Black Lives Matter Protest in Philadelphia, PA. Photo By: Chris Henry

What Does Decades of Structural Racism In Seven Major U.S. Cities Look Like?

The deaths of Breonna Taylor, George Floyd and far too many other Black people killed at the hands of police have sparked an unprecedented movement for Black life. Black-led organizing and activism has created space for the transformation needed at the institutional, organizational and structural levels to achieve an anti-racist vision for America. To help push this vision forward, the Center for Urban and Racial Equity (CURE) released seven briefs focused on structural racism in Washington DC, Miami, San Francisco, New Orleans, Philadelphia, New York and St. Louis.

We offer these city profiles as resources for organizers, nonprofit organizations, city government officials and others who are coordinating efforts to reckon with the history of racism and anti-Blackness that continues to shape city planning, economic development, housing and policing strategies. Gentrification, homelessness, economic inequality, food insecurity, COVID-19 racial health inequities, and more are covered in each city brief. Beyond pointing out the history and impacts of structural racism in these locations, these city profiles highlight the efforts of community activists, grassroots organizations and city government to disrupt the legacy of unjust policies and decision-making that has produced multiple, intersecting racial inequities experienced by Black and brown residents. Not intended to be a comprehensive source of information, the briefs highlight key facts, figures and important actions happening now to create just and healthy cities.

Below we provide a snapshot of information explored in our briefs. To access all the briefs, please visit:

Advocates Protest the Death of George Floyd in Washington, DC. Photo by Geoff Livingston

The Changing Color of Cities

Gentrification plagues major cities throughout the country pushing Black and brown people out of their communities. In Philadelphia, displacement is particularly intense for the city’s Black residents. According to the National Community Reinvestment Coalition, between 2000 and 2013, 57 census tracts had gentrified and 16 had shown a significant decline in Black population. This decline is the third most of any city in the nation with almost 750 black residents leaving Philadelphia on average. New York City ​has seen its Black population fall from almost 29% in 1990 to 22.8% in 2018.​ The decline is also seen in the Nation’s capital, once known as Chocolate City, its Black population fell precipitously from about 70% in 1980 to approximately 45% in 2019​.

Housing, Homelessness, and Evictions

The nation is experiencing a housing crisis resulting in high rates of evictions and homelessness. Racist public policies and private practices have made this crisis especially devastating for Black communities. The Community Service Society found that between 2017 and 2019, NYC residents living in majority Black zip codes were more than three times as likely to be evicted compared to tenants living in majority white zip codes. Although the Black population is smaller compared to the white population, Black people are often overrepresented in the homeless population. For example, in San Francisco, Black residents make up less than 6% of the population but are 34% of the homeless population. With evictions, homelessness, and gentrification impacting many Black communities across the nation, homeownership also remains a barrier to wealth building. In 2018 the white homeownership rate in St. Louis was 77% compared to a Black homeownership rate of 40%.

The COVID-19 Pandemic

The COVID-19 pandemic has exposed deeply entrenched health and economic disparities across racial groups. In many places Black and brown people make up a majority of the essential workforce that is keeping businesses and communities going while those who are more privileged work from home to reduce their exposure to the coronavirus.

COVID-19 has had a devastating impact across communities of color in San Francisco. Eighty percent of patients admitted to San Francisco General Hospital are Latinx. This is almost three times the normal percentage for hospital visits from Latinx community members at the hospital. In New Orleans people of color are overrepresented in a number of essential industries. According to a Data Center report, 56% of all the city’s retail jobs are held by people of color. Orleans Parish which encompasses the city of New Orleans, had an alarming infection rate of 892.1 COVID cases per 100,000 people as of April 6. This was higher than that of New York City, Los Angeles, and Miami combined.

