Black Migration South: Economic, Racial, and Emotional Reasons

The New York Times has an interesting overview of the many African Americans moving back to the South:

The economic downturn has propelled a striking demographic shift: black New Yorkers, including many who are young and college educated, are heading south. About 17 percent of the African-Americans who moved to the South from other states in the past decade came from New York, far more than from any other state… Of the 44,474 who left New York State in 2009, more than half, or 22,508, went to the South….

The article strongly accents economic reasons, but is there more here? One professor quoted in the article cites many African Americans’ spiritual and emotional (family) ties to the South as reasons for the reverse migration.

Recounting police abuse of her in New York, one black resident who has left suggests that the white racism now in New York is often as bad the old South:

“My grandmother’s generation left the South and came to the North to escape segregation and racism,” she said. “Now, I am going back because New York has become like the old South in its racial attitudes.”

She is likely right. Social science research shows that whites’ everyday racism does not really know geographical boundaries. Is it the case that the white majority in the South did not so much as catch up with the rest of the “liberal” country on racial matters, but rather that much of the rest of white America seems to be acting more like the racial ways that too many in the white South have long been famous for?

What do you make of the reasons given for the large African American migration back to the South?

(Note: Isabel Wilkerson, pulitzer prize winning NY Times journalist and now professor, has a major and fairly new book, The Warmth of Other Suns: The Epic Story of America’s Great Migration that I have just started looking at, and it may be of interest on the migrations north and south.)


  1. Blaque Swan

    I haven’t read the article yet, but I discussed this same topic a couple of months ago on another blog,, so I thought I’d share some of the thoughts of some black professionals I know.

    From what I remember, though, the article I read then said that for college educated blacks, there were better economic opportunities in the South.

    There’s no question that things are better in the South. Black people get to vote and run for public office, start and grow businesses without fear of retribution, ect, etc.

    That said, I don’t think the North stooped to the South’s level. I think the entire country has racism all in equal distribution, just in different manifestations. In the South, black families who became too demonstrably materially prosperous, for example, ran the risk of having farm animals stolen or loans called in. (In fact, if you look at who was lynched, you’ll find a lot of the victims were black businessmen who had committed no crime, either actual or cultural.) They had just started doing too well. On the other hand, in the North had red-lining laws.

    So, I don’t think that the rest of America has begun acting more like the South. I think the Civil Rights marches, the Freedom Rides, and the subsequent reaction throughout the South just created a situation where all eyes were on the South. That forced the South to address its issues and improve itself in the department of racial justice. Now, it’s as good as the North – which, really isn’t saying much. I mean come on, black ghettos didn’t just fall out the sky. Between red-lining and the interstate highway, black ghettos were inevitable.

    In the end, I think the saying goes something like, “In the North, they don’t care how big you get as long as you don’t get too close. In the South, they don’t care how close you get as long as you don’t get too big.” Well, the South had to address its racism whereas the North pretty much got a pass from mainstream society.

    • c4c

      During the Great Migration many Blacks moved from the South to the North for job opportunities. Today, with racism less overt (but just as pervasive) many Blacks are being shut out of job opportunities. Those of us within The Coalition For Change, Inc. (C4C) recognize that discrimination and retaliation is on the rise, particularly in the Federal Sector. See video on Racism in the Federal Sector (A-Z) Also visit our website at w

  2. lmfort

    Many northerners use the “I’m from the North” statement as evidence that they are not racist. As if racism has geographical boundaries. The whole ‘color-blind’ liberal movement is extremely dangerous. It gives whites freedom to discriminate against African Americans and other minorities because they can claim that they “don’t even see color”(Kim Zolciak, Real House Wives of Atlanta). Many whites live as though America is in a post-racial society and think that the things they say have no consequence because in their minds they aren’t racist, therefore the things they say are not racist. So for many northern whites, racism doesn’t exist.

