Chasing Yesterday’s Dreams

Counter-cyclical aspirational migration.

My friend Jim Russell brought this term up to me on Twitter recently, and I find it to be a very clinical, technical but very accurate term for a problem I see — African-Americans moving away from areas of greatest potential future economic opportunity.

Our discussion started when Russell noted a report at that highlighted the growing numbers of blacks leaving Northern cities in the Rust Belt and relocating to the South.  Many doing so are second or third generation Northerners who see a lack of opportunity in their current homes, and see something better for them in the Sun Belt:

After living his entire life in Toledo, Ohio, Angelo Byrd happened upon an opportunity to move to Atlanta several years ago at age 25. The move from Ohio, he said, set him on a course of professional and financial success that has caused him to never look back.

Living in Atlanta, he said, has offered him an opportunity to live among far more fellow African-Americans in an area where he finds more varied and interesting things to do culturally. 

“There just are more of us and more of us in prominent roles,” said Byrd, who is now director of transportation for J.B. Hunt, the large transportation company, in an interview with “I feel more comfortable in a place where Black people are doing important things. I feel there is more of an advantage to being here.”

This is actually not a new phenomenon.  As the story reports, the 2000 U.S. Census showed all Southern states as net migration gainers of blacks for the first time in decades.  I first heard of this trend from demographer William Frey ten years ago, and it’s only accelerated since then.

I find this trend curious.  Many migrants are economically driven, moving for better job opportunities or lower cost of living.  But there are a significant number of migrants who are moving to restore old family ties, retirees seeking to return to the home of their childhood, or to escape Northern winters.  I guess I find it curious because after decades of increased economic opportunity in the Sun Belt compared to the Rust Belt, things seem to be leveling, and the advantage one would have had, say, in the 1990s by moving there has largely disappeared.

Counter-cyclical aspirational migration.

The trend that worries me even more, however, is that of increasing suburban migration of African-American city dwellers.  For example, it’s been well noted that Chicago’s black population dropped by nearly 200,000 between 2000 and 2010, a decrease of -17.1%  What’s less discussed is the suburban increase of the black population in the Combined Statistical Area, which grew by 125,000, or 19.3%.  Similar trends are evident in other metro areas around the country — if blacks are not leaving Northeastern or Midwestern cities for the South, they’re leaving them for the suburbs.

Why do I find this troubling?  Blacks may to be moving away from their economic interests, even when they think they’re moving toward them.  Any number of publications has noted since the beginning of this decade that people are choosing cities again.  Businesses are moving.  Seniors are returning.

As a result, wealth is returning to cities in greater numbers than has been seen in 50 years.

Blacks who stay are able to participate in the formation of the new urban-focused American economy, but those who move away may remove any possibility of that.  That has me concerned.

Counter-cyclical aspirational migration.

One thought on “Chasing Yesterday’s Dreams

  1. May I key you in on a line of thought I have had that is related to this. Ultimately I agree with your post and I would go further. I think the real problem is the cessation of creating new black communities. Back in the day, even in the midst of segregation, there was an economic backbone to our neighborhoods even if they were unappreciated and constantly undermined. But you haven't seen any new patterns, other than the reversal of our parents and grandparents to places that didn't seem all that interested in us when they left. And the small outposts that exists outside your typical Great Migration patterns haven't drawn many their direction.. I look west to the smaller west coast and mountain states (like WA, OR, CO or NM) as the next step. Now getting people to buy in and set a foundation for other people to follow this is the hard part.


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