The "Black Flight" Phenomenon
The "Black Exodus" from cities like Chicago, D.C., San Francisco and elsewhere is a growing concern in many metropolitan areas
Pete Saunders | Corner Side Yard
Most people familiar with American cities know something about the Great Migration of the 20th century: The period when Blacks fled the rural South for the urban North to escape Jim Crow and seek new job opportunities. It is often known as an era that lasted between 1910 and 1970, but it’s more accurate to describe it in two distinct waves ….
One that lasted from about 1910 to 1930 before being interrupted by the Great Depression and World War II
The other that lasted from about 1945 to 1970
Historians say about 1.6 million Blacks moved to Northeastern and Midwestern cities during the first wave, and about 5 million moved to Northeastern, Midwestern and West Coast cities in the second wave.
I’ve never found any scholarly papers on this matter, but I’ve often wondered about the long-term economic prospects of Great Migration migrants, especially as it relates to when they moved. I’ve always believed that first wave migrants had it slightly better than second wave migrants. My reasoning has always been that first wave migrants were able to establish a foothold in Northern cities that allowed them to obtain better job opportunities, gain seniority and job security, gain better housing and take a chance at successfully putting kids through college or the military.
That was certainly the case with my family, as I had grandparents that moved to Detroit in the 1920s (as children on my dad’s side, as young adults on my mom’s side). I imagine things didn’t go as well for second wave migrants, who likely endured greater housing and job discrimination and a noticeable slide in city service provision, all while facing a manufacturing economy that hit its peak in the 1960s and started a long, steady decline. This was evident in the internal civil rights movement debates during the ‘60s – an older, established Black middle class that advocated for peaceful, incremental change contrasted against a younger, frustrated group of recent migrants who wanted to disrupt the status quo. That frustration morphed into resentment, protests and counter-protests, and policy actions that reverberate to this very day.
What hampered the economic progress of second wave Great Migration migrants more than anything had little to do with what I outlined above, however. It had much more to do with the acceleration of suburbanization following World War II. More people, jobs and money were leaving cities, while at the same time a new and larger wave of Black migrants moved in. A new frontier was being created while the old world was being abandoned. Second wave migrants were witness to the pulling back of the economic ladder.
I fear that the current wave of Black migration from city to suburbs, and the reverse Great Migration from Northern to Southern cities, could be the past repeating itself.
I’ve written about this in the past, but mostly in a Chicago context. However, after looking at data from cities across the country, I’m finding the phenomenon of a so-called “Black exodus” from cities to be quite common – despite the fact that cities, nationally, have generally reversed the trend of population loss that occurred during the latter half of the 20th century.
Before I go any further, let’s address the point above, how cities have reversed the outward flow to suburbia that accelerated after World War II. There’s been plenty of debate on this among urbanists, especially in the last eighteen months as the Covid pandemic spread. Since 2020 there’s been a narrative that city dwellers are increasingly moving to exurban and even rural areas to escape infection, and also to simplify their lives. Prior to that, however, other arguments were made that despite recent city growth, suburbs still remain the preferred choice of American households, or that city growth was the unsustainable outcome of the housing collapse that led to the Great Recession.
I’ll make a broad claim that I think holds true: From 1950 to 1990 the majority of America’s largest cities lost population as their suburbs boomed. Similarly, Sun Belt cities grew rapidly during that period as well, outpacing the older cities of the Northeast and Midwest that grew rapidly in the first half of the 20th century. Since 1990 cities started seeing more interest from younger and more educated residents, core cities saw a reversal in demographic patterns. By the 2010s, core cities were more or less on equal footing with their suburbs in terms of population growth.
In short, for decades suburbs were gaining people as cities were losing them. More recently cities have been able to approach or even match suburban population growth. It’s subtle and seems insignificant, but it has profound impacts on how we view cities and suburbs.
Where Black Population Changes
With that in mind, I compared U.S. Census data from 1990 and 2020 to analyze overall population change and Black population change among the core cities of the nation’s 35 largest metropolitan areas (or those with more than 2 million residents in 2020).
I found that the core cities of 28 of the 35 metro areas grew between 1990 and 2020, with an average of 21.4 percent over that period. However, if we account for the Black population change over the same period in those core cities, only 19 of the 35 gained Black residents, and the total change in Black population among the cities was -7.2 percent.
The table below illustrates how Black population growth fell or failed to keep pace with the overall rate of population growth in core cities across the nation:
Overall population in San Francisco and Oakland grew by nearly 20 percent from 1990-2020; yet, Black population fell by nearly 42 percent over the same period. In Atlanta, overall population grew by 26.6 percent while Black population fell by 14.8 percent. Seattle’s overall population grew by nearly 43 percent, while its Black population fell by 1.1 percent.
If cities are growing while Black residents are leaving, who’s moving in? Well, pretty much everyone else. Take Atlanta. Between 1990 and 2020, non-Black residents – Whites, Latinos, Asians, mixed-race persons and other groups more than doubled, taking the city of Atlanta from being a Black majority city to a Black plurality city in 30 years. Chicago’s population has been virtually stagnant for the same period, mostly due to the overwhelming out-migration of Blacks to suburbia and beyond. In 1990 Blacks were the largest demographic in Chicago; in 2020 they were third behind Whites and Latinos.