    Southern whites, on the other hand, are historically stereotyped as being racist. It would make sense that many southern whites are more cautious about the statements they make to not confirm those stereotypes.

    There is also the question on housing segregation. How often do whites interact with blacks in the north?

    Many southern cities have a large African American population such as Charlotte, North Carolina and Atlanta, Georgia. Atlanta is the a Mecca for young black professionals.

  3. Joe

    Yes, there is still relatively little equal status interaction between black and white Americans, in most every large city and its suburbs. And not much between whites and some other groups of color either. We are still a very segregated society on racial lines, and most especially residentially.

  4. Nicthommi

    My mom told me about the time when a local white man asked her grandmother (who had a white dad) to sell her cow to him. He asked on several occasions and she always said no, and finally one day he came with another man and they simply took it without leaving anything for it. I doubt that if she’d accepted the offer they’d have paid much, but yeah, in the end they just stole it because they could.

    You are right about the saying and it is very true. Chicago is a great example(of blacks and whites not living too close). The South Side has blacks of every income level…so we’re talking surgeons, partners in law firms, living a couple of blocks from low income people. Yet when I talk to non-black Chicagoans, they talk about the South Side being a big ghetto and how it’s so dangerous to go there.

    Manufacturing jobs in that allowed blacks to become middle class in the North and Upper Midwest are long gone, and depending on your profession, the south can provide a lower cost of living with the same opportunities. There was a good article in the NY Times perhaps a year or two ago that talked about the impact that the decline in U.S. manufacturing was having on the black middle class, and the role that it played in its evolution.

    It’s not hard to see why someone would trade in a dingy apartment for the possibility of a big house, but in some of these cities, the people moving aren’t any more professionally or financially secure than they were up North.

    I think the point was made that for retirees who want their investment or pension dollars to stretch further, a move down south is a good bet, but for many people the idea of a better life is only an illusion. If you are unskilled and/or uneducated, there aren’t many advantages.

    Just speaking personally, my best professional opportunities aren’t in the South, and the salaries at my level would be the same anywhere (so some people opt for a lower cost location, and others pay a premium to live in other places).

    • Blaque Swan

      My mom told me about the time when a local white man asked her grandmother (who had a white dad) to sell her cow to him. He asked on several occasions and she always said no, and finally one day he came with another man and they simply took it without leaving anything for it. I doubt that if she’d accepted the offer they’d have paid much, but yeah, in the end they just stole it because they could.

      Yep, it was a common occurrence.

      As was the preponderance of biracial children with white dads.

      As for the South Side, it’s only since the Obamas hit the scene that I’ve come to realize that the South Side isn’t one large ghetto. Which is kinda sad seeing as how my aunt attended UChicago and I visited for a week. (Funny story – my aunt hung up the phone right before I could tell David Duke if blacks had to go back to Africa, whites should go back to Europe. I had started stuttering and couldn’t quite get it out. But I digress.)

      Not only is the cost of living lower in the South, most blacks I will still have family in the South, however distant they may be. So if you want to save on living costs, and you like a slower pace of life or wanna be closer to the great aunt who cooks the best, the South really isn’t as bad as pop media can make it out to be.

      • Nicthommi

        Oh, I was raised in the South and my parents are from the rural South (black belt in Alabama). Parts of our family on both sides migrated mostly to Detroit in the mass exodus. My parents did not, b/c they were white collar professionals and their opportunities were elsewhere (NY State). We eventually moved back to the SE but when that happened the cost of living in our SE city was higher than it had been in NY State.

        Well, you’d probably heard the same misinformation about the South Side that many people have and internalized it. I mean, I have a friend who grew up very close to the Obama’s house and her family has been well off for two generations living on the South Side and she’ll call it ghetto (out of classism mostly, not b/c it has ever reflected her reality).

        But like I said, my professional opportunities would not be good at all in most of the South, with a few notable exceptions.

