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Moving While Black

African Americans are migrating to the South—and that’s supposed to be a bad thing?

Black people have been moving. South, that is, according to a recent and widely read piece in the Times—more, according to the latest census data, than since 1910. And from this article and the census, what we see is that black people first of all are able to move: They have the means to, and if they choose to live among whites, they are encountering ever less opposition to doing so. Moreover, it would appear that typically the black people moving are content with their decision. That’s news: After all, it wasn’t so long ago that most blacks in the North were penned into ghetto districts regardless of class level or income. Only with the Fair Housing Act in 1968 was this formally outlawed, and the lay of the land hardly changed immediately after that.

Thus, one might think that black people moving in droves would be looked upon with joy, if anything, especially given that this story was not about people trudging away from their homes in despair, and was illustrated with a photo of a black couple thoroughly happy with their move from Washington, D.C., to Atlanta. Black people now have a basic right of American citizenship, to choose where to live. And they do, all the time. Good news, right?

Apparently not, according to a number of commentators: The conclusions that these usual suspects have drawn from the census data have been almost awesome in what we might call their creative brand of concern. It has been symptomatic of a commonplace in race writing of our moment, a notion that for black people, Moving Day is a tragedy. Not overtly, of course. But the idea is that we sophisticates need only scratch the surface to see that what looks like progress is just more raisins drying out in the sun.

Take Walter Russell Mead’s response to the census data, titled “Black and Blue,” which says that blacks are “fleeing” from urban centers, even though the Times has in fact given us a positive portrait of the phenomenon. “The black urban experience has essentially lost its appeal with blacks in America,” Mead quotes from a history professor in the article, printing it in bold italics, when this quote was in fact atypical of the article’s thrust. “The failure of blue social policy to create an environment which works for Blacks is the most devastating possible indictment of the 20th century liberal enterprise in the United States,” Mead intones. But if the black people moving are indeed tired of what ails cities, last time I checked, this was an issue among all people grappling with the ills of America’s urban spaces. Why is this a black problem specifically? What exactly is “an environment for Blacks,” as Mead puts it, as if he were talking about some kind of special conditions for an exotic creature in a zoo?

Perhaps the mental picture is supposed to be blacks in the Great Migration fleeing the South and finding decent employment and less overt racism in Northern cities, but now having to pack up and move back down South, “buffeted” by the currents of a cruel social history. But for one, it’s not as if today’s South is the same inhospitable one from the days of Strom Thurmond, such that the North is the safest “environment for Blacks”—one of the interviewees in the Times article even notes that we’re dealing with a New South. I, for one, could easily imagine leaving Jersey City, where I live, for Atlanta, and it would most certainly not be because Jersey City “failed” me as a source of safe harbor as a black person.

In a similar vein, Charles Blow’s read of the census data is that black New Yorkers are moving, at least in part, to get away from excessive stop-and-frisks. Yet despite the fact that I agree that the excessive stop-and-frisks, and the fruitless War on Drugs they stem from, are poison in our society, Blow’s point here, based on no evidence whatsoever, is the weakest argument I have seen him put forth in his entire stint at the Times. Typically, Blow makes smart use of data to make revealing observations, but here, I almost wonder whether he secretly hired a sub that week. Once again, black tragedy is being crafted in almost literary fashion out of nothing but hunches and noble sentiment.

More empirically rooted than Mead and Blow but still curiously unobjective is U Penn historian Thomas Sugrue’s observation that blacks leaving Detroit are leaving not for sitcom-leafy suburbs, but aging “inner-ring” suburbs with less-than-vibrant business districts. Sugrue is not alone in seeing bad news in black people moving to such areas, the idea being that a recapitulation of inner-city ills may be forthcoming. But the question here is whether we must really read it as tragic when black people move to something less than picture-perfect suburbs. Sugrue’s book on the decline of Detroit and his equally awesome history of civil rights in the North show that he knows how to identify truth. Here, however, he is presenting as wise counsel the idea that for black people, only a move to paradise is progress, and that is simply not truth. Glass half-full, for one: Is the inner-ring suburb still a step up from where the people were? And: Will they be in that inner-ring suburb forever? The economy is bad now, yes, but people have been making this inner-ring argument for 20 years even when times were flush.

