Tracking New Trends in Race Migration

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According to a report by the Brookings Institution, Latinos are moving in growing numbers to economic "hotspots" in the so-called Sunbelt of the U.S. Southwest, and blacks are returning to the South after generations of migration northward. Ed Gordon discusses the demographic shifts with William Frey, a fellow at the Brookings Institution, and Roderick Harrison, a demographer at the Joint Center for Political and Economic Studies.

ED GORDON, host:

From NPR News, this is NEWS and NOTES. I'm Ed Gordon:

A new report from by the Brookings Institution finds that diversity in America is no longer just the province of Blue states and big cities. While most non- whites still reside in the nation's top urban centers, Latinos and growing numbers are moving to economic hot spots in the Sun belt and the Rocky Mountain West, while blacks are returning to the South, particularly the Atlanta area and parts of Florida.

To find out what's behind these demographic shifts, I spoke with William Frey, a fellow of the Brookings Institution and author of the report; and Roderick Harrison, a demographer at the Joint Center for Political and Economic studies.

Mr. Frey, let me start with you. What we are seeing essentially is reverse migration. What we were used to is South to North, now that has changed itself.

Mr. WILLIAM FREY (Fellow at the Brookings Institution): That's right. We've seen this a little bit since the late 1970s, but especially during the '90s, and even more so as my new results show since the 2000 census. There is a huge movement of African Americans back to the South, especially to the prosperous parts of the South.

GORDON: This has been based on economics more then anything?

Mr. FREY: Well, I think there's several factors to take into account. Economics is certainly important, because we know the fastest-gaining, biggest-gaining metropolitan area in the South is Atlanta, which has really been doing very well economically for the past several decades. But I think it's more than just economics. I think what we are seeing now are generation X and generation Y African Americans, many of whom are professionals, many of whom are college graduates, could go anywhere they wanted to in the country to get a job. But they're particularly drawn to the South, and I think it has something to do with the fact that they can network with other middleclass blacks who are there in large numbers. And I think it has something to do with the history and the culture of the South.

Remember, these folks who are now in there 20s and 30s, you know, they may read about the very harsh racial discrimination that was in the South back in the 1940s, 50s and even in the early 60s. But they've never experienced it firsthand. What they're interested is in jobs; they're interested in being in an environment and social circles where they feel comfortable. And I think that's why they are moving to South.

GORDON: Mr. Harrison, you've been studying this kind of movement and the browning of America. I keep using that term over the last few months because we have almost made it cliché-ish in the media. But the idea of the browning of America is real when we start to study numbers particularly from the last census. How much do black Americans play a part in that in terms of carving out their niche when we look at the growth of Latinos and Asians and other minorities in this country?

Mr. RODERICK HARRISON (Demographer, Joint Center for Political and Economic Studies): Not as much. The black population is not growing that much more rapidly than the total population. I think it's about four percent or so. Bill would have the figures on hand, compared to 15 or 16 percent for Hispanics and Asians. So most of the new diversity, most of the browning, if we characterize it as that, is occurring to the rapid growth of the Hispanic and the Asian populations.

GORDON: When you take a look at the idea that Asians and Latinos cluster more than African Americans--we're a bit more spread out--does this speak and say anything to what ultimately will become, Mr. Harrison, social and political power?

Mr. HARRISON: Well, it could, but the Hispanic population and the Asian as immigrants will take some time before they can translate the growing numbers into power politically. It is occurring in some of the cities that have large concentrations, but we most remember that many of these populations have large, foreign-born non-citizen components and registration--voter registration--is lower than in the total population. So those ratios substantially reduce the political power of these growing populations.

GORDON: Mr. Frey, what we are also seeing in this gravitating back to the South is a delineation between what is termed the Old South and the New South. Most of these blacks are going to areas like Georgia, as you mentioned, Florida, North Carolina, Texas--versus what was deemed old school, old South, Louisiana, Mississippi, Alabama.

Mr. FREY: Yes, that's right. And again, this has to do I think a lot with the economic draw. There's even movement within the South to the more stagnating parts of the South though. Now, of course, the Gulf Coast is really in horrible shape. But even before that happened, you saw large movements of blacks from Louisiana and Mississippi to Atlanta, and to Florida; the Eastern parts of the South, and also to Texas.

So, yes, there really is a distinction between kind of the growing, you'd say, go-go South and the stagnating part of the South, which as we know from the last several months is becoming even more difficult for some of the Southern states.

