Census Shows Exodus Of Blacks From Majority Black Cities
MICHEL MARTIN, host:
I'm Michel Martin, and this is TELL ME MORE from NPR News.
Coming up, just the mention of her name is enough to drive some people crazy. To paraphrase Harry Truman, she doesn't think she's giving liberals hell. She says she's just telling the truth and they think it's hell. Later in the program, a Wisdom Watch conversation with conservative activist Phyllis Schlafly.
But first, we want to talk more about how this country is changing. New census numbers tell a dramatic story of change for two major U.S. cities that have been majority African-American for decades. Washington, D.C. has long been dubbed Chocolate City. It now finds itself barely clinging to its black majority. Whites have flocked to the city and blacks have left for the suburbs.
There's a somewhat different story in Detroit where the population overall has dropped by 25 percent since the last census. The city's population is at its lowest recorded level since 1910. Black residents make up the bulk of those who have left. But whites too are leaving the city and quickly. To talk more about this, in a few minutes we'll hear from the former chief of racial statistics at the U.S. Census Bureau.
But first, we decided to call upon two people who formerly led those two cities. Marion Barry began his career as a civil rights activist and spent 16 years as mayor of Washington, D.C. He still serves the city on the D.C. city council representing the 8th Ward. He's here with us in our Washington, D.C. studio. Welcome back, Mr. Mayor, Councilman.
Mr. MARION BARRY (Member, D.C. City Council): Thank you very much, Michel. I miss you. I want to come back more often.
MARTIN: Oh, well, thank you.
Mr. BARRY: I need to work hard at that.
MARTIN: All right, well, thank you. I'm also joined now by Dennis Archer, who served two terms as mayor of Detroit. He's now in private practice. He once served as president of the American Bar Association, but he now heads his own law firm, DWAP, LLC. And he's with us on the phone from Wheeling, Illinois. Mr. Archer, thank you. Mr. Mayor, thank you so much for joining us as well.
Mr. DENNIS ARCHER (Attorney): Thank you. Happy to be with you, and with the mayor.
MARTIN: OK. Well, good. That's terrific. Now...
Mr. BARRY: I'm glad to be with you, too, Dennis. Good to hear you again.
MARTIN: I'd like to ask each of you first, you know, both of your cities have been considered kind of emblematic of and identified very closely with black political empowerment, sort of the center, as centers of kind of black culture. And I wanted to ask each of you, did you ever envision that this day would come when African-Americans, for example, in Washington, D.C., would be a bare majority. Mr. Mayor, did that ever occur to you?
Mr. BARRY: Well, I knew the trend was there. I mean, they've been there for some time. Here's the problem you have in Washington, D.C. We're right next to Prince George's County, right across the line, and right across the line to Virginia. What we all know, and Dennis knows this too, that renters are the most transient people. And that accounts for the undercount because they're moving around, moving around, moving around, moving around.
And in my ward, for instance, we only had 24 percent home ownership, which is outrageous and we're going to do something about that. And so we've lost a significant - we lost almost 15 percent.
MARTIN: What are you saying, though? Are you saying that you're not sure that the numbers are accurate or are you saying that just people are...
Mr. BARRY: Well, they're both - a combination. Renters are very transient in terms of Washington, which is unique. They move right across the line to Prince George's County. And we're losing that population. We're not losing a significant number of black middle-class people, home owners, et cetera. So our goal here in Washington is to drastically get more home ownership. That means we stabilize our communities.
I don't know that much about - as much about Detroit as Dennis does. He was an outstanding mayor there. And that's my problem - is to figure out how we reverse that movement by getting more home ownership in Washington.
MARTIN: Let's hear from Mr. Archer. Mr. Archer, what about you? Did you ever envision that this day would come? And what is your take on it?
Mr. ARCHER: Well, first of all, I was shocked and astounded by the representation of the numbers coming from the census department. And the census department really does a great job. But in my own view, I do believe that there's been a substantial undercount in the city of Detroit. And I am delighted that Mayor Dave Bing, who is our current mayor, has announced that he is going to undertake a challenge to the census count.
For the 1990 census, for those who are long enough in the tooth and might recall, Mayor Coleman Young, who I succeeded in office, challenged the census department, who had the city of Detroit under one million. And after he put out his appointees and neighborhood community groups to help go in and do another analysis on the count, he was able to convince the census department to increase the number and thus the number was at 1,027,000.
Ever since 1953, '54, when the city of Detroit had 1.82 million people, according to the census at the time, we've been losing population. So I'm not surprised that there was a loss of population. It's been occurring. And it wasn't because of the 1967 riots. Because if you look back in 1943, we had a riot in the city of Detroit and the numbers still went up and we peaked at 1.82 million people.
So we've been losing population. We've been losing middle-class blacks who have moved out of the city and have gone to the surrounding suburbs, typically in Oakland County, and there have been some who've gone to southern cities because of their family roots and the like. But that number was very dramatic. And I think it was because of the lack of, I won't say focus, but our - the mayor who preceded me had his own personal challenges. And I think his administration did not, as I did, having learned from Mayor Young, start five years early trying to convince.
We've got a very strong population of Middle Eastern people who live in the city. We've got a very strong population of Latinos who live in the city. And we have a number of African-Americans who receive benefits. And as a part of that responsibility, they're not supposed to have, for example, if they're receiving aid to dependent children, they're not supposed to have a male living in the home.