Advocates Protest the Death of George Floyd in New Orleans. Photo By: James Cage

Criminal Justice and Police Violence

With the devastating toll on our health care systems across the nation due to the pandemic, we are also confronted with the ever present threat on Black bodies by law enforcement. Protests against police brutality have swept the nation since the murder of George Floyd, a Black man who died after a white Minneapolis police officer kneeled on his neck for nearly nine minutes. These protests are a manifestation of the continued brutalization of Black and brown people at the hands of police. Another example can be seen in the case of Dr. Armen Henderson, a Black internal medicine physician with the University of Miami Health System. Dr. Henderson was arrested and yelled at by a police officer when trying to bring supplies to people experiencing homelessness in the community during the pandemic. He was accused of dumping trash in the neighborhood although small items can be seen in footage of the incident.

It is a simple and disturbing reality that Black and brown people are targeted by police. Policies like stop and frisk led to massive imprisonment of Black and brown people. In Philadelphia, Black residents are over 50% more likely to be stopped without reasonable suspicion than white Philadelphians, and 40% more likely to be frisked than white residents. NYC’s notorious stop and frisk program, which was ruled unconstitutional in 2013, still remains in effect. In 2019 the number of stops increased for the first time since 2011, and 88% of those stopped were Black and Latinx, up from 85% in 2013. The high levels of policing in Black communities also contribute to high levels of homelessness. In DC, Black people make up 88% of people experiencing homelessness despite making up only 48% of the general population. Nearly 60% of residents in the District experiencing homelessness were previously incarcerated, and 55% said incarceration led them to lose their homes.

A Path Forward

What can be learned from these cities are the powerful movements taking place locally to dismantle structural racism and address the long standing racial inequities in these communities. For example, in New York City, a number of advocacy groups including Make the Road New York, New York Communities for Change, VOCAL New York, Democratic Socialists of America and the City Council successfully opposed the Amazon Queens location which would have displaced many NYC residents with low incomes. In St. Louis, advocacy groups including ArchCity Defenders, Action St. Louis, the Bail Project and others, teamed up and pushed the St. Louis Board of Aldermen to pass a bill to close the city’s medium security jail, also known as the Workhouse. The Workhouse was known for inhumane conditions including poor medical care and mouse infestations.

Advocates in these cities are thinking in ways that transform old systems and build new ones that focus on revitalization and restoration. For example in DC, the Neighborhood Engagement Achieves Results Act (NEAR Act) seeks to use public health approaches to prevent violence and reduce incarceration. Another example can be found in community organizations in Miami, including Catalyst Miami and SMASH, that have successfully pushed for solutions to address climate gentrification.

Advocates in St.Louis protest & demand dismantling white supremacy. Photo By: velo_city.

Working Principles for Black-Centered Urban Racial Equity

There is still much work to be done to dismantle the legacy of structural racism in these seven cities. This includes confronting the legacy of anti-Black racism and the role it has played in shaping the city. CURE has put together a list of working principles for Black- centered urban racial equity. Here are our recommendations:

  • Confront Anti-Black Racism
  • Prevent Gentrification and Displacement
  • Defund & Reimagine Policing
  • Listen to and Invest in Black led organizations, businesses and institutions
  • Think and Plan Intersectionally
  • Commit to Sustained and Targeted Investment in Black Community Economic Development

Who should use these city profiles? Why these seven cities?

The briefs were originally created as part of an internal process intended to ground ourselves in local history and current efforts to achieve racial justice in cities where our client partners are located. The CURE team has spent significant time in these cities working with housing, health and community development partners. In some instances, team members have even deeper connections to these cities and call these places home.

Article Written By: Dr. Judy Lubin, President and Founder, Center for Urban and Racial Equity, Aaron Brink-John, Equity Research and Training Manager, Center for Urban and Racial Equity, Chantelle Wilkinson, Communications Associate, Center for Urban and Racial Equity




CURE works with people & organizations to advance equity through policy, systems, institutional, community and societal change. Through research and analysis, strategic planning and consulting, and training and educational strategies we address systemic barriers to racial equity.

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