Homecoming, Cont.

Rebutting the notion of a "Reverse Great Migration" Matt writes the following:

To me that mostly sounds like black people are moving to the same metro areas as everyone else. Atlanta, Dallas, Houston, Miami, and Charlotte in the south and Los Angeles, Phoenix, and Las Vegas outside the south. After all, the basic dynamic of weak job opportunities in the midwest and no affordable housing in the northeast applies regardless of skin color. What's more, this is really not a reversal of the Great Migration in any meaningful sense. Texas wasn't a major historic African-American population center and it strains credulity to describe Miami as part of the south. If black people start leaving Chicago to move to rural Mississippi that be a reversal, but this is the same sun/permit-driven migration that everyone's doing.


The destinations of whites and blacks who relocated across regions in the late 1990s reveal a stronger preference among black migrants for southern destinations. This pattern is evident for migrants leaving each region, especially the Northeast. Among black and white migrants residing in the Northeast in 1995, 85 percent of blacks headed South (as opposed to the Midwest or West), compared to only 64 percent of whites (Figure 3). In the West and Midwest, too, the share of black out-migrants moving to the South exceeded the comparable white out-migrant share by about 20 percentage points.

Demographers have been studying this shift for almost three decades. Perhaps the 2010 Census will show something different. But as of right now Phoenix's black population stands at five percent. And Los Angeles isn't gaining black people, it's shedding them

Matt contends that Texas has never "wasn't a major historic African-American population center." That will largely depend on what you consider "major." Texas, in large measure, owes its existence to the desire to expand the South's enslaved black population. Its demographics have always reflected that fact. In 1860, at the outset of the Civil War, a third of its population was black. 

At the turn of the century, there were roughly 600,000 black people in Texas, about the same as North Carolina and Virginia. Today, of the ten metro areas with the largest black populations, two of them are in Texas.  That aside, the category leader for African-Americans returning South is not Texas, but Atlanta, a city which sits in a state which most certainly was major historic African-American population center. At the turn of the century, nearly half Georgia's population was black

These are the numbers, but I think they actually understate the case. It's demonstrably true that the migration of blacks are different than those of whites, but what's much more bracing is the thinking behind those migration patterns. Surely black people are responding to the color-blind call of job opportunities and cheap housing. But they are also following something else--a return, in large measure, to the place of their invention.


My in-laws family are originally from Mississippi. They migrated up to Covington, Tennessee and then to Chicago. Over the past twenty years, a lot of them have moved back to Tennessee and out to Georgia. I assure you that, despite not literally returning to Mississippi, they feel that they've returned to the South, and to a greater extent, home. My own family is from the Eastern Shore of Maryland. Perhaps you don't consider it the South. But I assure you that when I'm in Tennessee, or when I'm in Georgia, or more specifically, when I'm in Virginia, it looks like home to me. 

Moreover, as surely as Chicago was the mythical "Promised Land" for blacks in the early and mid 20th century, Atlanta is the mythical "Promised Land" for blacks in the late 20th and early 21st Century.  This seems to be the week of killed stories for me, so I'll quote from a long dead piece I wrote about about black New Yorkers decamping for Atlanta to illustrate the point, "Growing up, especially in New York, you'd see pockets, but very few of us doing well," said Debra Harper. "And if we were doing well, we were living in white communities. In Atlanta you can do well and still live among African-Americans who are also doing well. I had never seen that before."

You may quibble with Harper's definition of "doing well." But the fact is that, in Atlanta, you can live in a neighborhood with a sprawling lawn, a two-car garage, four bathrooms, and see nothing but other black people around you. Moreover, you can enjoy a lifestyle--a range of food, a way of speaking, a particular bearing--which many of us experienced as children going South in the summer, and now think back on wistfully. And many of us with no such direct memories, lived around people who told such stories, and thus have shared in the collective memory.

The point here is that it's important, not simply to consider the number of people returning, but their thinking as they return. African-Americans moving South are returning to the place where much of their collective identity was formed. They're often returning to places where they still have kinship ties, or where large swaths of people share in their culture. This is different, and specific to black people. "The South" means something to Northern African-Americans with Southern roots (which is to say a lot of us) that it just doesn't mean for Northern whites. The black folks who return there are not simply returning for a good job, they are, in large measure, returning to something ancestral which was never limited simply to Mississippi. 
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Ta-Nehisi Coates is a national correspondent at The Atlantic, where he writes about culture, politics, and social issues. He is the author of the memoir The Beautiful Struggle.

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