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Black population shifts back home

Jonathan P Hicks | 4/12/2011, 4:46 p.m.

The evidence seems to be undeniable that New York City is losing its Black population, and that the city's loss is a strong gain for America's southern states. For those of us who have long taken pride in Harlem as the epicenter of America's Black culture and Brooklyn as a vibrant and notable capital of Black politics and celebration, these demographic trends are more than a little heartrending.

The exodus of Black New Yorkers was most recently chronicled in research by the Brookings Institution, which studied the most up-to-date census data, and trumpeted in the New York Times. The numbers pointed to a net loss of African-Americans from New York City, people who relocated to the suburbs and to the South. In fact, the research showed that, of all the African-American northerners who moved to the South, nearly one-fifth came from New York State, a larger share than from any other state.

But while we might lament the departure of our neighbors and friends, let's not become too fearful that Sylvia's might relocate its flagship restaurant from Lenox Avenue to Birmingham, Ala.; that the West Indian Day Parade might forsake Eastern Parkway for Beal Street in Memphis, Tenn.; or that the Schomburg Center for Research in Black Culture might somehow abandon 135th Street for Tupelo, Miss. New York City still has the largest number of African-American residents of any city in the United States and that fact that is not likely to change any time in the near future.

J. Phillip Thompson, a professor of urban planning at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology, said that the political impact on New York will be negligible. "In many of the districts that they are leaving, they are heavily Black anyway. If you go from 90 percent to 70 percent, you still have 70 percent," Thompson said. "To the extent that they move into suburbs like Westchester and Suffolk, you might even tip some elections in those districts from Republican to Democrat."

And to the extent that the statistics cause gloom among those of us who remain, we can take some comfort in the tradition of misery loving company. The census figures show that both Illinois and Michigan--specifically Chicago and Detroit--have seen a loss of Black residents for the first time ever. In fact, the figures show that the five counties with the largest Black populations in the U.S. in 2000--Cook County in Illinois, Los Angeles, Wayne County in Michigan, Kings County in New York and Philadelphia--each lost Black residents over the following decade. So we're certainly not alone in seeing our friends and relatives move down South.

The census numbers also show that more African-Africans are living in the South now than at any point in the past 50 years. The latest figures show that 57 percent of all Black Americans now live in the South, the highest percentage since the 1960 census.

That's not necessarily bad news. There are some important political repercussions to these numbers, too. The movement of Black Americans means that there may be some gradual shifting from red to blue in many southern areas, an important fact for the political strategy of folks who thought of the South as solidly, reliably Republican. This should further dampen the long-term prospects of the conservative Republicans who, the movement of Black Americans notwithstanding, face the eventual darkening of America as the nation gains Latino residents in all quadrants of the country.

For Black New Yorkers, it also means that we need to redouble our commitment to working in political coalition with other like-minded groups and individuals in taking on the issues that are so important to us: creating jobs, affordable housing, decent schools and first-rate health care.

In the meantime, let's relax and take comfort from the fact that New York is still the Black Mecca of the U.S. Let's remember that there is still no city where one can find tastier collard greens, roti or curried goat, and that we still live in a city where neither Newt Gingrich nor Michele Bachmann could get more votes in a presidential contest than Donald "The Birther" Trump, should his unfocused ambition one day match theirs.