Why are Black people leaving big cities?

Kimberly Adams and Richard Cunningham Dec 27, 2021
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Chicago is the first city being spotlighted in Politico's “The Next Great Migration," which outlines how the exodus of a city's Black residents can impact its politics and economy. Scott Olson via Getty Images

Why are Black people leaving big cities?

Kimberly Adams and Richard Cunningham Dec 27, 2021
Heard on:
Chicago is the first city being spotlighted in Politico's “The Next Great Migration," which outlines how the exodus of a city's Black residents can impact its politics and economy. Scott Olson via Getty Images
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The 2020 census shows that Black residents are moving out of urban centers. This isn’t a new trend either, as Black populations in major cities across the country have been shrinking for the past 20 years.

Brakkton Booker, a national political correspondent at Politico and author of the Recast newsletter, says that this trend extends to “Black meccas” — historic communities that shaped African American culture — like Detroit, Philadelphia, New York and Washington D.C. 

Major changes to a city’s demographic can change its economy, politics and culture. Politico’s The Recast, a newsletter covering race, identity and politics, is investigating the growing trend in a series called “The Next Great Migration.”

This alludes to the Great Migration, where over six million Black Americans moved from the Jim Crow South to the North, escaping rampant racism and searching for new and better economic opportunities. Politico’s series begins in Chicago, where over 260,000 African Americans have left in the last 20 years, which has drastic implications for the city’s economic and political landscape

Marketplace’s Kimberly Adams spoke to Politico’s Brakkton Booker about the new series, the Black exodus from urban centers, and its economic and political implications. The following is an edited transcript of the conversation.

Brakkton Booker: The census figures are coming out earlier this year, we were just kinda crunching the numbers just trying to see, well, what kind of stories could we tell, and the thing that kept coming up was like, “Where are all these Black folks going?” We’re seeing just a steep decline, and when we started looking at, “What are some of the major cities that have a huge Black population?” So many cities had lost population over the course of 20 years, because we wanted to look back over the course of a generation here and so we started digging in and tried to come up with some really good stories, and Chicago was where we landed first.

Kimberly Adams: OK, I’m gonna circle back to Chicago in a minute. But you’re calling this “The Next Great Migration.” Why is that?

Booker: It’s sort of like a “Blaxit,” right, an exodus of Black Americans from cities that were sort of these beacons of the original Great Migration from the 1920s. So right around when World War I began, and the industries in cities were starting to pick up production, those were like beacons for Black Americans trying to find a better life and trying to escape Jim Crow-era laws. So they were moving from the Jim Crow South to the North in many cases, or into the Midwest. So what we’re seeing now is people are moving away, trying to find better lives. And that’s why we called it “The Next Great Migration,” because we are trying to figure out where these broad populations of African Americans are moving to.

Adams: What has been your takeaway so far about why Black residents are migrating from major cities to the suburbs?

Booker: Well, it’s not just the suburbs, but that is certainly a place where they are going. What we’re seeing, though, is that, you know, instead of Black folks moving from, you know, one major city to another because of economic reasons, we’re seeing that folks are moving sometimes to the southern parts of the country, where it’s warmer, yes, than Chicago or for some of the cities in the Midwest. But you’re also seeing that folks have a lot more options. They can work from home, now that this is part of the culture that has kind of been brought on by the pandemic. And so people are not forced to live in cities as much anymore. And so they’re picking up and choosing places to go that they can provide a better life for their family.

Adams: Yeah, but that remote work thing is a pandemic trend, and you’re talking about a trend over 20 years. What happened in the last two decades that made Black people in many cases want to leave the city?

Booker: Well, a lot of it really has to do with disinvestment, right? A lot of promises are made by politicians that they’re going to invest in making sure streets are paved, making sure that neighborhoods are safe. And when politicians’ rhetoric does not match up with the reality, when the campaign promises don’t come to fruition, those that have the opportunity to leave are deciding like, “Hey, should we try to make it work in the city that we’ve called home, my family’s called home for generations? Or do we need to pick up and just try something new? We can always come back home, right? We can always come back to the city that we have roots in, but if we want to try to, you know, get to the next rung of economic security, maybe we need to just pick up and try something else in a different city.” And I think that’s what you’re seeing.

Adams: Your first focus in this series is Chicago. Tell me a little bit more about why you picked that city.

Booker: With Chicago is a microcosm of a lot of cities, you know, and it really told the story of what’s going on with demographic shifts in this country. And so what we’re seeing on the local level is how the changes in demographics are really impacting politics. So we see on the city council, that there is this battle between the Black Caucus and the Latino Caucus over redrawing the Chicago district map. You know, the Black Caucus is trying to hold on to a number of seats, and the Latino Caucus has grown, and, actually, they will get one or two more districts and they think they should be getting more. And so there’s this power struggle playing out right now about who gets control over redrawing of the city maps for the next 10 years, and who gets to pick who gets to represent those people in those districts.

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