Ferguson, Missouri
People gather in the lobby of a new community empowerment center in Ferguson, Missouri, following a dedication ceremony for the building in July. The $3 million center was built on the property where a QuikTrip convenience store was burned during rioting after a white officer fatally shot Michael Brown in August 2014. Jeff Roberson/AP

Some urbanists believe large cities should subsume the small black cities in their orbit. But that won’t erase a legacy of discrimination.

Can less populated cities on the outskirts of larger metropolitan areas be too small to succeed? Are urban municipalities with fewer than 100,000 people vestiges of a bygone era? Should small “inner-ring” cities even exist? These questions are being posed with greater frequency across the country.

“Merger with the central city is an option more physically contiguous inner-ring suburbs should consider,” writes Aaron Renn, a researcher at the Manhattan Institute for Policy Research. Journalist Eduardo Porter, commenting on small cities’ struggles to adapt to economic shifts, writes, “As technology continues to make inroads into the economy … it bodes ill for the future of such areas.”

There seems to be a general consensus that large cities should become larger, subsuming smaller cities that would otherwise die on the vine. But small cities’ presumed inabilities to adapt don’t fully explain why some majority-black towns struggle. When CityLab’s Brentin Mock presented “the case for saving the small black city,” his spotlight on my hometown of Wilkinsburg, Pennsylvania, underscored that black cities’ existence has always been in question.

We’ve witnessed white communities brazenly resist black economic growth. In 1921, white mobs burned down the section of Tulsa known as “Black Wall Street” after falsely accusing an African American of raping a white woman. Two years later, hundreds of white vigilantes pillaged and burned Rosewood, a black town in North Florida, again based on fake rape allegations.

If small black cities did merge with larger cities, the attitudes that inspired past and present discrimination and redlining wouldn’t magically disappear. Given the clusters of black poverty in big cities, what protection or opportunity does a merger really provide?

To paraphrase what I said in Mock’s article, I don’t think every town is destined to exist forever. But small black cities deserve to exist because racism and classism don’t deserve to.

There are more than 1,200 majority-black (>50 percent) places in the United States. Most of these (721) are rural towns that have populations smaller than 2,500, according to 2015 ACS demographic and housing estimates. There are roughly 500 majority-black cities with populations from 2,500 up to 50,000, and 42 “chocolate cities” with populations of more than 50,000. These cities and towns are displayed on the following map (there are no majority-black American cities or towns outside of the continental U.S.). Some of these cities are thriving. Others, like Wilkinsburg, Ferguson, Missouri, and East Cleveland, are not.

(Brookings Institution)

Civic, economic, and social improvement should be the basis of municipal mergers and incorporations. The notion that majority-black cities should simply move with economic currents doesn’t hold water. The irrationality of racism precludes the notion of urban growth resulting from rational choices. Racism closes doors of true innovation and inclusive growth. Progress for a city can’t be gained if its residents aren’t authentically respected. Building on the assets in majority-black cities is an approach that we have yet to try.

Making a case for black cities isn’t about looking at them as glasses that are half full, though half-empty perspectives have wreaked havoc on black communities. Devaluing black lives led to redlining and other racist policies that lowered investment prospects and the monetary values of homes in black neighborhoods. Those undervalued housing prices in black hoods become attractive to investors. However, correcting for redlining with gentrification isn’t a solution. Gentrifying or merging our way to better city outcomes can be as preposterous as jailing significant portions of the black community in order to make it safer.

Black leadership, labor, intellectualism, and culture are assets worth preserving for combating racism. But if we don’t invest in those resources, our “solutions” will inevitably result only in making chocolate cities less black, or turning them into “cappuccino cities,” as Derek Hyra puts it. Consequently, a community’s right to exist is an a priori condition for understanding how to improve a place. The demand for existence is what urban planners can learn from the Black Lives Matter movement.

Making black cities matter is a social justice test that urban planners must pass. The case for saving small black cities must be made in order to learn what growth really means. Otherwise, we’ll never learn how to eliminate inequality from our current growth models.

Andre Perry, a Rubenstein Fellow at the Brookings Institution, recently launched a series of studies on majority-black cities in the U.S. Collectively, these analyses respond to the questions: How are black cities doing? How does the concentration of black people impact municipal expenditures and investments? What are the strengths of black cities and how can we make them more resilient? Based on the findings, Perry and Brookings will work with specific communities to draft strategies to form an agenda for black cities.

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