Blacks leaving cities for suburbs

Many are now following the typical path of American immigrants, a trend that bodes well for race relations.

West on Market Street, beyond San Diego's shiny downtown, formerly black neighborhoods have gone Latino. Stores along the broad, rolling avenue peddle Hispanic goods. A billboard advertises a wireless phone in Spanish.

"There were a lot of us," says Karen Williamson, a lifelong African-American resident, remembering her school days. "I don't know where they all went."

Here in San Diego and in several large cities across the United States, African-Americans are pulling out. Their out-migration is swelling suburbs, breaking down barriers, and building new ones. Although some observers call the movement "black flight," the trend suggests that African-Americans are finally treading the well-worn path of many American immigrants.

Increasingly middle class, they're being drawn to the suburbs or pushed out of the cities by newer immigrants (in this case, Hispanics). On balance, demographers say, the move bodes well for race relations.

"The suburban 'good life' seems to be more accessible," says Roderick Harrison of the Joint Center for Political and Economic Studies in Washington.

"African-Americans ... are normalizing," adds Amitai Etzioni, a sociologist at George Washington University, and author of a new book on racial similarities called "The Monochrome Society."

The black exodus is most noticeable in California. Santa Ana, for example, saw its non-Hispanic black population drop by one-third - the biggest percentage decline of any of the nation's 100 largest cities. Of course, Santa Ana is so overwhelmingly Hispanic that its black population is minuscule. But the trend also holds true in other California cities with more sizable black populations: San Francisco (down 23 percent), Oakland (down 12 percent), and Los Angeles (down 12 percent).

Of the top black-flight cities outside California, three lost a greater share of blacks than whites during the 1990s. Miami lost 2 percent of its non-Hispanic whites but 18 percent of its non-Hispanic blacks. The District of Columbia saw a 4 percent decline in non-Hispanic whites and a 14 percent drop in non-Hispanic blacks. Seattle actually gained whites during the 1990s but still saw a 9 percent drop in its non-Hispanic black population.

Who's moving in?

The out-migration stems from several trends. First, Hispanics are moving into cities in large numbers, often taking over longtime black neighborhoods. In San Diego, for instance, a 35 percent increase in Hispanics appears to have pushed out much of the black population in the central part of the city, says Kelly Cunningham of the San Diego Regional Chamber of Commerce. Overall, the city's black population fell 8 percent.

Then there's the increasing wealth of African-Americans. During the first half of the 1990s, whites' income gains outstripped those of blacks. But in the second half of the decade, those trends flip-flopped, says Mr. Harrison. A tight labor market and record low poverty have helped African-Americans afford better housing.

The change coincides with the economic rebound in San Diego. Stung by base closings and a recession during the first half of the 1990s, the city has seen a net loss of some 30,000 military personnel. That's one local factor behind black flight. Since then, however, the city has ridden a high-tech wave that has boosted the economy and raised housing prices to an average $308,000, a new high.

It's not clear whether soaring housing prices are helping or hurting blacks. Experts point out that gentrification in cities such as San Francisco may be giving black homeowners the incentive to sell out and buy houses in more affordable suburbs. But in next-door Oakland (black population down 12 percent), gentrification seems to be pushing out the poor. The black population has risen 31 percent in suburban Solano County to the north and 19 percent in Contra Costa County to the east.

In south Florida, cheaper housing in Broward County is clearly fueling a black exodus to the suburbs. While Miami lost 18 percent of its blacks, the county saw a 74 percent increase in its black population. Such moves are lessening racial barriers, experts say, since the suburbs tend to be less segregated than urban centers.

"It's a good sign," says Thomas Boswell, a professor of geography at the University of Miami. "It means blacks are integrating.... But it comes about very slowly."

And it's spotty. While the trend toward suburban integration is well along in California and other ethnically diverse metropolitan areas, low-diversity suburbs around Midwest and Northeast cities show little change, says William Frey, a demographer at the Milken Institute in Santa Monica, Calif.

New class divisions

Ironically, the falling racial barriers in multiethnic areas may be creating new class divisions. "As [blacks] become middle class, they behave more like the white middle class," says Professor Etzioni. Socioeconomic measures such as marriage rates, teen pregnancies, and education approach those of middle-class whites.

As a result, middle-class blacks look less and less like poor urban blacks. They're not only leaving a neighborhood, they're leaving a lifestyle.

"As people ... succeed and move up and out, those who are left behind are more likely to be poor," says Harrison. "We have to be very concerned about the population that's being left behind."

(c) Copyright 2001. The Christian Science Monitor

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