Black Impact on Cities: A Chicken and Egg Question

If there’s any overarching theme I’ve tried to espouse for this blog, it’s been to present urban planning in particular, and urbanism in general, from an African-American perspective.  Especially when it comes to the Rust Belt, however defined, I’ve long believed that black perspectives and opinions on conditions have been lacking.  My many digressions about Detroit are a result of that, and the fact that it is my hometown.
One thing I’ve always wondered about is the impact of African-American physical presence in our major cities.  Surely most people know of the cultural contributions that have come from black urbanization due to the Great Migration – blues, jazz, R&B, hip hop, language, among others – but what has our physical presence meant to cities and metro areas?  I ask this with the general belief that previous urban migrations – from early Irish immigrants to later Eastern and Southern European migrants – have had a positive impact on our cities and the economic health of our nation.
What seems evident is that our physical presence prompted and perpetuated a response that has hurt our cities, and by extension our metro areas, until just recently.  A few charts seem to bear this out.

I analyzed demographic data from the top 50 metropolitan statistical areas (MSAs) of the U.S., or all those with a population of one million or more.  Basically, I wanted to ask three questions: 1) does central city black population exhibit any impact on MSA household income?   2) does central city black population exhibit any impact on MSA GDP (gross domestic product) per capita?  3) does central city black population exhibit any impact on central city population loss?  Here’s what I found, in charts:

Here I compared 2011 MSA median household income figures from the U.S. Census with 2010 central city black population percentages (one note: for Minneapolis and St. Paul, San Francisco and Oakland, Tampa and St. Petersburg, Riverside and San Bernardino, and Norfolk and Hampton, I added the two central cities together).  Using the linear trendline, it appears there is a slight correlation – the higher the central city black population, the lower the overall MSA median household income.  For reference, the MSA in the upper left with a high median household income yet low black population is San Jose/Silicon Valley, and the lower right is Detroit.

Here, instead of median household income I compared GDP per capita with central city black population, and found a similar slight correlation.  Again, San Jose/Silicon Valley is at the upper left and Detroit is at the far right.  However, Riverside/San Bernardino stands as an outlier here in the lower left quadrant, with a low GDP per capita as well as a low central city black population.
If you want to see a stronger correlation, however, the above chart tells that story.  Here I compared 1970 central city black population percentages with 1970-2010 central city population growth rates, and the relationship is much stronger.  The higher the central city black population in 1970, the greater the population loss witnessed by that city between 1970 and 2010.  Of the 28 MSAs with a central city black population over 20 percent in 1970, only 11 showed a population increase since then.  Conversely, of the 22 MSAs with less than 20 percent central city black population, 17 grew since then.  Put another way: the 28 MSAs with large black populations grew on average ten percent between 1970 and 2010; the 22 with smaller black populations, almost 70 percent.

I will readily admit I’m no scientist, and I’m not trying to present this data with any kind of scientific certainty.  And, as I’ve often heard, correlation is not causation.  However, this appears to be more than simply a coincidence.  The arrival of blacks from the rural South into our nation’s largest cities came at the same time that suburbanization and Sun Belt migration kicked into high gear.  What we’ve never been able to fully answer is the relationship between suburbanization and Sun Belt growth with growing black population in urban areas, particularly those in the Northeast and Midwest.  I’d like to push the idea that this dynamic is as much a response to the Great Migration as it is to the de-industrialization of our largest cities.

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