2010 Census showcases America's great racial seesaw

According to the 2010 Census, the South is now home to 57 percent of the US black population, the most since 1960. The return migration is linked to jobs and living costs, but also to an attachment to the region.

By , Staff writer

The final 2010 Census tally shows a country in rapid flux, including the ongoing and dramatic return of America's black population to the South. The former Confederate states now hold 57 percent of the black population, up from 55 percent 10 years before and 53 percent in 1990 and the highest percentage since 1960.

From city to suburb, from North to South, the story of "black flight" in America is both complex and common sense. It is imbued with racial attitudes and regional affections, and hard-pegged to issues like geographical and cultural affinity, job opportunity, living costs, and hopes for the future.

African-Americans' share of population growth in the South, Census 2010 says, was the highest since 1910, when about 90 percent of blacks lived in the South. Many blacks abandoned long-held strongholds in Detroit, Chicago, Los Angeles, and New York. The dramatic trend adds another wrinkle to the demographic forces that are rapidly shifting regional influence and citizen attitudes, all while pushing the population center of the country south. The South, as a region, saw the fastest overall population growth – 14 percent – since 2000.

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"The flow of blacks up out of the South into northern cities is a big part of the history of the early 20th century; white flight out of the city and to the suburbs is a post-World War II story; and now we've got this more complicated phenomenon where you're seeing an outward flow of blacks and return migration into the South," says Kenneth Johnson, a demographer at the University of New Hampshire in Durham.

The Census shows that a huge chunk of new black migrants into the South are younger Americans. Some 40 percent of those moving into the South were under 40. The five US counties with the largest black populations – including Los Angeles and Philadelphia – all saw blacks leaving those areas, often to tread toward Dixie.

"Southern blacks always had a deep connection with geographic place, and I think a lot of them, if they weren't getting lynched in the South, wouldn't have left," says Jason Sokol, author of "There Goes My Everything: White Southerners in the Age of Civil Rights."

"But they also left because of jobs," he says, "and they have returned because of jobs and because their families had always had an attachment to the South." Because of a combination of Southern offerings – place affinity, racial peace, and work – "blacks are moving away from the urban North."

Indeed, blacks leaving the North for the South made up a major portion of the region's gains. More than 1 million blacks living in the South today were born in the Northeast, 10 times the number in 1970, The New York Times reports.

A fairly strong Southern economy, higher average wages for blacks, and lower living costs (let's not forget warmer weather) all played a role in the migration of blacks southward. But importantly, after nearly 50 years of civil rights reforms and reconciliation in the South, many Northern blacks are no longer afraid of stereotypical Southern intolerance.

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"Sometimes [Southern stereotypes] have to do with the poverty and what's thought to be cultural ignorance and intolerance, but it's harder to make the case now that this is going on when we have cities like Atlanta and Nashville and Raleigh and a much more fully 'modern' South that has all of the good and the bad of the broader culture," says Larry Griffin, author of the "The South as an American Problem."

The Census shows America remains a largely segregated republic. But along with the churning of largely middle-class blacks has come declining segregation in many American cities, particularly in the South and West, the Census reports.

As Manifest Destiny and the Great Migration proved in the past, migration continues to reinvent and reshape the American experiment. That continues now, says Census Director Robert Groves. "The center of population has moved in a southerly direction in the most extreme way we've ever seen in history," he said Thursday, referring to the 23.4 mile southwest shift of the country's population center, from Phelps County, Mo., to Texas County, Mo.

"I think that's news, mainly because when those young blacks or young Hispanics or young whites decide to go to the South, they're not just bringing themselves, but they're bringing the potential of the next generation with them," says Professor Johnson at UNH. "This story is not just about what's happening in places they're going, but the places they're leaving."

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