Detroit’s 40-Year Reign as Nation’s Largest Majority-Black City May Be Over
Clara Hendrickson et al., Detroit Free Press, May 23, 2023
Mayor Mike Duggan blasted recent census estimates for 2022 that show another year of population loss in Detroit. Behind the numbers lies another shift: Detroit appears to no longer stand as the nation’s largest majority-Black city.
Since 1980, Detroit’s borders have encompassed a larger population than other mostly Black cities in the U.S., according to the decennial census, the once-a-decade count of all people in the country. But new population data released in the years between each decennial census show a possible end to Detroit’s 40-year reign as America’s biggest majority-Black city.
Population estimates released by the U.S. Census Bureau last Thursday show that at 621,056 residents, Memphis has a larger population than Detroit’s 620,376 as of July 1, 2022. The most recent census survey data showed both cities were majority-Black cities with Detroit home to a 76% Black population and Memphis to a 63% Black population as of 2021.
Pair the latest racial demographic and population numbers, and the census estimates show Memphis — not Detroit — is now the nation’s largest majority-Black city by an estimated 680 residents.
But experts warn to interpret the numbers with caution. They emphasize that the population estimates are just that, estimates. Not to mention the tight margin separating the two cities. Meanwhile, Detroit successfully leveled a challenge to the last decennial census that led to the addition of 1,478 more people to the total count, according to the Duggan administration official overseeing the city’s census challenges. And the city could see revisions to the population estimates resulting from additional challenges Duggan’s office says it filed last week.
But more than any shift from Detroit to Memphis as the largest majority-Black city in the U.S., those fighting for Detroit’s future say it is the specter of continued population loss signaled by the latest census estimate that spells trouble.
Civil rights activist Edith Lee-Payne, a 71-year-old from Detroit, questioned Detroit losing its status as the nation’s largest majority-Black city is anything more than symbolic. “Actually, I don’t think it has any real-world implications,” she said.
Terrell Garner, 43, who was born and raised in the city, said the label does not affect him. But the two Detroiters stressed that what appears to be driving the shift — population loss — has consequences. As residents leave, dollars follow.
Some big cities in the U.S. have more Black residents than Detroit such as Chicago or New York. But in those two cities, Black residents make up a smaller share of their total population compared to Detroit. On this measure — the share of Black residents in a city — Detroit, with Black residents accounting for more than three-quarters of the city’s population, looks more like Jackson, Mississippi.
“Black people are the supermajority here in Detroit,” said Goss.
Still, the 2020 census showed the number of Black residents in Detroit fell over the previous decade while the city’s Hispanic, white and Asian populations grew. Demographics in the city have shifted as Detroit has seen an overall decline in its population, according to census data.
Detroit lost a quarter of its residents between 2000 and 2010. And while the 2020 census showed population loss in the city slowing down, it showed the city continued to shed residents.
The 2022 midterm election marked the first time in nearly 70 years that Detroit ended up with no Black representation in Congress, a result that stood out, in part, because of its status as the nation’s largest majority-Black city.