People of color and means

Prosperity: Prince George's is the only suburban county in the nation to get wealthier as it became majority black.

July 26, 2000|By Kurt Streeter | Kurt Streeter,SUN NATIONAL STAFF

It's difficult to find the home of Ken Blake - he likes it that way.

First you have to get through a guarded front gate surrounding his subdivision. Then you must wind along a road that sweeps past all the other nearly million-dollar houses, swerving by the golf course, the tennis courts and the bird-watching benches.

Blake's brick Colonial, nestled in a Prince George's County community of doctors and lawyers, entrepreneurs, athletes and other people of means - most of them, like him, African-American - sits on a knoll in a cul-de-sac.

Just now, standing in front of his brand new house in the planned neighborhood of Woodmore, Blake is musing over the good fortune of the black folks living here.

"Most of us didn't grow up with a silver spoon, but we found our way to success," says Blake, noting that, partly because of his working-class roots, he is acutely aware of the distance between those who are successful and those who struggle in black America.

The economic trajectory of Blake's life is typical of the African-American middle- and upper-class population in Prince George's County.

He is the son of government employees who did his parents one better: leaving the cramped apartments he was raised in for college; then leaving college, master's degree in hand, for success as a computer specialist.

At 42, Blake, now a manager at a multimillion-dollar information technology company, has launched his own family into an upper income bracket. And like most of the African-American elite living here, he is not about to forget where he came from.

"Now I do have a silver spoon," says Blake. "But believe me, when I get home every day I stop and I look and I make sure that spoon is still silver. I have a connection to my roots."

Having a connection, and keeping it, is talked of often in this county, a place unlike any other.

In the past three decades, Prince George's County's population has gone from 13 percent to about 60 percent black, according to the latest estimates.

Fed by middle-income black Washingtonians - many of them government workers - who poured into the county after the passage of fair housing laws in the mid-1960s, this migration has brought unprecedented wealth.

The county's median household income, which has risen to nearly $53,000 in the past decade, is roughly $8,000 higher than the national median for all families. The median income for black households nationwide hovers around $25,000.

True, there are pockets of trouble in the county - many of the communities between the Capitol Beltway and the District of Columbia are burdened by poverty.

But taken as a whole, Prince George's is the only suburban county, ever, to become more wealthy as it became majority black, according to Philip Taylor, a planner and demographer for the county.

The sweet suburban life

"Life is sweet here," says Valerie Middlebrooks, 35, who recently moved to Bowie from Tennessee with her husband, a manager at Federal Express, and their two children.

It is a life, say Middlebrooks and many others here, focusing on achievement: on building a nest egg and a good home and raising good kids - shielding them, by the sheer force of economics, from many of the woes faced by black youth growing up less fortunate.

It is a life less defined by race than in other, less affluent, majority-black communities.

"Race is important here," says the school teacher, picking up her children from dance class. "But it kind of fades into the background ... except for the concern people have here for bringing other black people up the ladder."

Travel just outside the Beltway, visit such solidly middle-class, 90 percent black communities as Perrywood and Lake Arbor - with their golf courses, tennis courts and handsome new homes on streets like Water Fowl Way.

Then drive west of Bowie, to bucolic, nouveau riche enclaves such as Woodmore - where black bosses, three-car garages and a half-acre of land around each house are commonplace - and you will find yourself immersed in suburban black wealth.

Republicans, going into the 2000 presidential election, are casting a flirtatious eye at these wealthy communities. The way they see it, much of the county is made up of the kind of financially flush people who, on the face of it, might be swayed by talk of tax cuts, fiscal restraint and moral rectitude.

No reason to switch party

But visit the middle- and upper-middle-class black-owned homes. Here, the vast majority of people are keenly interested in politics, the vast majority are staunch Democrats. And most of them, fearing changes in government programs that have fueled the black economic engine, say they have no reason to switch.

"Most of us benefited directly from affirmative action; lots of us have parents who work for the government or we work for the feds right now," says Eric Shaw, 32, whose family hails from established middle-class neighborhoods in Washington.

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