Posted on September 17, 2012

The Great Remigration

Daniel Disalvo, City Journal, Summer 2012

A century ago, nine out of ten black Americans lived in the South, primarily in formerly Confederate states where segregation reigned. Then, in the 1920s, blacks began heading north, both to escape the racism of Jim Crow and to seek work as southern agriculture grew increasingly mechanized. “From World War I to the 1970s, some six million black Americans fled the American South for an uncertain existence in the urban North and West,” writes journalist Isabel Wilkerson, the author of The Warmth of Other Suns. {snip}

More recently, however, the Great Migration has reversed itself, with blacks returning to the South. In a broad sense, this reversal fits within a larger demographic shift among Americans in general, who are moving from the Rust Belt to the Sun Belt. But the new black migration is nevertheless significant: not only could it portend major changes to the nation’s politics; it also testifies to the liberal North’s failure to integrate African-Americans into the mainstream. As the historian Walter Russell Mead has observed, that failure is “the most devastating possible indictment of the 20th century liberal enterprise in the United States.”

{snip} Today, 57 percent of American blacks live in the South — the highest percentage in a half-century.


Four factors help explain the Great Remigration. The first, and arguably most important, is the push and pull of job markets. States in the Northeast and on the West Coast, where liberalism has been strongest, tend to have powerful public-sector unions, high taxes, and heavy regulations, which translate into fewer private-sector jobs. In southern locales, where taxes are lower and regulations lighter, employment has grown faster; the fastest-growing cities for job creation between 2000 and 2010 were Austin, Raleigh, San Antonio, Houston, Charlotte, and Oklahoma City. {snip}

The second reason for blacks’ southward migration is the North’s higher housing prices and tax rates. {snip}

Third, high taxes in northern cities don’t always translate into effective public services. Public schools are a prime example: though class sizes have shrunk and average per-pupil spending has increased markedly over the last three decades, schools with large black populations continue to perform poorly. {snip}

Finally, many of the blacks moving to the South are retirees who, like other older Americans, are seeking places with better weather. {snip}

The political consequences of that summons may soon become apparent — though not in the North, where those left out of the middle-class expansion will remain and where the traditional liberal solutions to social problems will doubtless continue to be peddled. In the South, however, as the shared experience of discrimination abates and as more middle-class blacks succeed, the gap between the reality of their lives and the old political rhetoric may become too wide to ignore. “In neighborhoods offering the resources and opportunities that facilitate future socioeconomic mobility,” writes Harvard political scientist Claudine Gay, “the likelihood of believing that one’s fate is closely linked to the fate of blacks as a group declines, and pessimism about the severity of antiblack discrimination recedes.”

At the moment, black Americans are among the most reliable Democratic voters. As a group, they constituted 13 percent of the electorate and approached unanimity (95 percent) in voting for Barack Obama in 2008. As they move south and presumably bring their liberalism with them, they may help shift the political balance of power in these conservative states. Alternatively, as they move to states with better business climates, they may see their upwardly mobile and business-friendly attitudes reinforced. They may then slowly shift to the right, even if they remain Democrats.