Where are Black residents going? For the most part, to the suburbs. Suburban Atlanta may be one of the best examples of Black suburban population growth. Between 1990 and 2020, Atlanta’s Black population dropped by nearly 15 percent. The metropolitan area, however, with the city excised out of the data, dramatically increased its number of Black residents, going from 460,000 in 1990 to more than 1.8 million in 2020 – an astounding 3.9 times more Black residents in the suburbs.
Even in Chicago, a much slower-growing city and metro area compared to Atlanta, Black suburban population jumped by 69 percent even as the city’s Black population fell by 26 percent. In many cases it appears that Black former city residents of one metro area are moving to the suburbs of another.
The Consequences of Black Flight
What are the culprits? It depends on the city. In some cities, rising home prices are displacing Black residents. In others, poor economic prospects and rising crime might be pushing Black residents out. Or, it could be as simple as Black people doing what many other people have done for decades before them – choosing to move to the suburbs or other metro areas with presumably better opportunities and better living. That may be the case for Blacks in the short term, but not so much in mid- and long-term scenarios.
There will be consequences for Black suburban flight. The first and perhaps easiest to see will be an erosion of the Black political base and support. Blacks moving to suburbia will take their votes with them, and move away from densely populated areas with concentrated districts to places that are diffuse by nature. This will not be immediately evident in the highest tiers of local government, such as a big city mayor, where successful candidates depend on their ability to build broad coalitions. Eric Adams of New York City and Lori Lightfoot of Chicago, for example, got into office on the strength of coalition building. Legislators elected from council districts or wards that will be redrawn based on the changing demographics, however, are the ones who stand to lose the most at first. In Chicago, Latinos and Asians are calling for City Council ward remapping that acknowledges their population gains and desire for greater representation. Meanwhile, Black aldermen are seeking to hold on to something resembling the existing framework. Over time change would likely further filter up the tiers of government.
Black suburban flight will also lead to significant political realignment in suburban areas as well. The Atlanta metro area’s impact on statewide Georgia elections is often explained by the influence of recent transplants from the Northeast and Midwest, but the share of Blacks among the transplants is much higher in suburban Atlanta than in the city itself. It’s begun to blur blue and red political distinctions in metro Atlanta, and turn Georgia into a true swing state politically.
Black suburban flight has also sparked another movement in metro Atlanta: The “cityhood” movement. Throughout the metro, unincorporated areas are seeking to incorporate as new towns, and in some cases portions of existing towns are seeking to secede and form new communities. Perhaps the most high profile of these efforts is the Buckhead cityhood movement, an effort to carve out Atlanta’s Buckhead neighborhood as a separate municipality. Proponents of the movement say that overall rising crime in Atlanta and a desire for locals to exert more control over the community are reason enough for the movement. As Atlanta’s wealthiest community, its separation from Atlanta would result in significant tax losses.
Metro Atlanta may just be a harbinger of what’s to come in other metro areas.
Black flight could also lead to huge economic consequences as well. Moving to the suburbs may put more Black households further away from city job opportunities; indeed, businesses currently located in the suburbs may relocate to cities to be close to the rising demographic they desire – young, diverse and educated Millennials and Zoomers. New Black suburban residents may find themselves in suburban locations that don’t have the public infrastructure, amenities and services they’re accustomed to. Robust street networks with accompanying sidewalks and streetlights? Parks with easily available – and free – recreational activities? Mass transit access? These are things built into the framework of our largest cities, but are often lacking in suburban areas. New residents may demand these, without access to the resources needed to gain them.
Perhaps most troubling, though, is that suburban housing values and rents may stagnate in places, even fall. One lesson learned from the Great Migration is that as Black residents attain a certain level in communities, housing demand from Whites, Latinos and Asians in that area begins to decline – and prices adjust accordingly. Fewer eyes on the housing inventory means the chance to gain the equity most want from homeownership diminishes.
Not All Suburbs Are Bad …
If this sounds completely negative regarding Black residents and suburbia, I don’t mean it to be so. I am, myself, a Black man who’s lived comfortably in the suburbs for many years, and I don’t believe all suburbs will undergo this process. In fact, I envision suburbs developing the kind of patchwork pattern of affluence and poverty that we’ve generally associated with cities for years. Ironically, I see cities becoming more reliably and uniformly affluent – an outcome urbanists from decades ago may never have imagined, but coming at the expense of the vast suburban periphery.
The key difference lies in the fragmented nature of suburbia, especially as seen in metro areas throughout much of the eastern half of the nation. This fragmentation will play a role in identifying suburban “winners” and “losers”. Affluent suburbs will remain so because they have (or will have) commercial/retail hubs, office complexes and high-priced residential properties that will generate property tax revenue. That can assist in fending off decline; well-off suburbs will be able to use the resources to revitalize declining areas. The future could be quite different for communities that don’t remake themselves as desirable destinations within a new metropolitan context.
I sincerely hope we can develop policies that prevent metro areas from adopting a new version of the feudal pattern that was prevalent in the Europe of the Middle Ages. Are we up to the challenge?