In August 2022, the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention reported that over the last two years, Black Americans’ life expectancy declined to about 71 years old, six years lower than their white counterparts. National disparities in life expectancy can represent the permanency of racism, offering little reason for hope.
But in Manassas Park, Va. and Weld County, Colo., the mean-life expectancy for Black residents is 96—a national high among all Black citizens by county. Black people are living in their 80s in larger Democratic jurisdictions like Montgomery County, Maryland and smaller Republican districts like Collier County, Florida.
My colleague Jonathan Rothwell and I reported hundreds of places that exceed commonly held expectations in Brookings’s recently released Black Progress Index, an interactive tool and report developed in partnership with the NAACP that provides a means to understand the health and well-being of Black people and the conditions that shape their lives. Instead of comparing Black people to white people, we examine life expectancy differences among the Black population in different places. This method reveals the locales where Black people are thriving.
Researchers often sloppily compare rates of home ownership, educational attainment, income and mortality without attending to past and present discrimination that intended to create disparities. Consequently, broad national averages void of context policy and local contexts camouflage the very real progress that’s occurring across the country.
Still, in places like Jefferson County, Ohio, the average Black person lives 33 fewer years than Manassas Park, Va. and Weld County, Colo. That gap is roughly equivalent to 100 years of progress in living standards, medical science, and public health.
Black people are not a monolith. They have widely different outcomes in very different places. Local contexts matter as Black people do. Lower life expectancy in counties and metro areas across the country suggests that people are losing battles against racism. But geographic areas where Black people are thriving offer more than hope: People’s civic actions are delivering positive change.
What accounts for such vast differences? Life expectancy, a cumulative measure of health and well-being, summarizes both the biological and non-biological influences on our lives. Because race is a sociological construct and not a biological one, we should assume disparities in life expectancy represent differences in non-biological influences on our lives. Our current life expectancy data suggest that people are breaking down specific social conditions that influence longevity, giving real reason for optimism.
Using a common machine-learning algorithm to select variables and rank their importance, the Index identifies 13 social conditions that predict Black life expectancy. Many are those one might expect, such as income, education, housing, and family composition. Others were more surprising, including the top predictor of high Black life expectancy: larger shares of foreign-born Black residents. One standard deviation above the mean in this variable adds one year to predicted life Black expectancy. For instance, Brooklyn, N.Y. is in the 89th percentile of life expectancy at 78.5. The more than 43% of Black residents of King’s County who are immigrants, places it in the 98th percentile among all counties.
The cause for this interpretation is unclear; it may be a pure composition effect, in that foreign-born Black Americans enjoy better health than the native Black population. Though, this data points to a larger question: Is less exposure to U.S. racism good for your health?
On the other end of the spectrum, a surprising predictor of low Black life expectancy is religious membership. Keeping in mind all the social determinants that showed to be significant in our study are correlational, not causal. Revoking a church membership will not automatically add years to a person’s life. The challenge is understanding why religious adherence is associated with lower life expectancy. Church goers are more likely to be obese and, on the surface, asking “Jesus to take the wheel” may negate any agency we have in influencing our health outcome. We also know that place-based bias that comes out of the wash of housing devaluation hurts the families and institutions, including churches, in those locales. More research is needed to uncover the conditions and behaviors underlying all the variables that strongly influence life expectancy.
The fact that we realize progress and stagnation in Black life expectancy in different places makes clear that people have agency. The gains and losses reflect that. When we take an overly optimistic or pessimistic view of the state of Black America and treat Black people as a monolith, we don’t see localized stories of growth, determination, and thriving.
The diversity of places where Black people are thriving suggests that it has something to do with Black people themselves. In places like Montgomery County, Md., individuals, civil rights groups, organizers, and politicians are dismantling the architecture of inequality that takes away years of life.
That said, we still need to examine and throw away the overly optimistic position on race relations—that the country has moved beyond slavery, Jim Crow racism, and the array of discriminatory policies and their long-term effects. People who hold this perspective contend that America is a level playing field and that with effort, Black people can achieve anything a white person can.
But locales that post life expectancies under 70 perform poorly on environment or institutional indicators like the air and school quality, suggesting that life is harder in some places due to systemically racist forces. In Lowndes County, Ala. where Montgomery is the county seat, Black life expectancy is 68.5. In Greenwood, Miss., it’s 67.3. In Salem, Ore., life expectancy is 64.4.
It’s also worth speculating on seemingly obvious reason why some cities, like Jackson, Miss., don’t post higher rates than 72.6. Jackson has higher homeownership rates than most places (94th percentile) and a higher percentage business ownership (59th percentile). But the recent water crises show how local politics of Mississippi play out in lower investments in the city’s water infrastructure, which plays out in other municipal services that impact life expectancy like education.
“Social reforms move slowly,” wrote W.E.B. Du Bois, suggesting that we must learn from our circumstances in ways that reject intemperance and blame. “[W]hen Right is reinforced by calm but persistent Progress we somehow all feel that in the end it must triumph.”
Society is toiling with the same struggles around racism that Du Bois faced at the turn of the 20th century. Nonetheless, we must take the time to recognize empirical signs of progress and not rush toward unsophisticated, untruthful narratives of hopelessness or blind ignorance that remove or dismiss our agency. A path of progress demands that we have a clear view of the social, political, and economic landscape in which we live. Recognizing progress and defeats will have us see the very real capacity for future change. The assumption—backed with data—that Black people in places with higher life expectancy had a hand in their outcomes should inspire us to seek change in places where discrimination is robbing people of years of life.
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