Greater Boston’s Black population becoming more diverse, dispersed

WHEN THE PRESIDENT of Cape Verde visited Massachusetts earlier this week, after meeting with Gov. Maura Healey at the State House, his big public appearance didn’t come in Boston but at Brockton High School, where President José Maria Neves got a rock star welcome when he spoke at the school auditorium. It’s no wonder why: About 800 students at Brockton High, or 22 percent of its study body, were born in the archipelago nation off the west coast of Africa. 

While the timing was a coincidence, Neves’s visit to Brockton underscores several big themes in a new report documenting changes in the Black population of Greater Boston. 

The report, released Thursday morning by the Boston Foundation, highlights a Black population whose makeup has become increasingly diverse and where foreign-born residents now account for more 37 percent of the region’s Black population, the largest share among any large metropolitan area in the US. 

Click here for a version of this story with interactive maps from the report.

It also shows that growth in that population over the last 40 years has taken place almost entirely outside Boston itself, which had long dominated as the center of the region’s Black population. In 1980, three-quarters of the region’s Black population (76 percent) lived in Boston with 24 percent living outside the city. By 2020, that had been flipped almost entirely, with 64 percent of the region’s Black residents living outside Boston. 

The “diversity of the Black population has exploded in recent years,” said James Jennings, an emeritus professor at Tufts University and co-author of the report, “Great Migration to Global Immigration: A Profile of Black Boston,” which was prepared in conjunction with Embrace Boston. 

As the title telegraphs, while earlier waves of Black population growth in the region were the result of migration from southern states, recent growth has been driven by Blacks arriving from other countries. The share of the regional Black population that is foreign born has more than doubled since 1980, and it is nearly four times that of the US Black population as a whole. 

Driving that change has been a huge increase in multiracial and multi-ethnic Black and Afro-Latino residents (primarily with Dominican or Puerto Rican ancestry). Growth in Afro-Latino residents, both from in-migration and growing identification by that designation, can explain some of the recent conflicting reports over whether Boston’s Black population has fallen or risen. 

In the 2020 Census, the Black population of Boston was 19.1 percent if looking at those identifying as Black alone, but it was 25.5 percent when also including those identifying as multiracial Black or Afro-Latino. “That meant the difference in reporting a decline in the city’s Black population or an increase,” said Luc Schuster, executive director of the Boston Indicators group at the Boston Foundation and a co-author of the report. 

The growth of the Black population outside Boston has been particularly pronounced in a string of communities south of the city, including Brockton, which became the first majority-Black community in Greater Boston (51 percent) with the 2020 Census. 

“There’s really kind of a Black middle class southern corridor now in the region,” said Schuster. 

Along with Brockton, Schuster said, there has been healthy Black community formation in Randolph, Stoughton, and Avon. But it’s also clear from that kind of concentrated growth that lots of communities in Greater Boston have seen little Black population growth. 

“Many of the region’s higher-income suburbs continue to be less welcoming, either explicitly through exclusionary zoning rules or implicitly through cultural norms and institutions that are less appealing for Black families looking to create community,” the report says.

The surge of Black migration to Brockton and other communities is also a result of Blacks being squeezed out of Boston by soaring housing costs. 

The overall Black population of Greater Boston now stands at 485,000. It has roughly doubled from 1980 to 2020 as a share of the population, from 5.5 percent to 10.6 percent, according to the report.

The report found striking differences in income between different Black population subgroups. Foreign-born Black households had median income of almost $66,000, well above median household income of $55,000 for native-born Black households, and more than $20,000 higher than the $45,500 for Afro-Latino households.

Although native-born Blacks had one of the higher rates of educational attainment among Black subgroups, with 25 percent of the adult population with a bachelor’s degree or higher, their household income lagged behind most of the other Black subgroups, including Cape Verdean, Haitian, Jamaican, and African households. 

The report did not attempt to explain the divergence between educational attainment and income, but Schuster said it could reflect “broader immigrant patterns” manifested through an entrepreneurial bent of newcomers toward starting businesses. At the same time, income in native-born Black households could be related to residual effects of “the worst forms of state-sponsored discrimination, back to slavery and the Jim Crow era,” he said. 

The differences, however, pale in comparison to the huge chasm that remains between median overall Black household income and that for Whites and Asians, which were both over $100,000.

“It’s still small potatoes compared to the massive racial wealth gap,” said Jennings.  




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