent of Washingtonians held bachelor’s and graduate degrees, respectively, in 2000, versus 20.8 and 26.4 in 2009, the latest year for which data is available.

“I think the fact that the District has gained population for the first time in a long time is a strong indication that it is becoming more attractive to more people as a place to live, work and play,” Orr said. “As it becomes more attractive to people, households with a higher income are moving back into the District.”

As more college-educated individuals move in, more poorer people are evidently being pushed out, which in turn impacts the racial makeup of the city, Orr said. Specifically, figures show the population in the District’s predominantly Black Wards 7 and 8, the poorest in the District, rose only 0.8 percent and dropped .3 percent, respectively, over the past decade. At the same time, the predominantly White Wards 2 and 6, which entail the more costly areas of downtown D.C. and Capitol Hill, grew by 16 and 12.6 percent, respectively.

“It’s a cascading effect, where high income households are coming in, displacing medium-income households, and medium-income households displace lower-income,” Orr said.

Gloria Hightower, 53, a native Washingtonian and co-founder of the Friends of Carter Barron Foundation for the Performing Arts, said the trend represents a long-anticipated outcome that shows how the “Black empowerment” agenda never reached its potential.

But she also cited multigenerational lack of educational attainment in D.C.’s Black community as a reason why many African Americans are unable to escape poverty or near-poverty and are now being pushed out of the District.

“At one time, when you got out of high school, you could transition immediately into federal or D.C. government, or go straight into the post office,” Hightower said. But those days are long gone, she said, and more of an emphasis needs to be placed on post-secondary education in the Black community for African Americans to have a better shot at getting the better-paying jobs of today’s economy.

While D.C. is becoming less Black and more White, it is also becoming more diverse. Census figures show that from 2000 to 2010, the city’s Hispanic population grew by 21.8 percent, from 7.9 to 9.1 percent; and that the Asian population grew by 38.6 percent, from 2.7 to 3.5 percent of the population.

D.C. Mayor Vincent Gray and D.C. Council Chairman Kwame Brown both said the fact that the city is becoming more diverse is a welcome development but also said more needs to be done to make Wards 7 and 8 more attractive.

“The real question is: How do we make sure that areas in Ward 7 and Ward 8 see economic prosperity?” Brown said in an interview with the AFRO.

He listed a number of development projects in those wards – such as The Lincoln Heights/Richardson Dwellings New Community Revitalization Plan and the planned Skyland Town Center redevelopment initiative in Ward 7, and the Department of Homeland Security headquarters construction project in Ward 8 – that he said he hoped would accomplish those ends.

“We still have a lot of opportunities to create economic parity in the city,” Chairman Brown said.


Jamaal Abdul-Alim

Special to the AFRO