The Great Reverse Migration: African-Americans are abandoning the Northern cities that have failed them
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. Overall cost of living is an issue, too: Groceries, utility bills, housing and health care cost less south of the Mason-Dixon Line. High costs in the North make life difficult for the middle class regardless of color, but they pose a particular challenge to black families. From 2005 to 2009, according to a Pew survey, inflation-adjusted wealth fell by 16 percent among white households but by 53 percent among black ones.
Third, high taxes in northern cities don't always translate into effective public services. Public schools are a prime example: Though class sizes have shrunk and average per-pupil spending has increased markedly over the last three decades, schools with large black populations continue to perform poorly. In search of a solution, blacks have become far more amenable than other groups to experiments with vouchers and charter schools.
Finally, many blacks moving to the South are retirees who, like other older Americans, are seeking better weather. Over the past decade, Florida has attracted more black migrants than any other state. Sociologists Calvin Beale and Glenn Fuguitt have found that black retirees are moving not only to classic retirement destinations in the South but also to "a cross-section of southern counties from which thousands of blacks migrated during the exodus from farming in the 20 years or so after World War II." Many may be responding to what anthropologist Carol Stack describes as a "call to home."
The political consequences of that summons may soon become apparent in the South. As the shared experience of discrimination abates and as more middle-class blacks succeed, the gap between the reality of their lives and the old political rhetoric may become too wide to ignore. "In neighborhoods offering the resources and opportunities that facilitate future socioeconomic mobility," writes Harvard political scientist Claudine Gay, "the likelihood of believing that one's fate is closely linked to the fate of blacks as a group declines, and pessimism about the severity of antiblack discrimination recedes."
At the moment, black Americans are among the most reliable Democratic voters. As they move south and presumably bring their liberalism with them, they may help shift the political balance of power in these conservative states. Alternatively, as they move to states with better business climates, they may see their upwardly mobile and business-friendly attitudes reinforced and slowly shift to the right, even if they remain Democrats.
The most important barrier standing in the way of a new black politics is majority-minority districting for congressional and state legislative seats.
The 1965 Voting Rights Act has evolved into a mechanism for facilitating the election of black Americans to public office in rough proportion to their numbers in the population. To achieve this, the law mandates that blacks be shunted into districts where they constitute a majority. But as political scientist Abigail Thernstrom and others have shown, majority-minority districts create safe seats, reduce voter turnout and produce legislators well to the left of the national norm. These politicians develop voting records that cannot attract broader support from whites, and it becomes difficult for them to leave legislatures and run for higher office.
As blacks spread out residentially, however, it becomes harder to draw predominantly black districts. Further, increased numbers of black immigrants from Africa and the Caribbean are likely to change the equation, as their experience in the United States differs significantly from that of native-born blacks. The traditional grievance narrative doesn't capture the imagination of entrepreneurial Nigerians in Houston or Somalis in Minneapolis.
New political attitudes among blacks also have trouble finding expression when black candidates are concentrated into one party. So some blacks may eventually decide to test their political fortunes outside the safe harbors of the Democratic Party -- and that means becoming independents or even joining the GOP.
Recently, Republican ethnic minorities have had more success than their Democratic counterparts in winning office in states and districts with white voting majorities: think of Reps. Tim Scott (South Carolina) and Allen West (Florida), Sen. Marco Rubio (Florida) and Govs. Bobby Jindal (Louisiana), Nikki Haley (South Carolina) and Susana Martinez (New Mexico). That trend could coincide neatly with the southward migration of middle-class, entrepreneurial black Americans.
The South, then, in addition to holding more economic promise for blacks, could soon offer them greater political opportunity as well -- and, in the process, transform the two parties' long-established racial dynamics.
First Published September 30, 2012 12:00 am