Demographically, is the U.S. now in a reverse migration? Are African-Americans moving back to the South?

I just spent about five days in Memphis, TN. That’s a (generally speaking) very black, very historical, very proud, very connected back to the US historical landscape (rock n’ roll) place. I’m not from the South, I’ve never lived for extended periods in the South (I have lived in Houston, but I would call Houston “Texas” and not “the South,” and those two things are different), and I honestly don’t think I’ve had a ton of contextual experience around the idea of the South. I did spend about 2-3 hours at a hotel bar on Friday night talking to a dude from Jackson, MS. As he got progressively more bombed, his discussions of “business in the South vs. North” (the South takes more time to cultivate relationships, essentially) gradually faded towards out-and-out racism about the South. Needless to say, that got awkward. (If you’re interested, I was ultimately rescued from this situation by a criminology professor from a college in Mississippi, who ended up talking to me about death penalty stats for a while.)

I came home and I wanted to write something about the American South and demographics, and lo and behold, lookie here … it’s the cover story of the new Christian Science Monitor. It’s a good story (a great story) and obviously has many tiers — race, economics, politics, Katrina, North and South ideals, etc. — but here’s kind of the crux of it, as told through one woman who left the South in the 1950s for better opportunities in the North, then left the North in 2012:

Her decision to move stemmed as much from a desire to flee the North as it did to settle in the South. In that sense, she reflects the sentiments of some of the new migrants. Some critics, in fact, have portrayed the reverse migration as an indictment of the urban North – as a flight from the lack of jobs, the abundance of mean streets, and the growing social woes of Northern cities.

There have been different studies/research on this — some will claim that the American Southeast has poor social mobility, in general — and broadly speaking, it’s an interesting topic. Aside from just race, it ties up with some bigger questions: How important is it for people to be near a sense of home, or return to that? I live in Minnesota now, where it appears no one ever leaves — and if they do, they come back within five or six years. That’s a northern state, but it’s also a Midwestern state, which conjures up its own contextual understandings. Meanwhile, no one is really from Colorado or Arizona as of a few generations ago, but those places are essentially booming. The decisions people make about where to move and where to live — what ultimately dictates those? Family? Friends? Jobs? Weather? Inequality? And if we’re now seeing a reverse migration of African-Americans back to the South, what does that mean for the South across the next two-three decades?

Then there’s this:

Either way, America’s profile changes. In 1960, 85 percent of Americans were white and 10 percent were black. Now, 63 percent are white, 13 percent black, 17 percent Hispanic and 5 percent Asian. In 2050, those shares are projected to be 47 percent white, 13 percent black, 28 percent Hispanic and 8 percent Asian.

In the course of 90 years, then, America will go from a predominantly white/European-immigrant culture to a still-predominantly white, but increasingly Hispanic/Asian culture, with African-American growth relatively similar. This has tremendous implications for politics, economics, language, familial structure, resource management, and basically everything else.

In developed countries (i.e. the U.S.), most estimates have the population living in cities around 78 percent. If that’s accurate, what would that mean if this reverse migration idea was true? Would cities such as Memphis, Atlanta (already called “The Black Mecca” in that CS Monitor article), Durham, Charlotte, et al become the black equivalent of America in the 1960s (hovering around 80 percent African-American, that is)? There’s your major political shift, if so.

I’m not a political scientist or a sociologist, so some of this post is just sketched-out questions rather than definitive answers. What’s clear is this, though: in just the past half-century, the demographic makeup of the United States has shifted fairly dramatically, and in the next half-century, it shall do so again. Culturally and contextually, we need to appreciate what this means for our cities (where we’re mostly living) and our associated societal constructs.

Ted Bauer


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