        Honestly, while understanding racism very well, I grew up surrounded by white Southerners and it was very comfortable. Southerners, black or white, are quite warm and congenial, and the ones who hate black people are pretty blatant about it. I prefer that to Northerners who sill pretend.

        I have always told people that if someone in the South is being kind to them, they should probably accept it at face value, b/c no one who really hates black people down there is going to feel as though they have to pretend otehrwise.

        • Blaque Swan

          no one who really hates black people down there is going to feel as though they have to pretend otehrwise.

          Well . . .

          I would say to just accept it because even if they generally hold blacks in disregard, they will let certain individual blacks into their circle. If you happen to be one of those blacks, they are being genuinely kind, and you may as well accept it. They need that black friend who’ll look at’em sideways when necessary. For example, when they’ll say, “Oh, we don’t think of you as black.”

          • Nicthommi

            Well, I fall into that category and it doesn’t/didn’t really work like that. I was the ONLY black student in my private school class for 13 years, and in many cases, I was the only black person that they knew well, but there is/was a difference between the ones who really don’t like blacks versus the ones who I have been friends with my entire life.
            It’s just a bit facile to assume that because someone has one black friend (which can occur for a myriad of reasons), they are just being nice or see you as a novelty.
            And there is nothing wrong with someone who thinks that it is wrong for everyone in their world to look the same to seek that out as well.
            I just wouldn’t write it off as someone being patronizing, kind, or seeing you as a novelty. People like that still hold a lot of unpleasant views that they aren’t savvy enough to hide.
            Don’t get me wrong, there are people of color who have issues and seek to distance themselves from other POC and who do befriend people who are otherwise racist and let those things slide. It’s just not everyone, and I think that how you feel about yourself and how you were raised goes a long way in determining what kinds of people you associate with.
            A lot of my black college friends grew up like I did, and we frequently wind up as the only black b/c of socioeconomic class, career choice, field of study, and hobbies.
            Those of us who grew up as the “only” are not naive about race relations and people who are patronizing and fake don’t really fool anyone.
            I feel as if I’ve met a lot of blacks, especially those who didn’t grow up around many white or non-black people who are overly paranoid about them and their intentions and never trust anything that they do or say. And that is a shame.
            I’ve never been anyone’s “stunt” black friend.

  5. cordoba blue

    Actually, being white, I don’t think I’m being kind to have black friends. I just happen to like certain people who are black. Isn’t that the way you should choose friends? If any person, for example, is just not on my wave length or boring (there I said it) I’m not interested.
    I have a black male friend who makes me laugh constantly. I love this guy..wouldn’t trade him for anybody else..because I feel an affinity for his personality. It is possible for people to have a psychological/emotional attraction that goes beyond race. Then there are white people who are so mundane, I would rather be subjected to a week swimming with manta rays..alone in the Pacific..without a raft..than spend an hour with
    Seriously though, my personal take on why blacks are moving south..since I live in North Carolina..lower cost of living, much better climate, more job opportunities. The industrial mid-west and northeast have been losing its populations steadily for the past 40 years..the “rust belt”.

