Atlanta holds an enduring reputation as the center of Black political power and Black professional class success. In 1971, Ebony magazine referred to Atlanta as the “Black mecca,” citing the city’s relatively inclusive environment for Black entrepreneurs and politicians.1 Today, Atlanta is still referred to as the Black mecca, as it houses some of the nation’s most well-known Black educational institutions, increased its population of the Black middle-class, and has been a model of Black mayoral power since the 1970s.
Despite the city’s record economic growth, stubborn racial and economic inequities have persisted. Courting businesses and using extractive economic development practices as the superior growth model has stifled opportunities for all Black residents to succeed economically. When attention is given to the challenges facing Atlanta’s Black households, more than a third of which have zero or negative net worth, the assumption is that the challenges can be solved by programs focused on financial literacy, job training, and anti-poverty services. While these efforts are critical, they have not fixed Atlanta’s reputation as the number one place for income inequality,2 a title the city has held for more than 30 years.
To me, it’s like, I feel like I’m in quicksand here in Atlanta.
While the income inequality picture is bleak, it doesn’t capture the magnitude of economic injustice in the city. But one data point does: the wealth of white households in Atlanta is 46 times more than that of Black households.
Median Net Wealth in Atlanta
Source: Urban Institute Financial Health and Wealth Dashboard
This report proposes a new framework for understanding and confronting the massive racial wealth divide and its impact on Black Atlantans. Using what we describe as the structural determinants of Black wealth framework, this report interrogates data, narratives, and policies that drive Black wealth outcomes. The framework also enables community organizers, researchers, policymakers, practitioners, investors, and others to advance race-conscious solutions that seek to build Black wealth while pursuing a just world for all. This framework is necessary to build a beloved economy, which is essential for creating a beloved community in Atlanta.
Public policies, market pressures, and other factors that erode wealth-building opportunities for everyone are deeply connected to Atlanta’s relentless pursuit of economic growth at the expense of its current residents. Given these trends, we use administrative data, policy analysis, and narrative insights provided by Atlanta residents to explore the historical and current state of Black wealth in Atlanta and the policy choices that shape Black wealth outcomes. Specifically, this report finds that leaders in Atlanta and beyond can help build Black wealth by pursuing the following solutions:
- Support local efforts to launch a baby bonds program.
- Establish a publicly-funded guaranteed income program.
- Establish community accountability for strict enforcement of the Community Reinvestment Act (CRA).
- Provide free access to checking accounts at trusted banks.
- Establish a city-led initiative to address predatory lending.
- Eliminate the use of wealth-based punishment through fines, fees, and cash bail.
- Increase transparency in procurement outcomes for Black-owned businesses in the City.
- Strengthen affordable commercial space opportunities in the City.
- Invest in employee ownership.
- Launch an Atlanta delegation and campaign committed to repealing state preemption.
- Use public dollars to hold companies accountable for the creation of asset-building jobs.
- Prioritize inclusionary zoning regulations with a racial equity lens.
- Invest in community land trusts.
- Commit to more deeply affordable housing goals.
- Expand housing affordability strategies to include a complementary approach to promote economic mobility.
- Commit to opportunities for Black-owned businesses in infrastructure spending.
- Codify a commitment to reparations.
- Establish the Office of Community Wealth Building.
Structural determinants of Black wealth are the root causes of wealth inequities. The determinants capture the historical systems of oppression that have established downstream racial wealth outcomes for Black Atlantans. We explicitly name political and economic systems in the framework because they have reinforced the policies, programs, investments, and other decisions that erode Black wealth. Moreover, these systems command structural change, and without a structural analysis of what has led to Atlanta’s current Black wealth outcomes, we continue to maintain these systems and fail to confront the roadblocks to building Black wealth using structural reform. Failure to acknowledge and address the structural determinants enables policymakers and other leaders to default to narratives of personal responsibility to explain why the racial wealth divide exists. In other words, the framework helps us “move beyond the goal of closing the racial wealth gap and concentrate on undoing its root causes,” a necessary effort, as argued by Dr. Anne Price.3
We also propose this framework for understanding Black wealth outcomes because it is race-explicit. Historically, race-neutral policies have reproduced rather than mitigated inequities in Atlanta and across the South. Our race-explicit and holistic framework for grappling with Black wealth outcomes does not mean race-exclusive. We firmly believe investing in solutions to address the barriers blocking prosperity for Black people improves outcomes for everyone.
Lastly, the structural determinants of Black wealth framework not only centers the outcomes of Black people; it is developed in consultation and deep collaboration with Black Atlantans. Over the past year, the Atlanta Wealth Building Initiative has engaged in deep listening with Atlanta residents to understand the material impacts of the various dimensions in the framework on the lives of Black people.
As a starting point, it was essential to ground the creation of this framework in a clear definition of wealth. The typical definition of wealth is a person or household’s assets minus their debts. For Black Atlantans, wealth is so much more. The most popular definition of wealth for Black Atlantans was freedom. Working backward from this definition, we can identify the structural determinants of Black wealth by identifying what has historically and continues to stand in the way of the full freedom of Black people.
This report examines administrative data using the structural determinants of Black wealth framework. Where possible, data was collected and analyzed along the various dimensions included in the framework. Throughout the report, narratives from focus group participants are shared to help put the data into context. We recognize that wealth is dynamic, and so must be the way that we measure what affects it.
For instance, it addresses the role of mass incarceration on Black wealth. The following sections address various dimensions of the framework, offers indicators to measure dimensions, and concludes with recommendations for Atlanta leaders to repair the harms caused by the structural determinants.