'We have to do better': Economic barriers persist for Lafayette's Black residents

William Taylor Potter
Lafayette Daily Advertiser
Black Café, which is located in Lafayette's predominantly-Black La Place neighborhood, is owned by Trey Ware. Ware said customers, both Black and white, will often say that they "didn't expect something like this in this part of town."

Editor's note: During May, the staff of The Daily Advertiser, will bring you a series of articles that look at Lafayette and Acadiana’s past focused on segregation and racial inequities. 

We’ll give you an honest, fair and often uncomfortable view where we as a community have been and where we are today. Our hope is that in those uncomfortable moments we’ll find solutions and resolve to take concrete actions that will unite our community.

More than half a century has passed since the official end of segregation in Louisiana, but Lafayette Parish’s Black residents continue to face significant barriers to economic opportunity, an analysis of U.S. Census Bureau data shows.

Black-owned businesses make up fewer than 3% of all businesses in Lafayette Parish, according to data from the U.S. Census Bureau’s 2017 Economic Census and Annual Business Survey, despite Black residents making up nearly 27% of the parish’s population.

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The Annual Business Survey is an annual survey conducted by the U.S. Census Bureau that collects data from a sample of U.S. businesses. Every five years, the bureau does the Economic Census, which is an official count of businesses.

Census data also shows residents in areas with high Black populations within the parish are far more likely to live in poverty with 37.5% of residents in one majority Black census tract living below the poverty line.

This map shows Lafayette Parish's Black population by census tract, according to the U.S. Census Bureau

A lack of support for Black-owned businesses

Data from the U.S. Census Bureau's 2017 Economic Census and the Annual Business Survey, released in 2021, shows that Black people owned or had at least half ownership of only 192 of the surveyed 7,455 firms in Lafayette Parish.

Firms refer to businesses with one or more establishments. 

In Lafayette Parish, Black people own 2.6% of businesses, racial minorities own 7.7% and white people own 83.7%, according to the census data.

Trey Ware, the owner of Black Café, sits outside his business in downtown Lafayette. Ware said many of the hurdles Black business owners face stem from perception and the lack of financing options.

Trey Ware, the owner of Black Café, said many of the hurdles Black business owners face stem from perception and the lack of financing options. Black-owned businesses tend to be located in Black neighborhoods, where other residents may have a pre-conceived bias.

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The average value for a business in Lafayette Parish in terms of sales is about $3.6 million, according to the Economic Census, but that number falls to under $840,000 for Black-owned businesses.

Ware said that's been true for Black Café, which is located in Lafayette's predominantly-Black La Place neighborhood. He said customers, both Black and white, will often say that they "didn't expect something like this in this part of town."

"There's this stigma of being located in a predominantly Black area," Ware said. "There's this perception of what the area is going to be. There's a perception of what the business is going to be."

There also barriers to secure financing. Black businesses have historically had difficulty getting bank loans compared to white-owned businesses. Ware said banks and investors are less likely to invest in a poorer Black neighborhood when they could invest in wealthier areas.

"There is a possibility, there is fertile ground for businesses to grow, they just need a little nurturing," Ware said.

Judy Reese Morse, president and chief executive of the Urban League of Louisiana, a nonprofit that focuses on aiding underserved communities, said her organization has become well-acquainted with the issues that Black business owners often face.

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"Typically, small businesses in low- to moderate-income communities don’t have access to generational wealth or the type of ‘safety nets’ that more affluent communities have access to," Morse said. "Even the most brilliant business concepts will never scale, much less launch, if the entrepreneur lacks financial readiness, credit preparedness and emergency cash reserves."

Changing perception and getting people to leave their comfort zones to support Black businesses is one of the biggest ways people can help, said LaShae Senegal, the owner of Prestige Hair Salon in Freetown.

LaShae Senegal, the owner of Prestige Hair Salon in Freetown, said changing perception and getting people to leave their comfort zones to support Black businesses is one of the biggest ways people can help.

"A lot people kind of look past the northside, but there's a lot of great businesses," Senegal said. "People need to start branching back out to this side. Not just hair, but there's all kinds of great businesses on the northside that they overlook because they don't really cross the tracks up to the northside."

There have been efforts to aid business owners on the northside, such as the Accelerate Northside program. The program — organized by the Greater Southwest Louisiana Black Chamber of Commerce and the University of Louisiana at Lafayette — is a six-week course aimed at helping business owners and those who might want to start a new business on the northside.

