Black Americans are leaving the biggest cities in the Northern United States. The numbers of Black people living in New York, Chicago, Detroit, Baltimore, and Washington D.C., have declined by more than 9 percent during the past 20 years, according to U.S. census data. Detroit has lost more than 35 percent of its Black residents; Chicago, about 25 percent; Baltimore, almost 20 percent; and Washington, D.C., about 17 percent. During the same time, substantial numbers of Blacks have moved to Southern cities such as Atlanta, Houston, and Dallas, reversing the direction of the Great Migration, when 6 million Blacks moved from the South to the North from 1916 to 1970. What’s happening?

Keneshia Grant is an associate professor of political science at Howard University and the author of The Great Migration and the Democratic Party. In her view, this return migration is driven partly by simple economics: Northern cities are more expensive than Southern ones, housing space is at a premium, and many industrial jobs in urban centers have disappeared. Black people have also come to live with the knowledge, Grant says, that racism is just as pervasive in the North as in the South. Many are leaving for prosperous Southern cities, but some are also returning to the places where earlier generations of their families had lived—and some are just moving to the suburbs of Northern cities. As Grant sees it, this migration is dramatically changing politics and culture in places where Blacks are leaving. But it’s also shifting power to Black people in places where they’re arriving—and in ways that could cause major shifts in U.S. national politics.


Michael Bluhm: What’s behind the return migration?

Keneshia Grant: I’m working on a book that asks the same questions. We’re in the early stages of figuring this out.

Why Black people are leaving parallels why they went to the North as part of the Great Migration. We talk about migration in terms of push and pull factors. One of the things pulling Black people to the North was the idea that they could build a good life and good livelihood—they could get hired and work with dignity in jobs that would pay a good and honest wage, which they could use to raise families, buy homes, and otherwise accumulate wealth so they could participate in some of the things we consider belonging to the American Dream.

People in the return migration have the same ideas. They want to live where they can have work that’s meaningful and pays well. They also want to be in a community. One aspect of the Great Migration that’s part of this migration as well is people moving by hearsay: I heard Black people in Houston are doing well, so I want to go to Houston. Or, I heard Atlanta is the new Black Mecca, so I want to go to Atlanta. But one of the interesting differences between these migrations is the age of the migrant. Many people migrating now are older than the people in the Great Migration.

NCI

For example, if a woman from the South is married to a person who is from the North and gets a divorce, the high likelihood is that she might return to the South, especially if she has kids and she’s looking for a network that can support her. If people are thinking about retirement and how they could stretch a dollar in Chicago or New York, then they might be interested to move south so that they can have a better financial position.

One more thing: We think about the return migration as having a start of 1970—so almost as soon as the Great Migration ends, this return migration begins. We’re starting to talk about the return migration in popular media now, but it’s something that’s been happening for a while.

Bluhm: What about the push factors leading Black people out of these Northern cities?

Grant: Living in the North is different than living in the South, and people are tired of some aspects of the North, especially the urban North. People might be seeking to raise children in communities that are safer or include a larger population of people like them. This could mean that they’re seeking to live near people who are also Black and middle class, or Black and working class but doing well.

Push factors also include cost—the North can be expensive—and also more intangible things, like the weather.

If someone believes that racism is everywhere, then they might as well be in a place that’s cheaper or warmer.

The South is being changed by all these people moving there, but it was already changing over the course of the 20th century. There’s less of the extreme violence that people would have been fleeing when they left the South. There’s also more clarity now that racism exists throughout the United States. Many who left the South during the Great Migration believed that the North would be a place where they could achieve equality and not have to deal with racial issues. But they found that wasn’t the case. If someone believes that racism is everywhere, then they might as well be in a place that’s cheaper or warmer.

When people say Rust Belt, the images we see are of white factory workers who no longer have jobs because machines have taken over. But it’s important to remember that the people who participated in the Great Migration would have been working alongside those white people in jobs that were “good jobs”—in which people could make a living and send a kid to college. Lots of people in that story are Black, as well. When those jobs leave or change, it means a population of Black people also has to grapple with the fact that the economy has changed.

Bluhm: You mention a lot of economic factors behind the return migration. Black people are also leaving Northern cities that are thriving economically, such as New York, Chicago, or Washington, D.C. The data also show, for example, that the Black population is declining in the Chicago urban area but increasing in the Chicago suburbs. How are the economics of these Northern cities influencing the return migration?

Matthew Ansley

Grant: That would require in-depth information about each of the cities that I don’t have. The question isn’t, How is the economy of the city doing? The question is, What does the economy of that city mean for Black people? It could be that the economy of Washington, D.C., New York, or Chicago is thriving, more that the Bay Area is booming with the tech industry. But if Black people in those places aren’t part of the boom, then they have to figure out another way to live.

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