    • Nicthommi

      I think that the north provided good manufacturing jobs that allowed blacks to rise into the middle class for the first time in large numbers. If you were from the Deep South, both educated and uneducated blacks found that their job opportunities were limited. Many of those people finally found good pay in the North (When I was an engineer in the auto industry, I was surprised to find many middle aged blacks (40 and 50 somethings) who were not college graduates whose parents from Arkansas, Georgia, Mississippi actually HAD earned 4 year degrees that were worthless to them and even in the north, it was more lucrative for them to join the UAW and work for the Big 3 because they still were not going to be hired for white collar jobs). The bad part was that a lot of these people who grew up in middle class homes financed by UAW jobs failed to take the advantage and get educations since they could make a lot more by going straight to work from high school than many other jobs.
      Henry Ford was racist and anti-semitic, but he was at least advanced enough to think that blacks and whites and others should make the same wage (although for years, blacks had the most physically difficult jobs).
      The decline of U.S. manufacturing has pitched a lot of non-degreed blacks out of the middle class. The overall recession has been statistically shown to have hit blacks, degreed or not, harder than whites. It stands to reason that they would migrate South where they can either start over or find a lower cost of living.
      My personal take also is that newer entrants to the middle and upper middle class want to FEEL like they are affluent, and if you live in a tiny apartment in NYC while making a good salary, who don’t FEEL as if you’ve really come that far.
      I think that a lot of these people want to live the dream, and moving to Atlanta, Houston, or Charlotte will let them have that. Of course, esp. in Georgia, a lot of their predecessors (many of whom were also Northern transplants) did the same thing and many of the foreclosed homes belonged to people who, as my mother would say “had bigger eyes than they had stomachs.”
      Another area where blacks were harder hit has been in the foreclosure crisis and I’d say that this is situation where blacks are affected more b/c even when they make the same salaries as their white counterparts, they don’t have any “historical” wealth (as in parents who can help with a downpayment, small inheritance from grandma, all things that many non-rich but middle class whites benefit from-and I’m not talking about heiresses, but just parents who can give you $10K or a grandma who can leave you a paid for house-fewer blacks fall into this category).

  6. Joe

    Thanks for the very good points and discussion. One key point that needs to be added in here somewhere, I suggest, is that in many of the south’s large cities and numerous smaller cities on the coasts many whites who are there are also transplanted from the North or West. (And many southern whites like me have at times moved to the North or West.) Only a modest proportion of the population in numerous southern urban areas has family who have had many generations in the South. So, a black person in big southern cities’ workplaces, etc, is probably about as likely to run into a nonsouthern white person as someone several generations southern. The data suggest that the white racial frame, and its prowhite and antiblack subframes, really does not vary greatly by region–especially when measured by the racist performances and actions that whites do everywhere in the all-white backstage regions with white relatives, friends, peers.

    • Blaque Swan

      many of the south’s large cities and numerous smaller cities on the coasts many whites who are there are also transplanted from the North or West.

      That’s right!

      I hadn’t even thought to consider that. But yeah, that’s right! I think even just spending formative years, college or grad school, outside the South makes a difference. Or even attending a Southern school located within a large black community. Tim Wise is Southern born and raised, and I think he attended Tulane.

      Thanks for pointing that out, Joe.

  7. cordoba blue

    “The data suggest that the white racial frame, and its prowhite and antiblack subframes, really does not vary greatly by region.”
    Totally agree. I was raised in North Carolina, but lived 24 years ago, out west for a time, after first being married. The old Hollywood stereotype images of the Southern attitude toward blacks is no more severe than in any other part of the country. We could discuss this state by state with particulars, but let’s just say that “out west” where I lived, and where there were very few African Americans..WoW! The racism was very prevalent and with nobody to stop them because there weren’t any blacks around to be offended. Uh..nice to know what you’re really thinking since there are no African Americans around to defend themselves! My husband and I were surprised at the way the jokes were bandied around, and it was assumed “everybody” felt the same way.
    Plus I went to a nice restaurant with my husband, two white friends from California, and their black friend, a woman, who was visiting their home in our state, from San Francisco. Ok..we’re all sitting there. This older white man walks in with his wife. He stares, I mean stares, at this black lady for 10 or so minutes like, “What is she doing here”? Because in that part of the west, there were, again very few blacks and because, obviously, the guy was an obnoxious old racist!
    The point is at this juncture, I’d honestly say racism all over the country is about the same. I do think that proximity to other races than your own, does tend to diminish racism in general. Mark Twain once said that substantial traveling is a cure for bias, racism and prejudice..I’m paraphrasing..because of course you realize the common humanity you share with all other humans. The more provincial you are, the more racist, I think anyway, you tend to be.

