Andre M. Perry, a fellow in the Metropolitan Policy Program at the Brookings Institution, was born in Wilkinsburg in 1970. Coming of age in the ’80s, Perry got a close-up look at the structural and racial inequality he chronicles brilliantly in his 2020 book, “Know Your Price: Valuing Black Lives and Property in America’s Black Cities.”
Attending Wilkinsburg public schools through the 11th grade, Perry transferred to Peabody in Pittsburgh in his senior year. When he graduated, he was thoroughly prepared for the rigors of Allegheny College.
Asked if the schools he attended in both districts were underrated, Perry rejected the lazy practice of conflating school quality with demographics. “Both places had good teachers, solid curricula and great programs — the markers of a good school.
“We had good schools and children from low-income families. I reflect the potential that Wilkinsburg students had and still have.”
“Know Your Price” is a subtle and nuanced approach to some of the day’s most contentious racial and economic controversies. It doesn’t treat the bad social policies sparked by the decades-old “Moynihan Report” or dubious ideologies that center white males as the universal standard at the expense of everyone else as serious scholarship.
“Many policies … work with the assumption that single Black women, by dint of their socioeconomic and marital status, effectively put their children in poverty,” says Perry.
“I was raised by a Black woman who did what a lot of Black matriarchs did when they saw a struggling family — she took me and my siblings in. My father was murdered in jail, so women did everything to put me in a position to thrive.”
Perry’s experience and research taught him to reject tired notions that Black people — especially Black women — are the source of their own economic and social marginalization. That’s the dogma that underlies so much conservative analysis of what is euphemistically called “the urban crisis.”
This is where the subtitle to Perry’s book kicks in: “Valuing Black Lives and Property in America’s Black Cities.” Perry’s research helped him “understand the policies that extract opportunities and wealth from Black families every day.”
This is why the scholar often makes connections that should be obvious to everyone, but aren’t, given our collective inability to talk about race honestly.
“The reality is that homes are not devalued, Black people are. Lower home values aren’t the only thing that reflect the devalued lives of Black people. Our schooling, healthcare and businesses are devalued as well.”
Perry argues that “Black people and the property that they hold are valued differently,” creating different opportunities or problems. “Homeownership lies at the heart of the American Dream, representing success, opportunity and wealth. And it should. But our findings confirm that racism is taking money out of Black homeowners’ collective pockets to a painful sum of $156 billion, keeping those who are striving for the American Dream from actually reaping its benefits.”
Asked about recent merger talks between Wilkinsburg and Pittsburgh, Perry doesn’t wander far from his central premise in the book that the prosperity of Black people depends on increasing their ownership of residential and commercial property.
“Much of the merger conversation works with the assumption that Wilkinsburg needs Pittsburgh and its tax base to improve. There is less argument about what Wilkinsburg can offer Pittsburgh. Both arguments miss that Black people are devalued whether you are in the city or in the suburbs.
“A merger will not guarantee that Black people will be better off. I’d like to see concrete, data-driven debates on how a merger — or status quo — benefits Black people.”
“Know Your Price” examines Black cities across the country and the opportunities available to current and potential Black homeowners.
“There is a tendency to focus on deficits and problems when talking about Black communities — not the strengths. My work looks for the assets that are worthy of investment. No one invests in problems. When there is a focus on assets, we can drive investments toward the people and places that can build upon what’s already working.”
In one memorable passage, Perry writes, “Black families are especially thriving in various city/suburbs in Maryland, which hosts more than half the top 124 Black-majority cities. The DMV— that is the D.C.-Maryland-Virginia area — is Black bougie heaven.”
Perry’s advice to young Black people coming of age today is simple: Never settle for what society tells you you’re worth. “Just as my research shows that homes in Black neighborhoods are more valuable than they are priced, so are we.”
Dear readers: I hope you’re enjoying the change of pace in my weekly column in NEXTpittsburgh as much as I am. I’m also working on a new podcast with my friend and fellow journalist Natalie Bencivenga. In Other News will launch soon. Stay tuned!
Tony Norman’s column is underwritten by The Pittsburgh Foundation as part of its efforts to support writers and commentators who cover communities of color that historically have been misrepresented or ignored by mainstream journalism.