(Credit: Craig Adderley / Pexels)

by Alexa Spencer

It turns out Wakanda — a place full of Black wealth, health, and longevity — isn’t just a place in the Marvel Cinematic Universe. It turns out a place that enables Black folks to thrive actually does exist in real life. 

That’s the finding of a team of researchers who’ve partnered to tell a much different story about Black life expectancy than normally broadcasted: in some places, we’re living nearly a century — and there are good reasons why. 

Dr. Andre Perry, author of the book “Know Your Price: Valuing Black Lives and Property in America’s Black Cities” and a senior fellow at the Brookings Institution, a Washington, D.C.-based public policy nonprofit, says “when we’re talking about Black communities, often we start from an emphasis of deficit — what’s wrong with the Black community.”

He calls this approach problematic because it doesn’t leave room to learn from the positives. 

And most of the time, investment dollars are given to people outside of the community — instead of to community members — to “fix” it. 

But now, the Black Progress Index, produced by Perry and other researchers in partnership with the NAACP, is shifting how problems are solved by mapping out places where Black people are living the longest and highlighting the social conditions likely causing the success. 

Where Are Black People Living the Longest?

After scanning the entire United States, the researchers found that Manassas Park, Virginia, a city of roughly 17,000 located 30 miles southwest of Washington, D.C., and Weld County, Colorado, a metropolitan area just north of Denver that’s home to 378,000 people, ranked highest with life expectancies of 96-years-old. 

Black folks in those communities are living well past the national average of 74-years-old. 

The same can be said for Loudoun, Fairfax, Prince William, and Montgomery counties in Virginia — all located outside of Washington, D.C. — where Black residents are living up to 82-years-old, on average. 

Coined as “Chocolate City,” D.C. has historically had a large Black population — making up 45% of the district’s population as of 2021. 

“If there is a Wakanda in the United States, it’s the DMV,” or the District of Columbia-Maryland-Virginia corridor, Perry says. 

“You have places in Maryland and Virginia, in particular, where Black people are thriving. They’re walking around with Air Jordans. They got the nice, fancy job. They own the homes. They’re living the life, and they’re living longer,” he says. 

What’s Causing Black People to Live Longer in Some Places? 

According to the Index, when certain social conditions — homeownership, business ownership, high income, public school performance, college education — are active in a community, Black people are more likely to live longer. 

Additionally, when Black children live in homes with a father present, life expectancy is predicted to be higher for their community.  

Educational attainment matters too. In Montgomery County, Maryland, for example, 45% of Black people hold a bachelor’s degree or higher. The Index predicts that this adds one year to the community’s life expectancy. 

The area around Montgomery County is surrounded by HBCUs, which are proven to have positive health effects on attendees, including a lower risk for chronic disease later in life. 

Perry says HBCUs “represent anchor institutions that are invested in Black people” and this contributes to the percentage of Black people obtaining college degrees in the DMV and other places, like Atlanta. 

Further, reformers should look at this model of higher education as a solution to bettering the quality of life for Black people. 

“We may not be able to put HBCUs in every place, but we can certainly make colleges and universities as comforting as an HBCU,” Perry says. 

Just south of Montgomery County is Prince George’s County — where the Black homeownership rate is 61% — compared to a national average for Black people of 45%.

The Index predicts that homeownership in the community adds half a year to the local life expectancy. Other positive factors, such as having a high income, also contribute to the life expectancy boost.  

What Takes Away From Black Life Expectancy?

On the flip side, Perry and his team identified social conditions that don’t help Black people thrive.

“We also found some negative correlates with life expectancy, some of which you wouldn’t be surprised of: air pollution, density, gun-related fatalities,” he says. 

In Hinds County, where Jackson, Mississippi sits, Black youth struggle to meet or exceed education standards. Just 19% of its public school students are at or above proficiency on state math exams. 

Perry says more should be expected of communities like the majority-Black Jackson, but the issue isn’t the community itself. 

The problem is in “the way we invest in systems in general in Jackson, Mississippi.”

“Some of this is apparent in the Jackson water crisis,” he says. 

What’s Next for the Black Progress Index? 

Given that the project is an ongoing collaboration between Brookings and the NAACP, Perry says the team will update the data annually. They’re also considering creating surveys where Black people can share what’s important in their lives. 

“I think that this is going to be one of the go-to sources to understand the conditions of Black America moving forward,” Perry says. 

To view your county’s life expectancy and learn how your community is ranking in homeownership, education, and other social factors, visit https://www.brookings.edu/interactives/black-progress-index/.

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