Special Report

The Worst Cities for Black Americans

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15. Rockford, IL
> Black population: 36,955 (10.9% of total)
> Black median income: $29,969 (51.7% of white income)
> Unemployment: 21.0% (Black); 6.9% (white)
> Homeownership rate: 31.1% (Black); 73.2% (white)

Illinois is home to four of the 15 metro areas with the worst disparities between Black and white residents — and Rockford is one of them. The typical Black household in Rockford earns less than $30,000 a year, while most white households in the area earn more than $58,000 annually.

Homeownership is one of the most practical ways to build intergenerational wealth in the United States, and in Rockford, Black residents have historically faced hurdles to homeownership that white residents have not. The Department of Housing and Urban Development recently reached a $1 million settlement with a local bank that allegedly did not offer mortgage loans in minority neighborhoods. Such practices were widespread in the Midwest in the mid-20th century, and their effects linger today. The Black homeownership rate in Rockford is 31.1% — less than half the white homeownership rate of 73.2%.

14. Erie, PA
> Black population: 18,972 (6.9% of total)
> Black median income: $24,354 (46.3% of white income)
> Unemployment: 14.0% (Black); 5.1% (white)
> Homeownership rate: 28.2% (Black); 69.4% (white)

Erie, a small city in northwestern Pennsylvania, is the only metro area in the state to rank on this list. The poverty rate among the city’s Black population is 38.3% — more than double the 13.6% white poverty rate. The higher likelihood of living in poverty among Black Erie residents is likely due in part to an even greater disparity in job opportunities. Over the last five years, before the COVID-19 recession, Black unemployment in Erie has averaged 14.0% — nearly three times higher than the 5.1% white unemployment rate.

Stark socioeconomic disparities along racial lines are deeply rooted in Erie’s history. Throughout the early and mid-20th century, real estate agencies and zoning laws deliberately excluded Erie’s Black population from residing in affluent, white neighborhoods. As is the case in other cities on this list, these policies led directly to intergenerational disparities in wealth and opportunity along racial lines.

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13. Davenport-Moline-Rock Island, IA-IL
> Black population: 27,862 (7.3% of total)
> Black median income: $34,155 (58.8% of white income)
> Unemployment: 14.5% (Black); 4.4% (white)
> Homeownership rate: 32.4% (Black); 74.2% (white)

The Davenport-Moline-Rock Island metro area covers parts of both Iowa and Illinois — states that are home to multiple cities on this list. Across the metro area, Black workers are more than three times as likely to be unemployed as white workers — and Black residents are also more than three times as likely to live below the poverty line as white residents.

These starkly disparate outcomes are partially attributable to inequality in education. About 27.2% of white adults in the metro area have a bachelor’s degree or higher, compared to 16.1% of Black adults. Additionally, more than nine in every 10 white adults in the metro area have completed high school compared to fewer than eight in every 10 Black adults.

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12. Syracuse, NY
> Black population: 52,792 (8.1% of total)
> Black median income: $31,827 (51.5% of white income)
> Unemployment: 15.0% (Black); 5.3% (white)
> Homeownership rate: 28.2% (Black); 72.2% (white)

In Syracuse, New York, Black workers are nearly three times as likely to be unemployed and Black residents are more than three times as likely to live in poverty than their white counterparts.

Along with Erie, Pennsylvania and Rochester, New York, Syracuse is one of only three cities outside of the Midwest to rank on this list. Still, Syracuse shares a similar history to many Midwestern cities, a history that has led to nation-leading racial inequalities. Racist housing policies in the mid-1900s relegated Black residents to certain neighborhoods where they were restricted from accessing federally backed mortgages. These segregated neighborhoods, where homeownership was out of reach for many, became the home of Interstate 81 in the 1950s and ’60s and many argue the highway has had a crippling effect on economic development.

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11. Des Moines-West Des Moines, IA
> Black population: 31,776 (5.0% of total)
> Black median income: $37,303 (52.5% of white income)
> Unemployment: 9.1% (Black); 3.5% (white)
> Homeownership rate: 31.0% (Black); 72.4% (white)

White residents of the Des Moines metro area are less likely to face serious financial hardship than most white Americans — while Black area residents are far more likely to struggle financially than most Black Americans. Just 8.2% of white Des Moines residents live below the poverty line compared to the 11.6% U.S. white poverty rate. Meanwhile, 27.9% of Black area residents live in poverty compared to the 24.2% national Black poverty rate.

Des Moines is one of several metropolitan areas in Iowa to rank on this list — and socioeconomic disparities along racial lines extend well beyond the borders of these metro areas. Across all of Iowa, the incarceration rate among the Black population is nearly 10 times greater than the white incarceration rate. The nearly 2,400 Black Iowans in federal and state prisons, as well as their families, face considerable economic hurdles — attributable to both lack of income while serving a prison sentence and reduced employment opportunities upon release.