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What's Causing a Half Century of "Black Flight"?

Where did all the Black people go? If you live in an urban neighborhood and don’t spend your free time looking at the U.S. census, you might ask yourself this question, puzzled by the dissonance between the evidence of your eyes and your vague sense that most Black people live in cities, right?

In the U.S., the terms inner city and urban have long been code words for Black areas. They are used to evoke the stereotype of a Black underclass, confined to public-housing units or low-income housing, entrenching the belief that this population is somehow inherently meant for city life while also denigrating city life as dirty, crowded, and utterly undesirable. During the 2016 presidential debates, for instance, then-candidate Donald Trump repeatedly referred to African Americans living in “the inner cities.” When asked about the nation’s racial divide or being a president to “all the people in the United States,” he repeatedly evoked the stereotype that Black people largely live in inner cities wracked by crime.

To make this stereotype work in the 21st century requires overlooking one key fact: Black families have been absconding from cities for decades. In a recent paper, the economists Alex Bartik and Evan Mast note that over the past 50 years, the share of the Black population living in the 40 most populous central cities in the U.S. fell from 40 percent to 24 percent. They are not the first to highlight this phenomenon. Demographers and sociologists in particular have been noting this trend for decades. As the Brookings Institution demographer William Frey has documented, from 2000 to 2010, the Black population of the central cities in America’s 100 largest metro areas decreased by 300,000. Detroit, Chicago, and New York (prime destinations during the Great Migration) as well as Atlanta, Dallas, and Los Angeles all saw declines in their Black populations.

What this geographic shift has meant for Black Americans is complicated, and there are many stories to tell—of families moving to opportunity, of inequality replicating itself when they get there, and of the people left behind. In 1968, Congress passed the Fair Housing Act and outlawed discrimination in the housing market. This did not eradicate housing inequality, but it did give Black households much more freedom to actualize their preferences of where to live and whom to live among. More than 50 years later, we are still seeing how those preferences shape the nation’s geography of opportunity.

In the early 20th century, in what would come to be called the Great Migration, Black Americans urbanized, eager for the promise of a better life in the North, Midwest, and West. From 1910 to 1970, 6 million people left the Jim Crow South, “seeking political asylum within the borders of their own country, not unlike refugees in other parts of the world fleeing famine, war and pestilence,” the historian Isabel Wilkerson wrote in 2016.

Not only the pull of opportunity, but also the push of exclusion acted upon Black migrants. As they fled the South, many white Americans closed ranks around homogenous communities, denying them entry, particularly in the suburbs. Racist housing policies, more than any preference for urban life, shaped 20th-century Black residential trends. These practices were no secret and yet many Americans came to think of crowded, poverty-ridden central cities as a sort of natural environment for Black people, perhaps because this falsehood would seem to justify unequal living conditions.

Read entire article at The Atlantic