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What’s going right about Black life? The Black Progress Index tells us what, where, and how

Explore a new Brookings Institution/NAACP data tool showing where Black people are living well, so we can learn how to do that everywhere

Angie Baeten, left, V'asiah Joseph, center, and Patrice Williams, co-owners of Amonie Jo's, an organic coffee shop, in Winter Haven, Florida, pose for a photo. The Black Progress Index found Black entrepreneurship to be a key predictor of well-being and longevity in a community.Ernst Peters/Associated Press

Black people represent about 14% of the population and more than 60% of gun homicide victims. These statistics are undoubtedly disturbing, and there’s no shortage of commentating on them. However, politicians, news commentators, and everyday people lay blame on one thing: Black people.

But what about Black-on-Black crime?” Within this common retort, there is a belief that violent crime is mostly about personal responsibility, not other conditions created by irresponsible policymakers. Even the Black people who are looking for policy changes are blamed.

“If Black lives matter, then the thousands of people I saw on the street when [George] Floyd was murdered should be on the streets right now,” said New York City Mayor Eric Adams when speaking to TV station NY1 about subway shooter Frank James, as well as other violent crime incidents. Adams continued, “We can’t be hypocrites.”

Yes, we do need to have conversations about murder, as well as discussions about other worse outcomes for Black people. However, without a firm grounding in objective truths, organizers, politicians, and philanthropists will slip and slide on speculation, myths, hashtags, and slogans. And if we are truly seeking policy solutions to negative outcomes such as murder, we must rigorously examine where Black people are thriving. If racism is a given, understanding where Black people are living the longest can offer insight into how those residents are resisting and possibly dismantling structures that lead to worse outcomes.

This is the focus of a new project, the Black Progress Index, a publicly available research tool produced through a partnership between the NAACP and the Brookings Institution.

Not surprisingly, life expectancy among Black people varies widely across the nation. The mean life expectancy of Black residents is as high as age 96 in Manassas Park, Virginia — which is outside of Washington, D.C. — and in Weld County, Colorado, near Greeley. Yet the average Black person lives 33 fewer years in Jefferson County, Ohio, along the Ohio River, close to Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania. That gap is roughly equivalent to 100 years of progress in living standards, medical science, and public health. We see there are critical factors, including violent crime, that are impactful. But in the spirit of W.E.B. Du Bois’ classic 1899 study, “The Philadelphia Negro,” we also sought to “lay before the public such a body of information as may be a safe guide for all efforts toward the solution of the many Negro problems of a great American city.”

Map showing the distribution of Black inhabitants of the 7th Ward of Philadelphia in 1897 from "The Philadelphia Negro: A Social Study."W. E. B. Du Bois

Du Bois spent more than a year primarily in Philadelphia’s Seventh Ward neighborhood interviewing its residents. The resulting work, “The Philadelphia Negro: A Social Study,” endures as a monumental contribution to the field of urban studies. Du Bois’ use of standard-setting sociological methods, paired with rigorous quantitative analysis, offered a first-of-its-kind portrait of a neighborhood that few have since matched. The study examined demographics, health, education, crime, poverty, drug use, and a slew of other variables that collectively described the neighborhood conditions, what contemporary social scientists call “social determinants.”

More than 120 years later, the NAACP, a multiracial civil rights organization founded by Du Bois, and the Brookings Institution, a think tank, have partnered to continue his vision of collecting data that reveal the structures facing Black people at the national level. Du Bois wrote, “If, for instance, Boston in the East, Chicago and perhaps Kansas City in the West, and Atlanta, New Orleans and Galveston in the South, were studied in a similar way, we should have a trustworthy picture of Negro city life.” We assembled data from as many U.S. counties as possible to identify the strongest predictors of well-being, with life expectancy as the primary measure. The index analyzes these places and more. We condense and simplify vast amounts of data and boil them down to key drivers that local, state, and national leaders can track across the country.

Black Progress Index national metrics.THE BROOKINGS INSTITUTION/NAACP

We found some very complicated findings in the index:

  • The percent of foreign-born Black people was one of the strongest predictors of longevity in a community.
  • The spatial distance of your Facebook friends is positively correlated with longer life. There is something positive about having social networks spread over longer distances.
  • Not surprisingly, income, homeownership, and education are also positives.

However, there were negative factors that will certainly spur conversation. Communities that are more religious have worse outcomes. The share of Black children not living with their father and firearm fatalities are substantive harms. These issues are regularly talked about, but absent are the discussions on air pollution, population density, and other factors that you can’t put in isolation. We hope to help the public make these connections.

Many who scrutinize our data will undoubtedly bring their stereotypes, agendas, and racist framings to a complicated set of findings. However, there will be people who will bring courage, insight, and care to boldly look for deeper causes and solutions.

The Black Progress Index invites analyses and interpretations from a range of perspectives, especially those that look to structural causes and individual behaviors.

The Emancipator will publish periodic analyses on different aspects of the index to help shape narratives and framing. History shows well that the strategic deployment of bigotry through negative framing and misinformation campaigns are preludes to discriminatory policy. But when a society is grounded in truth, then justice can prevail and people can flourish.

To understand the problems and solutions facing Black Americans is to understand the capacity of the country itself. Ultimately, we believe the Black Progress Index will become the preeminent data source in understanding the capacity of the United States to live up to its lofty principles.

The Emancipator columnist Andre M. Perry is a senior fellow at the Brookings Institution and is the author of “Know Your Price: Valuing Black Lives and Property in America’s Black Cities.”

Follow The Emancipator for more Black Progress Index stories.