It’s almost odd to see Sugrue presenting such an argument until one considers a long tradition of gimlet eyes cast upon black people moving in the ‘70s and afterward. For example, one thing about these less-shiny suburbs that we apparently must watch out for is if too many of their residents are black, it being part of another trope in treatments of black relocation that it’s no good if black people end up still among other black people. Douglas Massey and Nancy Denton’s now-classic American Apartheid is the Bible on this supposed wisdom, oft-quoted by people worried about what we could call Moving While Black. Their logic: “During times of recession, therefore, viable and economically stable black neighborhoods are rapidly transformed into areas of intense socioeconomic deprivation. Joblessness, welfare dependency, and single parenthood become the norm, and crime and disorder are inextricably woven into the fabric of daily life.”

But wait—why is chronic joblessness, welfare dependency, and single parenthood the inevitable result of hard times in a black neighborhood? After all, this was not the case in black ghettoes before the ‘60s—and more to the point, it isn’t today in a “segregated” Latino neighborhood like the Mexican Little Village area in Chicago, which Massey and Denton state “continues to house a variety of supermarkets, banks, restaurants, bakeries, travel agents, butchers, auto shops, hardware stores, and other retail outlets,” while black North Lawndale right next door is a typical violent slum.

Massey and Denton attribute the difference to the fact that Little Village is not all Mexican—namely, that Little Village when they studied it was only 75 percent Mexican while North Lawndale was, you see, 98 percent black. But imagine presenting them with a typical black inner-city in which, as it happened, three out of four people there were black instead of 98 percent. Would they scratch their heads wondering why it wasn’t a peaceful working-class enclave like Little Village? What’s the tipping point between 75 percent and 98 percent, and why?

There isn’t one. Clearly there are tricky issues of culture that make the difference here, and whatever we think they are and how we decide to address them, the idea that the issue is merely one of too many black people in one place ought to be much more deeply disturbing to thinking people than it is. To dutifully read census tracts and decry when too many black people are living among other black ones is, quite simply, to have a problem with there being black neighborhoods. That’s progressive?

Georgetown Law Professor Sheryll Cashin had an especially creative take on this way of thinking in her book, The Failures of Integration, that got around a little while back. It does happen that black people move to pleasant, thriving black neighborhoods—and not uncommonly: As Reynolds Farley and William Frey documented in an article in the American Sociological Review in 1994, blacks moving to such communities in the South and West was a major trend starting in the ‘80s. But for Cashin, even this won’t do. She documented that black people who move even to affluent black suburbs typically find that less-affluent blacks move close by before long, into housing left behind by whites who relocated as the area changed color. With a near-sense of righteous glee in snooty blacks getting their just desserts for “abandoning” their poorer brethren, Cashin argued that affluent blacks should give up their dream of escaping poor blacks and stay in the ghetto to help with uplift efforts.

But there’s a logical problem here. Cashin is typical in her espousal of cross-class black communities, recapitulating the ironic benefit in the old days of middle-class blacks serving as role models for the poor ones they had to live among. Okay: But why couldn’t that happen when poorer blacks move out to the ‘burbs with the richer ones? Cashin’s problem, it would seem, is with richer blacks moving at all, because doing so means separating themselves from the others, which is to her, it would seem, morally indefensible in itself. Once again, what most would think of as The Jeffersons “movin’ on up” is, to our mandarin class, something to decry, even if the complaint is as studied as Cashin’s.

Certainly we must be vigilant. But the smart literature on black relocation is caught in a professional Cassandraism that casts striving, proud black people as passive data points in a construct committed to perpetual rage at “institutional racism,” at the cost of downplaying black happiness and success. If black people stay in the city, they are “penned in” by discrimination; if they leave, it is more a matter of escape than departure. If that departure is to humbler black communities, we must decry “segregation,” and if the humble communities are mixed-race then we must bemoan the tragic inner-ring humbleness itself and the tragedy that they couldn’t do any better. On the other hand, if black people leave for affluent communities, black or not, then we must question their leaving poor blacks behind—and be on the watch for poorer blacks to move in near them sooner or later, where they will recapitulate the slum everybody thought they were escaping. In other words, we are to understand that most black mobility is suspect.

It would be interesting to see what black people before the Fair Housing Act would make of professors and journalists 50 years later depicting most black relocation as bad news and thinking of this as speaking up for a race on the march. As the Reverend Ronald Peters says in the Times article, in a statement much more emblematic of its tone than Walter Russell Mead’s nimble extraction, “The black community is not people who have lost their way.” In truth, these are quite often people who know exactly where they are going—and signing mortgages and doing it. All we have to do is take a timeout to think about real people making real decisions in the real world to see that the diligent doomsayers' wisdom will be of limited relevance to genuine black progress.

John McWhorter is a contributing editor at The New Republic.

Follow @tnr on Twitter.