Search For Opportunities Lead Blacks Outside Cities

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In the past ten years, the racial makeup of at least two majority-black cities has shifted dramatically. Newly released census data shows that Detroit and Washington, D.C.'s black populations have dropped significantly. To understand what the change means for the cities, and the implications for other majority-black metro areas across the U.S, host Michel Martin speaks with demographer and Howard University associate professor of sociology and anthropology Roderick Harrison.

MARTIN: I'm Michel Martin, and this is TELL ME MORE from NPR News.

If you're lucky enough to have a summer vacation this year, should you put Vietnam on the list? We'll hear from a writer who tells us about the trip she took with her husband, a Navy chaplain who was just back from a tour of duty in Afghanistan. And her take might surprise you. That conversation is coming up.

But first, we want to continue our discussion on the movement of large numbers of African-Americans out of some of this country's major cities. The U.S. Census Bureau says based on both its 2000 and 2010 surveys, that black people are heading out to the suburbs or out of northern regions entirely to the south, a reversal of the great migration of the last century.

We've been speaking with former Washington, D.C. mayor, Marion Barry. He's currently a sitting member of the D.C. Council; and former Detroit mayor, Dennis Archer.

In a few minutes, we're going to bring in Roderick Harrison, a former chief of racial statistics at the U.S. Census Bureau. He's now a demographer and associate professor of sociology and anthropology at Howard University in Washington, D.C. Welcome, Professor Harrison. Thank you so much for joining us as well.

Professor RODERICK HARRISON (Sociology and Anthropology, Howard University): Thank you for inviting me.

MARTIN: I just wanted to give Dennis Archer one minute to finish the point that he was making before we took the break.

Mr. MARION BARRY (Member, D.C. City Council): I need another minute, too.

MARTIN: OK. But we need to hear from Dennis Archer to finish the point that he was making before the break. You were talking about the fact that the mortgage crisis, the foreclosure crisis has also done a lot to move people out of these cities, as well as, what?

Mr. DENNIS ARCHER (Attorney): It did because of the manner in which the mortgage debacle caused people to buy homes they couldn't afford. That's one. And then, two, when the manufacturing, a loss of jobs in the automobile industry; before 9/11, we had one out of every six jobs in the United States was related to the automobile industry.

There were a number of jobs in the city of Detroit, middle-class background, people could live in Detroit, work near and around their homes, and when those jobs lost, you had a combined perfect storm, as Mayor Barry had talked about, the issue of public education, mortgages, people losing their homes, and three, a loss of jobs. But that is still - does not, in my view, equate to an undercount, in my view, that has led to a 25 percent loss of the city.

MARTIN: I understand.

Professor Harrison, let's hear from you. What is your perception here?

Mr. BARRY: Wait, I want my minute, Michel.

MARTIN: Hold on, sir, you'll get your minute. Let me just hear from Mr. Harrison. He hasn't had his chance to participate in the conversation. Professor Harrison, what's your take on this? I know that the census doesn't always ask people why they're moving. It documents how they're moving and where they're moving to. But what can you tell us?

Prof. HARRISON: Well, I think the mayors have done an excellent job of identifying the driving forces. The movement out of Detroit is definitely related to the loss of employment opportunities. And it's not just blacks who are moving out, it's a city that's shrinking in population. The undercount might be a factor in our estimates of that shrinkage. But there's no doubt the long-term trend there has been a severe population decline.

What's very interesting is the contrast with Washington, D.C., which in fact grew. It was one of the few central cities to have grown in the past decade. And it is an economy that is expanding, in part, due to the importance of the employment opportunities offered by the federal government, telecommunications, nonprofits. So, it's a thriving economy which, as Mayor Barry points out, important segments of the population and important segments are a part of this out movement are not sharing in.

And education is the key. D.C. has the highest percentage of college graduates in the nation. And the job market for people who have less than a college degree and certainly those who have a high school degree or less, is very difficult, much more difficult than it is in other cities.

MARTIN: So, there's a mismatch between the opportunities that are available and the skills that many of the people have who would take those jobs.

Prof. HARRISON: One of the most severe mismatches in the country.

MARTIN: And also, one of the things we haven't talked about, Professor Harrison, is non-black, non-white populations. I mean we've talked a lot about the black/white dynamic. But who is moving to these cities? Is it mainly white people or are there non-black, non-white other minorities moving to these cities?

Prof. HARRISON: The District is - also distinguishes itself. It has had increases in Hispanic and Asian populations. But these are not as large as the increase in white population, which is about 50,000 increase. And in that it's unusual. Most major cities in the United States, it is the Hispanic population, some places helped by Asian increases as well. But that's what's driving population growth. So D.C. is unusual in that the white influx is what's driving the population increase.

