The hidden toll of California’s Black exodus

Some 275,000 Black Californians have left high-cost cities for other states and extended suburbs in recent decades. Familiar obstacles follow.

ELK GROVE, Calif. — In a quiet corner of Elk Grove, where the maze of subdivisions and shopping centers gives way to open fields, Sharie Wilson has spent the last three years building her dream home. 

It’s nothing like the neighborhood where she grew up in South Central L.A. But in this Sacramento suburb, her family owns a modern farmhouse set on 2.5 acres, with a stately U-shaped driveway and a Pan-African flag over the front door. In the backyard, there’s a basketball court inlaid with the logo of her hair care company, DreamGirls. 

Still, Wilson has to justify her family’s success. Neighbors have asked her husband, who works at the local water district and runs his own apparel company, what sport he plays. Or how the couple really paid for their house. “Hopefully once people keep seeing it, they stop seeing the color and start seeing us as humans,” said Wilson, a 41-year-old mother of six boys. 

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Wilson is one of around 275,000 Black Californians who have left high-cost coastal cities in the last three decades, sometimes bound for other states or cities, but more often to seek their slice of the American dream in the state’s sprawling suburban backyard. Many transplants pack up for the promise of homeownership, safety and better schools. Housing-rich Elk Grove has gained nearly 18,000 Black residents since 1990 — a 5,100% jump mirrored by increases around the San Joaquin-Sacramento Delta, Southern California’s Inland Empire and the Central Valley.

At the same time, Black renters have been disproportionately forced out of cities as costs and evictions climbed; the Black population has plunged 45% in Compton, 43% in San Francisco and 40% in Oakland. While a version of this geographic scramble is playing out for working and middle-class people of all races, the distinct obstacles that Black residents encounter in new communities raise the question: How far do you have to go today to find opportunity — and are some things ever really possible to leave behind?