Kevin Guillory, the office coordinator for the Louisiana Entrepreneurship and Economic Development Center, said 45 participants completed the program in the spring. He said the program provided the participants with a support system along with the mentorship and assistance from the course.

"We felt like historically that area has been underserved in terms of entrepreneurship, education and economic development," Guillory said.

Lafayette's majority-Black areas significantly more impoverished

This map shows the percent of Lafayette residents who lived below the poverty line for a 12-month period by census tract, according to U.S. Census Bureau data

The difference isn't only with business ownership. The areas of the parish with the highest percentage-Black population are more likely to have residents who have lived below the poverty line, have less than a high school education and have higher unemployment rates.

All of the eight majority-Black census tracts in Lafayette Parish have poverty rates significantly higher than the national average. According to census data, the two tracts with the highest percentage-Black population, both more than 90% Black, have more than a third of their population living below the poverty line within a 12-month period.

Census Tract 9, which is 98.5% Black, lies just south of Interstate 10 near the Truman Early Childhood Education Center. According to U.S. Census Bureau estimates, 34.5% of residents have lived below the poverty line in a 12-month period.

This map shows the percent of Lafayette Parish residents who have less than a high school education by census tract, according to the U.S. Census Bureau

More than a third of the residents there ages 20 to 64 aren't high school graduates and only 12.5% have a bachelor's degree or higher. The tract's unemployment rate was 7.1% compared to the parish's average of 4.9% at the time.

Education levels also differ greatly between census tracts. In six of the parish's eight majority-Black census tracts, more than a fifth of adults ages 20 to 64 have less than a high school education. Less than a fifth of adults 20 to 64 have a bachelor's degree in six of the eight tracts as well, census data shows, the result of decades of restrictions and systemic divestment in Black communities.

In general, Lafayette Parish's majority-Black public schools have teachers with less experience and less pay. Teachers at majority-Black schools have an average of 6.4 years experience and are paid about $46,965 a year. The average teacher at the parish's majority-white schools has 8.2 years of experience and makes $48,671.

This map shows the percentage of Lafayette Parish residents with a four-year college degree or higher, according to the U.S. Census Bureau

The Urban League of Louisiana has noted in its research that education equity is one of the driving factors in creating more opportunity.

"Through our ongoing education research, the data has repeatedly confirmed for us that educational equity is the key to increasing opportunities for all underserved communities in Louisiana," Morse said.

"Unfortunately, the data continues to show great disparities for students of color in Louisiana. Without equitable access to high quality early childhood education in the very beginning of child’s academic journey, achievement and success throughout 13 more years of schooling become less likely — and we believe we have to do better."

Several Acadiana-area groups like One Acadiana have been promoting the "55 by 25" initiative to help improve opportunity across the region through education. The initiative aims to get 55% of adults 25 and up in Acadiana to have a college degree by 2025.

This map shows the unemployment rate among Lafayette Parish residents by census tract, according to the U.S. Census Bureau

The real cost of segregation

Nationally, economic segregation fell during the 1990s, but it began to rise again in the 2000s, according to a report from the Urban Institute published in 2017. Between 2000 and 2010, 72 of the country's largest commuting zones — similar to metropolitan areas — saw economic segregation increase.

The Urban Institute report notes that there is a strong relationship between economic segregation and racial segregation. According to the report, higher levels of economic segregation and racial segregation are associated with lower per capita income for Black residents, while there is no significant effect on white income.

High levels of Black-white segregation are also connected to low levels of college degree attainment for both Black and white residents. 

Racial and economic segregation has a real cost, the Urban Institute found. In Chicago — one of the most heavily segregated commuting zones in the nation — Black per capita income would go up around 2.7% if it reduced its economic segregation level to the average of the 100 largest commuting zones, an overall increase of $772 million.

The Urban Institute estimated that if Chicago reduced its Black-white segregation to average levels, Black per capita income would increase by 12.4%, or $2,455, and educational attainment rates for Black and white residents would increase 2% each. An estimated 83,000 more adults would complete a college degree.

To address these issues, Morse said the state needs to close its education equity gap, which means tackling the "institutionalized systems, structures, and histories that have led to these disparities for students of color."

"When we can arrive at a data-driven understanding of why these disparities exist, we can begin to create policies to close those gaps and empower communities to advocate for change through their state and local leadership," Morse said.