MARTIN: Mr. Barry, I'm going to get back to you. Mr. Barry, I'm going to get back to you, but Mr. Barry - Mayor Archer, Mayor Barry has expressed several times that he feels that this is a problem - that these demographic changes are a problem.

And one can see why, particularly for expressing, say, political clout, you can understand why many people are, you know, concerned about this. But for some people might say, simply say that, you know, movements of populations is the way of the world. This is going on, you know, into the centuries that people, populations have moved for various reasons throughout time.

So I'd like to ask you in the couple of minutes that we have left, do you think this is a problem? And is there something that you would - if you think it is a problem, is there something that can be done to change it?

Mr. ARCHER: Well, I think, as I indicated before, and I believe the demographer would agree that in Detroit, we've had - we've lost population every census since about 1954...

Prof. HARRISON: Yes.

Mr. ARCHER: ...when we hit a high point of 1.82.

For the city of Detroit, we're coming back. Mayor Bing has got a great working relationship with the Obama administration. He's got a great working relationship with the new governor, Rick Snyder. And the business community has not left.

And there's a lot of investment that's going on in the city of Detroit. There's new housing that's being built and there's great opportunities that is attracting a lot of young people: black, white, Asian, Hispanic and others who are coming to the city of Detroit. But we continue to lose. I still don't believe that we've lost 25 percent of our population. I know we've lost some. I was astounded by the number. I'm delighted that Mayor Bing is going to be stepping up and taking the challenge.

MARTIN: OK. Mr. Barry, go ahead.

Mr. BARRY: Let me speak about Washington very specifically. There are 700,000 jobs and I really commiserate with Detroit and loss of industry, and et cetera.

But here in Washington, we have 700,000 jobs, 340,000 of those jobs with the federal government, 340,000 with the federal government, another 35, 40,000 with the D.C. government. When we look at even the federal government here in Washington, only 30 percent of those who work in the federal government, who work in Washington are D.C. residents - 70 percent.

And I've told Mayor Gray. We've got to mount a major campaign to get Barack, the president, to focus, you know. I'm for giving a 10-point preference to D.C. residents. We got to change this whole thing around. And we got to do something with our education system.

MARTIN: And do you think that the diversity, the new diversity of the city, the demographic mix of the city is inherently a problem, Mr. Mayor?

Mr. BARRY: Not inherently. No. It's a problem if you let it be one. That's it, I make no bones about it.

MARTIN: Because other people might argue that the diversity is a strength, actually, that the new diversity is a strength. You have people with different skills in bringing a different tax base.

Mr. BARRY: I can only speak for Washington about this. White people who, that's where we grew; we grew to 601,000 people - mostly white people, are displacing African-Americans who are renters and gentrifying the city. And I'm not afraid to speak up to say that that's something we got to deal with. We got to provide more home ownership for African-Americans. With the Hispanic community grew by nine percent, which we welcome that kind of growth, and - but I wouldn't want us to lose the fact that this city and other cities have to deal with the gentrification. And in Washington, deal with the fact the federal government has to provide equal opportunity for African-Americans.

Mr. ARCHER: Let me just indicate there's not a problem for us in Detroit...

MARTIN: Mr. Mayor, one more thought - one minute left. Go ahead.

Mr. ARCHER: It's not a problem for the city of Detroit. We're counting everybody. We want everybody to come to the city of Detroit. It's going to remain a city that's predominantly African-American, and it's going to be strong. It's going to create new opportunities for our children, and new opportunities for anybody who - if you ever thought about opening up a business, come to Detroit. Now is the time to do it. You can get the kind of help that you need. You can be very successful, and we're looking forward to a great investment opportunity and a bright future for Detroit.

MARTIN: Doesn't sound like you're the former mayor, Mr. Archer. Mr. Dennis Archer served two terms as mayor of Detroit. He is now the head of his own law firm and he was kind enough to join us on the phone while traveling in Illinois.

Also with us, Marion Barry, former mayor of Washington, D.C., currently a member of the D.C. city council. He joined us in our Washington, D.C. studios, along with Roderick Harrison. He's a demographer, associate professor of sociology and anthropology at Howard University. He also spent 10 years at the Census Bureau where he was the chief of the racial statistics branch. Didn't get much of a word in edgewise, but we'll rectify that in the future. Thank you all so much for joining us.

Mr. ARCHER: Thanks so much.

Mr. BARRY: Thank you very much. Again, Washington is unique and I want to make sure that we get our share of jobs in Washington, D.C.

MARTIN: OK.

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