Blacks Leaving Cities for Suburbs ; Many Are Now Following the Typical Path of American Immigrants, a Trend That Bodes Well for Race Relations

Article excerpt

West on Market Street, beyond San Diego's shiny downtown, formerly black neighborhoods have gone Latino. Stores along the broad, rolling avenue peddle Hispanic goods. A billboard advertises a wireless phone in Spanish.

"There were a lot of us," says Karen Williamson, a lifelong African-American resident, remembering her school days. "I don't know where they all went."

Here in San Diego and in several large cities across the United States, African-Americans are pulling out. Their out-migration is swelling suburbs, breaking down barriers, and building new ones. Although some observers call the movement "black flight," the trend suggests that African-Americans are finally treading the well-worn path of many American immigrants.

Increasingly middle class, they're being drawn to the suburbs or pushed out of the cities by newer immigrants (in this case, Hispanics). On balance, demographers say, the move bodes well for race relations.

"The suburban 'good life' seems to be more accessible," says Roderick Harrison of the Joint Center for Political and Economic Studies in Washington.

"African-Americans ... are normalizing," adds Amitai Etzioni, a sociologist at George Washington University, and author of a new book on racial similarities called "The Monochrome Society."

The black exodus is most noticeable in California. Santa Ana, for example, saw its non-Hispanic black population drop by one-third - the biggest percentage decline of any of the nation's 100 largest cities. Of course, Santa Ana is so overwhelmingly Hispanic that its black population is minuscule. But the trend also holds true in other California cities with more sizable black populations: San Francisco (down 23 percent), Oakland (down 12 percent), and Los Angeles (down 12 percent).

Of the top black-flight cities outside California, three lost a greater share of blacks than whites during the 1990s. Miami lost 2 percent of its non-Hispanic whites but 18 percent of its non- Hispanic blacks. The District of Columbia saw a 4 percent decline in non-Hispanic whites and a 14 percent drop in non-Hispanic blacks. Seattle actually gained whites during the 1990s but still saw a 9 percent drop in its non-Hispanic black population.

Who's moving in?

The out-migration stems from several trends. First, Hispanics are moving into cities in large numbers, often taking over longtime black neighborhoods. In San Diego, for instance, a 35 percent increase in Hispanics appears to have pushed out much of the black population in the central part of the city, says Kelly Cunningham of the San Diego Regional Chamber of Commerce. Overall, the city's black population fell 8 percent.

Then there's the increasing wealth of African-Americans. …