GORDON: Mr. Harrison, we talk about stagnation there. I'm curious what you feel this will mean for regions. We talk about Atlanta being the new black Mecca, and I think many people have really looked to that over the last few years as being real. But areas that perhaps held that distinction before, Detroit or Cleveland--what of those African Americans who don't necessarily have the wherewithal to move where jobs and money growth are going on. What does it meant for these regions?

Mr. HARRISON: Well, I think it makes life difficult for important segments of the population, particularly, those in central cities. Bill points out there's important movement of blacks from central cities to suburbs in many of the Northeastern and Midwestern cities that are not experiencing great economic growth over the period--in fact stagnation and decline in many cases.

But still I think Bill mentions that the South -- the new South is attractive to young generation of college-educated blacks. Well, college educated blacks who stay in the North or the Midwest are much more likely now to be locating in suburbs.

GORDON: William Frey, what are the social dynamics that this sets up when you look at an area like Atlanta, even New York City proper, when it becomes a minority majority, as is coined by the media? What does that do to the social dynamic with whites who still own a vast array of power economically and often politically in these areas?

Mr. FREY: I think the dynamics are complicated. But I think it's important to make a distinction between what I would call a melting pot city like New York, which has a broad array of race and ethic groups, whites being in the minority. But there are rich and poor of all of race and ethic groups, certainly the poorest of them are not fairing very well. But I think there's this openness to some degree in terms of at least day to day social relations and even translating perhaps into political dynamics, as compared to sort of the cities that are largely white and black, certainly the worst ones in terms of having difficult social dynamics are in the Northeast and Midwest, especially like Detroit for example.

But even in the growing South, like Atlanta, you do have new highly educated blacks moving into the South into these cities, but also you have poor people who are staying there for many decades and several generations. And I think when you have that kind of dynamic, I know that some recent stories have come out about Atlanta showing that the city of Atlanta is gentrifying. Whites are moving in building up neighborhoods, and many blacks are being displaced to go out to the suburbs. And I think when you have that kind dynamic, it becomes difficult in a city that doesn't have a broad racial and ethic mix like you would in New York or Los Angeles.

GORDON: Interesting point, Mr. Harrison, that I know that you have discussed the idea that African Americans have a tendency to go in areas they feel most comfortable. I should suggest that they want to find predominately black areas where Hispanics and perhaps Asians don't look at that necessarily in terms of priority?

Mr. HARRISON: I think certainly part of the phenomena, particularly the movement of college-educated blacks to the suburban areas of the metropolitan areas in the South, those reflect people, blacks seeking communities where they see substantial numbers of other blacks. And there is some statistics from the Detroit area study that showed that blacks tends to think an area is integrated when it's about 35 percent black, but whites it's closer to 10 percent, so that is part of that phenomenon.

GORDON: William Frey, it seems to me, as I listen to both of you talk, that there is a danger, if you will, of building communities in cluster of minorities who are perhaps under-educated, under-employed, are not able to move, as I suggested earlier, with the jobs. Is this a danger, and if so, what can be done for these areas?

Mr. FREY: I think more broadly in the United States today, this is probably a more immediate issue with the new immigrant groups, especially from Latin America, coming into metropolitan areas that have already become very much gateways for these groups, Mexicans moving to Southern California or to Arizona or to Texas, and the reason I say this is because there is this continuing flow moving in.

In the case of blacks and maybe some other minorities, they're not growing as much. You don't have this continued influx of folks coming in, many without high school diplomas, many even less educated than that. And I think it does put a real burden on the local public school systems, on the state agencies, to deal with that continued flow.

I think what needs to be done in these areas is to have much more maybe federal support given to the states and to the localities to help them improve the education systems for this continuing flow of immigrants that are coming in.

GORDON: How long do you anticipate seeing this kind of continued growth by African-Americans to flock south and southwest?

Mr. FREY: You know, I actually have been surprised by how large it has been, and you know, one would think that if it were only economics, you would see the black movement follow to wherever the jobs happen to grow at the particular year or the particular time. But the movement back to the South, at least the prosperous South, has been pretty constant over the last 15 or 20 years, and I think this cultural comfort zone that many African-Americans see as moving to the South is an important aspect of that movement.

So I think it will continue, and I think as more blacks settle there, have more children there, I think the South will continue to be a place that becomes a magnet and a place of comfortable residence for a lot of African-Americans.

GORDON: All right, gentlemen. Thank you very much for breaking down these numbers and giving us insight. Appreciate it.

William Frey is a fellow at the Brookings Institution and a demographer at the University of Michigan Population Studies Center. Roderick Harrison is with the Joint Center for Political and Economic Studies and a professor of sociology at Howard University.

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