Blacks Take Flight

Crime, other factors driving African-Americans out of many U.S. cities 

by Brendan Kirby | Updated 30 May 2016 at 12:30 AM

As the body count mounts in Chicago, the Windy City is hemorrhaging black residents. The African-American population has shrunk by nearly 20 percent since 2000.

You have a whole upwardly mobile group who can afford a better life, and they are pursuing it.

Chicago is no outlier. Atlanta, Washington, Oakland, Baltimore, and Kansas City are among the cities where the black population declined at a much faster rate between 2000 and 2014 than the population as a whole, according to the Census Bureau. In some cases, the black population has shrunk even as the overall population has remained stable or increased.

Fear over personal safety appears to be one of the drivers. Although crime has declined dramatically over the past couple of decades, the murder rate has spiked recently in some cities. What’s more, poorer black residents tend to live in high-crime areas of cities.

“Crime is one of them, a big one,” said BlackDemographics.com founder Akiim DeShay, when asked to speculate on the reason for the exodus. “Schools are a big one, as well … You have a whole upwardly mobile group who can afford a better life, and they are pursuing it.”

In some ways, black flight is following the same pattern of white flight from earlier generations that reshaped American cities for decades. DeShay said even blacks with fewer resources are searching to better alternatives. He pointed to the St. Louis metropolitan area. While wealthier blacks fleeing the urban center choose relatively affluent suburbs like Black Jack, lower-income blacks relocate to places like Ferguson.

“Everyone wants the American Dream,” he said. “It’s similar to the reasons that we saw in the 1980s.”

To be sure, crime concern is just one of several factors pushing blacks away from cities. William Frey, a research professor at the University of Michigan and a Brookings Institution fellow, said economics is driving the changes as much as anything. A big reason for the decline of blacks in northern cities is due to African-Americans moving south for better job opportunities. He said that college-educated blacks and black retirees make up the two largest groups of relocating African-Americans.

Frey, author of "Diversity Explosion: How Racial Demographics Are Remaking America," noted that the black population of several Northern states has declined in recent years. He added that nine of the 10 cities with the largest number of blacks also experienced decreases between 2000 and 2010.

A more recent trend is suburbanization. Half of all black residents now live in the suburbs, up from 43 percent in 2000. Frey said gentrification has played a role in some cities with a rapidly rising wealth population, but he said that trend is too old to explain the recent surge in relocating black families. Blacks from Washington created the first African-American suburb, in Maryland's Prince George's County, decades ago.

The trend is widespread across the country, involving cities with both high crime and low crime, and with and without gentrification. Blacks relocating to metro areas dominated by large black cities are increasingly choosing suburban homes, he said.

"Even Atlanta, all of the growth in the black population was in the suburbs," he said. "Blacks are kind of the last group to be included in it."

Cities with Black Population Declines
City2000-2014 Change
Detroit-27.4%
Oakland-26.4%
Chicago-18.9%
Cleveland-18.0%
Los Angeles-14.7%
Atlanta-8.8%
Washington-8.5%
Baltimore-6.4%
Kansas City-1.6%
Source: Census Bureau

Anecdotally, crime in some places is accelerating the trend. Kyle Travis, a former Chicago resident, told WTTW that he decided to move his family to the suburb of Matteson after being hit in the arm by a stray bullet three years ago while he was on his way home from the grocery store.

"You can't help anyone else, whether it be through civic engagement, social responsibility, etc., if you're not at peace at home," he said.

Heather Mac Donald, a crime researcher at the conservative Manhattan Institute, agreed that violence is pushing out the black middle class.

"I would think that's one of the main issues — and when they say bad schools, well part of what makes schools bad is the violence there, " she said. "The violence is so pervasive that anybody who does have the means to escape it is going to want to do so."

Mac Donald pointed to a 15 percent increase in homicides in America's 30 largest cities last year, a development she tied to the Black Lives Matter movement and a hyper-scrutiny placed on police. She predicted that will continue.

"Officers would have to really feel confident that the top brass has their back," she said. "But the media is going to seize upon any video … I don't see the media backing off on that. And the Black Lives Matter movement shows no signs of backing away. And certainly, if we have Hillary Clinton for a president, she's going to continue the rhetoric of Barack Obama and possibly amplify it."

Whether it's crime or economics, the departure of the black middle class threatens to cause the same kind of disruption to cities that the earlier exodus of middle-class whites once did.

"The left-behind part of the population will probably stay stagnant, or maybe even get a little bit worse," said Frey, the Brookings fellow.

DeShay, of BlackDemographics.com, has personally participated in the trend. He grew up in Rochester, New York, and was living in a poor area in the eastern section of the city when he moved his family to the suburbs more than 15 years ago.

"When we left, I felt guilty, because I felt like I was contributing to the problem," he said. "And in a sense, I was."

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