The Great Reverse Migration African-Americans Are Abandoning the Northern Cities That Have Failed Them

By Disalvo, Daniel | Pittsburgh Post-Gazette (Pittsburgh, PA), September 3, 2012 | Go to article overview

The Great Reverse Migration African-Americans Are Abandoning the Northern Cities That Have Failed Them


Disalvo, Daniel, Pittsburgh Post-Gazette (Pittsburgh, PA)


A century ago, nine of 10 African-Americans lived in the South, primarily in formerly Confederate states where segregation reigned. Then, in the 1920s, blacks began heading north, both to escape the racism of Jim Crow and to seek work as southern agriculture grew increasingly mechanized. "From World War I to the 1970s, some 6 million black Americans fled the American South for an uncertain existence in the urban North and West," wrote author Isabel Wilkerson in "The Warmth of Other Suns."

Principal destinations in the Great Migration, as the exodus came to be called, included Chicago, Detroit and New York City, and carried tremendous political implications, both good and bad. It helped spur the civil rights movement, but it also trapped many blacks in urban ghettos. More recently, the Great Migration has reversed itself, with blacks returning to the South.

This reversal fits within a larger demographic shift among Americans in general, who are moving from the Rust Belt to the Sun Belt. But the new black migration is nevertheless significant: Not only could it portend major changes to the nation's politics; it also testifies to the liberal North's failure to integrate African- Americans into the mainstream. As historian Walter Russell Mead has observed, that failure is "the most devastating possible indictment of the 20th century liberal enterprise in the United States."

The New York Times noticed in the early 1970s that, for the first time, more blacks were moving from the North to the South than vice versa. Last year, the Times described the South's share of black population growth as "about half the country's total in the 1970s, two-thirds in the 1990s and three-quarters in the decade that just ended."

Many of the migrants are "buppies" -- young, college-educated, upwardly mobile black professionals -- and older retirees. Over the last two decades, according to the Census, the states with the biggest gains in black population have been Georgia, South Carolina, Virginia, Texas and Florida. New York, Illinois and Michigan have seen the greatest losses. Today, 57 percent of American blacks live in the South -- the highest percentage in a half-century.

Much of the migration has been urban-to-urban. During the first decade of this century, according to Brookings Institution demographer Bill Frey, the cities making the biggest gains in black population were Atlanta, Dallas and Houston. Meanwhile, New York City's black population fell by 67,709, Chicago's by 58,225, Detroit's by 37,603.

Plenty of the migrants have been moving from cities to suburbs, too. "By 2000 there were 57 metropolitan areas with at least 50,000 black suburbanites, compared to just 33 in 1980," notes sociologist Andrew Wiese. The 2010 census revealed that 51 percent of blacks in the 100 largest metro areas lived in the suburbs. As journalist Joel Garreu describes it, suburbia now includes a "large, church-going, home-owning, childbearing, backyard barbecuing, traffic-jam-cursing black middle class remarkable for the very ordinariness with which its members go about their classically American suburban affairs."

Four factors help explain the Great Remigration.

The first is the push and pull of job markets. States in the Northeast and on the West Coast, where liberalism has been strongest, tend to have powerful public-sector unions, high taxes and heavy regulations, which translate into fewer private-sector jobs. In southern locales, where taxes are lower and regulations lighter, employment has grown faster; the fastest-growing cities for job creation between 2000 and 2010 were Austin, Raleigh, San Antonio, Houston, Charlotte and Oklahoma City. For upwardly mobile blacks, the job-creating South represents a new land of opportunity.

The second reason for blacks' southward migration is the North's higher housing prices and property tax rates. The 2010 median single- family home price in northeastern metro areas was $243,900, compared with $153,700 in southern metro areas, according to the National Association of Realtors. …

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