Well, no one in a category like that, no one, if they've got somebody living there, somebody does not have a green card or does not, or might not be in the country legally, you have to convince everyone to please register because none of that, none of that counts. And it cannot be used against them in any court of law or any immigration hearing to try to deport somebody.
MARTIN: Can you hold on, Mr. Mayor, I just want to play - hold on - can you just hold on one minute, Mr. Mayor. I wanted to just play you some clips - some interview clips - which were gathered by Freep.com. That's the website of the Detroit Free Press. These are interviews that they did with Detroiters asking them what their take was of what they see around them and the population figures and they interviewed Detroiters Lee Harris(ph), a woman named Ramona and Barney Johnson. Here's what they had to say.
Mr. LEE HARRIS: I mean, what do you expect? People have to go someplace where they can survive and make it. And it's tough to make it in the city of Detroit. Under the conditions - it's no fault of the poor people; our leaders created this.
RAMONA: I've never seen it as bad across the board that I know a lot of people that are still talking about leaving Detroit and actually going down south for more opportunities.
Mr. BARNEY JOHNSON: I'm going to try this summer to do something, but if nothing happens, I'm going to just leave, too. I'm going to Tucson, Arizona with my sister.
MARTIN: Mr. Archer, these folks don't seem to be disputing the numbers or what they see. What they're saying is it's simply a matter of opportunity, of economic opportunity.
Mr. BARRY: Well, Michel, let me jump in here because I really have to. Is that if you look at the trends in most of these major urban cities that are predominantly African-American, we also find a poor educational system. Middle-class people, like myself and others, are very protective of our children. And in Washington, we have the worst educational system in America. We're working on it - we got a new chance, got a new mayor working on it. So I think the education system.
And then you got the whole question of crime. People want to live in an environment that's there. So there are a lot of contributing things that are similar to Detroit, but there is something unique about Washington in the fact that we have to drastically - Adrian Fenty didn't do a good job - or drastically changing our education system.
Where they, you know, in my ward, every school in my ward, I got 30 traditional public schools underperforming, averaging about 35 percent. Not to get into whether the tests are good or bad. And we got to do something about that, we've got to improve...
MARTIN: You were quoted in The Post saying - in a Post article about this thing. We've got to stop this trend, gentrification. Why do you feel that way?
Mr. BARRY: Well, we have to.
Mr. BARRY: Well, first of all, what gentrification does, and Dennis would, I'm sure, share that, is that it displaces long-time residents, long-time people that have been here 10, 15, 20, 25 years. And they remain renters. And they just displaced - people got a right to buy a house back and renovate it and sell it.
And so, even in my own neighborhood, you register in The Post, where on 1236 E Street where I lived from '75 to '79 was 90, 84 percent African-American. And now it's that area, census tracks, is about 47 percent white, 40 percent black. So gentrification is bad because it displaces long-term residents. The city has a responsibility...
MARTIN: Mr. Mayor, one of the things that's interesting about your perspective here is that you were elected initially as part of a multiracial coalition. In your initial campaigns you had strong support from a number of different multiracial communities, including the gay community, which has often been on the leading edge of revitalizing neighborhoods that had previously been in disrepair. And so, some people would wonder why it is all of a sudden now that you're critical of the very people who supported you initially.
Mr. BARRY: I'm critical of the process, in the sense that we have to stop this. It's Shaw and Upper Northwest...
MARTIN: But why do you have to stop it? You're saying we have to stop it. Why?
Mr. BARRY: Because it displaces the long-term residents. And therefore, it changes things.
Mr. ARCHER: If I can jump in.
MARTIN: Mr. Mayor. Mr. Archer?
Mr. ARCHER: Let me make this observation. We went through, before Mayor Coleman Young got in office, the same kind of issue that Mayor Marion Barry, former mayor is talking about that's occurring in Washington, D.C. We had a number of outstanding African-American businesses that were wiped out when they put in I-75 freeway. They took out a number of businesses and in the downtown area, where there were a number of African-American living, they cleaned all of that out, put in new condos, new townhouse, high rises, et cetera, and moved folks out. That has been in the past for us.
What is occurring presently is the concern about public education and then we got hit with a double perfect storm hit. One was the issue of the mortgage fraud that went on that took advantage of many citizens of the city of Detroit, in particular, African-Americans. And the same was as it relates to the loss of jobs in the automobile manufacturing business. When before 2011, or I should say 2001, and we had the attack on the United States...
(Soundbite of music)
MARTIN: We need to take a short break, but our guests will stay with us. Former mayor of Detroit Dennis Archer is with us. Also the former mayor of Washington, D.C., Marion Barry, he's still a sitting D.C. council member. We'll talk more with both of them when we come back. We'll also hear from the U.S. Census Bureau's former chief of racial statistics about these population movements that we've been talking about. That's just ahead. This is TELL ME MORE from NPR News. I'm Michel Martin.
NPR transcripts are created on a rush deadline by Verb8tm, Inc., an NPR contractor, and produced using a proprietary transcription process developed with NPR. This text may not be in its final form and may be updated or revised in the future. Accuracy and availability may vary. The authoritative record of NPR’s programming is the audio record.