U.S. cities have experienced a discernible decline in the number of African Americans who call them home and leading the way out have been African American parents with small children. Decades ago the Great Migration out of the poverty and discrimination they experienced in the U.S. south brought historic numbers of African Americans to urban centers of the north. Now African Americans are experiencing a significant population shift back to the south and out of cities and into suburbs.
Part of the reason for this demographic reversal can be characterized as good news. Many African Americans have maintained familial and psychological ties with the South. Reversing their grandparents’ flight to the north has felt like a kind of homecoming. African Americans were kept out of white suburbs in manners subtle and less so in the recent past. That is changing and now many young African Americans are moving to the nation’s suburbs for the same reasons that have lured other groups out of the cities for decades: lower cost of living, better schools, more room for young families. Unfortunately many have been leaving because they simply cannot afford to get by in rapidly gentrifying neighborhoods and the cost of living escalation associated with them. Many others are leaving because they perceive fewer opportunities in U.S. cities like Chicago, Detroit and New York as state budgets tighten and unemployment remains precariously high.
It is hard to know whether to welcome or worry over this emerging demographic trend. The Associated Press reports a dramatic reduction in the number of African American children who call the sidewalks of New York home, due primarily to the aforementioned suburban shift and partly due to a dramatic reduction in the rate of teen pregnancy within the community (a drop that, unfortunately, has not been accompanied by a parallel reduction in the abortion rate among African American teens, which remains fixed at 41 percent of all pregnancies). Good news troubled by the possibility that the movement reflects not just a growth in opportunity in the south and suburbs but its compression in urban areas in the north and concern over the fate of the sometimes struggling African American communities left behind by the shift. Does the "black flight" leave behind a concentration of poverty and its related pathologies in U.S. cities? Does it represent a political and cultural brain drain that will lead to the further marginalization of such neighborhoods?
In the most positive light the trend could mean more integrated communities in U.S. suburbs and small towns and a parallel emergence in urban neighborhoods opening up to whites, Asians and Hispanics, even if now such a transition is scorned as gentrification and not welcomed as an expression of growing urban diversity and communal tolerance. In the long term, this ripple of the Great Migration could lead to a more diverse and vibrant life in both U.S. cities and its suburbs and that can only be to the good.