    • Nicthommi

      I very much agree with you Cordoba. I live in the Bay Area and I think that the lack of black faces here does exactly what you said.
      I feel as though Asians, who are here in large numbers, are very much accepted-professionally, socialy, as potential mates, but the same is not true for blacks.
      So funny that people here think that they are SO liberal but I think that as far as blacks are concerned, their views are far from progressive and it is second only to Montreal in terms of my least favorite places that I have ever lived.
      I think that at least seeing people on a daily basis helps you see them as people. I feel much more comfortable in Chicago for example. Even though the living situation is VERY segregated, people who look like me are all over the city and I never feel like an oddity there.
      And of course, if you talk to anyone here, they think it’s super diverse and don’t notice at all the fact that black people are nowhere to be seen.
      There are a LOT of professional opportunities here but blacks do not migrate here. The expense does not deter people of other races though.

      • cordoba blue

        Hi Nicthommi,
        The state where we lived for 10 years, 24 years ago, where our friends from California visited us (I know that was a little confusing) was Oregon. Oregon! The WASPiest place on Earth. In fact, areas like Oregon, Montana, Idaho, Colorado, Wyoming..demographically are practically devoid of black people. No wonder they don’t feel comfortable migrating there.
        One other short story, those same friends from California brought other guests on another occasion. It was a white man with an Hispanic wife and their children.
        Well..once again we went to a restaurant together. We were all trying to talk this family into moving to Oregon because we said the cost of living was lower than in California. They had previously said they were sick of the traffic etc in California.
        Then, the Hispanic lady (forgot her name) said, “No. I don’t think so. People are more prejudiced against Hispanic people here.” Well, everyone was like,”No! That’s your imagination etc”. But then she told us people were staring at her on more than one occasion. Then I thought about the black lady incident, and concluded..maybe she was correct. But I didn’t say anything because..obviously it was a sensitive situation. But, yes, proximity does encourage acceptance and if African Americans are paranoid about the Northwest, I can’t blame ’em!

  8. Joe

    Cordoba, good points. Leslie Picca and I, in our Two Faced Racism book ( report on 8-12-week (short) personal diaries done on ‘racial events and conversations’ white college students encounter in every day life given to us by some 626 white college students in all regions (two dozen colleges & universities), and we found much blatant racism (prowhite and anti-others, but mostly anti-black) in all regions by these ‘best educated’ young whites of the 21st century. In short diaries they gave us about 7200 accounts of blatantly racist events, comments, jokes, actions by white friends, relatives, peers– 3/4 of it antiblack stuff…. Again west, north, south, did not seem to matter a lot. Nor does the numbers of blacks living in that area. I think that is because whites move from one region to another, and the white racist frame is taught or imbibed everywhere, from media, parents, schools, peers, etc

  9. Blaque Swan

    @ nicthommi – I guess I’m jaded. I’ve been the raisin in the pie on several occasions, and yeah, there’re times when it’s sincere. My freshman year roommate in college was a white friend from high school. So yeah, they’re genuine people with whom you can have a genuine friendship. On the other hand, there’re a couple of older white folks who come to mind right away who just adore me and give me those tight, “I’m soo glad to see you!” hugs but at the same time don’t really think much of black people on the whole.

    At the end of the day, I think we’re on the same page as far as just accepting the kindness. If someone’s doing you a “favor” because they assume that as a black person, you don’t have the means to do it yourself – yeah, you can tell right away they’re being patronizing. And there’re some who’re being genuinely kind and genuine like you but don’t realize only a few black Southerners look askance at “yankees.” Whatever the situation, if it doesn’t seem overtly patronizing or condescending, you may as well go with the flow.

    Especially if we’re just talking about a neighborly greeting or something.

    Oh! I’m sorry I went on that tangent! If we’re talking about “depending on the kindness of strangers,” I guess that is just a Southern thing. On the other hand . . . well, being two-faced isn’t a racial thing, but it can be.

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