In Queens, blacks' incomes surpass whites'

October 01, 2006|By New York Times News Service

NEW YORK --Across the country, the income gap between blacks and whites remains wide, and nowhere more so than in Manhattan. But just a river away, a very different story is unfolding.

In Queens, the median income among blacks, nearing $52,000 a year, surpassed that of whites in 2005, an analysis of new census data shows. No other county in the country with a population of more than 65,000 can make that claim.

The gains among blacks in Queens, the city's quintessential middle-class borough, were driven largely by the growth of two-parent families and the successes of immigrants from the West Indies. Many live in tidy homes in verdant enclaves like Cambria Heights, Rosedale and Laurelton, just west of the Cross Island Parkway and the border with Nassau County.

David Vernon, a 45-year-old lawyer, is one of them. He estimates that the house in St. Albans that he bought with his wife, Nitchel, three years ago for about $320,000 has nearly doubled in value since they renovated it. Two-family homes priced at $600,000 and more seem to be sprouting on every vacant lot, he says.

"Southeast Queens, especially, had a heavy influx of West Indian folks in the late '80s and early '90s," said Vernon, who, like his 31-year-old wife, was born in Jamaica. "Those individuals came here to pursue an opportunity, and part of that opportunity was an education," he said. "A large percentage are college graduates. We're now maturing and reaching the peak of our earning capacity."

Richard P. Nathan, co-director of the Nelson A. Rockefeller Institute of Government in Albany, called Queens "the flip side of the underclass."

"It really is the best illustration that the stereotype of blacks living in dangerous, concentrated, poor, slum, urban neighborhoods is misleading and doesn't predominate," he said.

Andrew A. Beveridge, a Queens College demographer who analyzed results of the Census Bureau's 2005 American Community Survey, released in August, said of the trend: "It started in the early 1990s, and now it's consolidated. They're married-couple families living the American dream in Southeast Queens."

In 1994, an analysis for The Times found that in some categories, the median income of black households in Queens was slightly higher than that of whites - a milestone in itself. By 2000, whites had pulled slightly ahead. But blacks have since rebounded.

The only other places where black household income is higher than among whites are much smaller than Queens, like Mount Vernon in Westchester County, N.Y.; Pembroke Pines, Fla.; Brockton, Mass.; and Rialto, Calif. Most of the others also have relatively few blacks or are poor.

But Queens is unique not only because it is home to about 2 million people, but also because both blacks and whites there make more than the national median income, about $46,000.

Even as blacks have edged ahead of whites in Queens, overall they have fallen behind in Manhattan. With the middle class there shrinking, those remaining are largely either the wealthy, who are predominantly white, or the poor, who are mostly black and Hispanic, the new census data show.

Median income among blacks in Manhattan was $28,116, compared with $86,494 among whites, the widest gap of any large county in the country.

In contrast, the middle-class black neighborhoods of Queens evoke the "zones of emergence" that nurtured economically rising European immigrants a century ago, experts say. "It's how the Irish, the Italians, the Jews got out of the slums," Nathan said.

Despite the economic progress among blacks in Queens, income gaps endure within the borough's black community, where immigrants, mostly from the Caribbean, are generally doing better than American-born blacks.

"Racism and the lack of opportunity created a big gap and kind of put us at a deeper disadvantage," said Steven Dennison, an American-born black resident of Springfield Gardens.

Dennison, a 49-year-old electrical contractor, has four children. One is working on her doctoral degree; another will graduate from college this school year. "It starts with the school system," Dennison said.

Vernon, the lawyer from Jamaica, said: "It's just that the people who left the Caribbean to come here are self-starters. It only stands to reason they would be more aggressive in pursuing their goals. And that creates a separation."

Housing patterns do, too. While blacks make more than whites - even those in the borough's wealthiest neighborhoods, including Douglaston - they account for fewer than one in 20 residents in some of those communities. And among blacks, there are disparities, depending on where they live.

According to the latest analysis, black households in Queens reported a median income of $51,836 compared with $50,960 for non-Hispanic whites (and $52,998 for Asians and $43,927 among Hispanics).

Among married couples in Queens, the gap was even greater: $78,070 among blacks, higher than any other racial or ethnic group, and $74,503 among whites.

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