Why are black residents leaving northern, progressive cities in such large numbers? In this episode of the 10 Blocks podcast, City Journal editor Brian Anderson discusses the trend with Aaron Renn, author of the recent City Journal article "Black Residents Matter."

Audio Transcript

Brian Anderson: In cities like San Francisco, Seattle, Chicago, and Portland, Oregon, the number of black residents has been falling fast. Why are so many blacks fleeing places with liberal politics and expansive municipal social welfare programs and where are they going? Today I’m joined by Aaron Renn. Aaron is a City Journal contributing editor, a senior follow at the Manhattan Institute, and an economic development columnist for Governing magazine. He has written a provocative article for the new issue of City Journal, it’s called “Black Residents Matter,” and it’s currently available on our website. Thanks for joining me, Aaron.

Aaron Renn: Thank you.

Brian Anderson: African Americans are leaving the liberal northern cities in large numbers. What’s going on? Why?

Aaron Renn: Well they’re really leaving two kinds of those northern cities. One are these well, more west coast cities that have been economically prosperous but they’ve had very restrictive housing development policies that have sent prices through the roof.

Brian Anderson: So places like Portland or Seattle.

Aaron Renn: Yeah, right. Portland, Seattle, San Francisco. The second one are Midwestern and Northeastern rustbelt cities with very limited or poor economic prospects or inclusive economies: Detroit, Cleveland, Chicago, et cetera. So those are really the two categories of cities, and then they’ve been - blacks have been, again, we’ve seen in the press, returning to the South to a great extent. Booming in places like Atlanta, Charlotte, Dallas, Houston.

Brian Anderson: You’ve lived in Illinois and spent quite a bit of time there. What’s going on in Chicago in this context that would spur this flight which is going on in Chicago, just as it is in Detroit and other places?

Aaron Renn: Chicago is a classic tale of two cities. Chicago was a heavy industrial city, so it has a tremendous rustbelt overhang a lot of the ways that other Midwest cities did. What distinguished Chicago is that it also had this white collar economy of this very powerful central business district in the Chicago Loop. You know, it has some big, globally important banks, the Chicago Mercantile Exchange, things like that. And this allowed Chicago to rebuild much like New York and Boston and places did coming out of that kind of seventies and eighties era. But that only benefitted the upscale portion of Chicago and that has really been the focus of what they’ve tried to build up, their loop economy. The rest of the city and the region and the state have struggled economically, both because of the postindustrial hangover but also because of just bad management. Corruption, you know, all these unfunded pensions and debt. Just a huge overhang. It’s a huge mess there and that’s inhibiting, maybe not the high-end businesses that want to come into downtown Chicago, but the average work a day business that would employ more middleclass blacks. Then add to that that Chicago, unlike New York, really didn’t embrace the policing reforms that transformed public safety in this city and, yeah, the crime is through the roof in Chicago and, you know, blacks are leaving for the same reason white people are leaving: safe, better neighborhoods, economic opportunity.

Brian Anderson: So African Americans are leaving places like Chicago and going south. Are there particular cities that they are gravitating toward?

Aaron Renn: Well, Atlanta is famous for sort of being the new capital of black America and more black population gain has occurred in Atlanta than any other city. I believe there’s nearly two million black residents in Atlanta now. Again, Charlotte has been another one. Even Miami, Houston, Dallas, places like that. But it hasn’t been exclusively southern cities. There have even been some northern cities, even some, believe it or not, with some liberal - known for being more liberal - have had some black population growth. This would include places like Indianapolis, Columbus, and Minneapolis-St. Paul. Now Minneapolis-St. Paul has a very rapidly growing black community. In part Minneapolis and Columbus have been driven by Somali immigrants, but Minneapolis is also the third highest destination for blacks who are leaving Chicago, so there’s quite a few Chicago blacks moving north instead of south. The different in Minneapolis is they haven’t adopted the liberal city policies on housing development, and so it’s still affordable to buy a home in Minneapolis compared to the West Coast. For example, as a rule of thumb you should spend, you know, no more than about three times your income to buy a house. Well, in Minneapolis, the median home is 3.2 times the median income. So, it’s basically affordable. You go to Portland it’s 5.1. You get into Silicon Valley it’s up around 9.7. You have to spend almost ten times your income to buy a house. Completely unaffordable. And this inability to get into the housing market has driven a lot of the wealth gaps between black and white because housing equity is a big portion of that, and so if you get the right policies in place in terms of your economy and pro-development, pro-market housing policies that keep housing prices affordable, even cold cities can attract both black and white residents.

Brian Anderson: One of the arguments you’ve been making in this piece is that the high cost of living is pushing blacks out of these cities, or it’s one of the factors pushing blacks out of these cities. Some would argue that this is proof for the necessary increase in a minimum wage. That certainly is a liberal argument you hear. What’s your view on raising the minimum wage as a response to this issue?

Aaron Renn: Well, that simply makes the work a day businesses less competitive in those places. If you look at places like San Francisco and Seattle, for example, they are really thriving with high-end businesses. That’s even what’s been going on in Chicago - high-end businesses are doing well there. It’s really the more middle-skill, middle-age, in mass market type of companies that need to employ people at all income levels. And if you go into communities where the cost of acquiring real estate is already expensive - don’t forget businesses need to pay rent too or buy land - and where the taxes are already high and where there’s a lot of regulatory burden already - and then raise costs for any of the entry-level employees that they had. What you’re basically doing is just discouraging those types of businesses from locating there and also cutting off the bottom rungs of the ladder that are going to make it hard for anyone to get on a job. So I think that these minimum wage policies are not likely to have the intended effect and it would probably be counterproductive in the long-run to create an inclusive economy.

Brian Anderson: How big a factor would you say improved race relations are down South in this remigration or this reverse of the Great Migration that you describe in your essay?

Aaron Renn: Pretty big. A lot of the southern boom in the U.S. I believe was enabled by the Civil Rights Act and changes in the segregation patterns down there. Obviously racism can still be a problem anywhere, but don’t forget the northern cities were also very racist as well. Northern cities like Detroit and Chicago, Milwaukee, extremely heavily segregated. But certainly particularly in the urban South and places like Atlanta, the race relations game are just totally different than it would have been, you know, sixty years ago. Atlanta said we want to be the city too busy to hate. They saw their black community not just as okay, we have to have some inclusion, but instead they said this is an engine of economic growth for our city. They saw their black community as an asset to their city and not a liability. It’s similarly in Houston, which many people don’t know is one of the most diverse cities in the United States, when Hurricane Katrina hit New Orleans, Houston said we’ll take the Astrodome and we’ll provide temporary housing for tens of thousands of largely black, displaced New Orleans residents, many of whom stayed on in Houston. And to Houston that was an opportunity for their city to welcome more people, so it does play a huge role in that particularly when the segregation patterns remain very heavily entrenched in the northern cities today. In some respects you are probably in a better race relation situation in the South than in the North.

Brian Anderson: Some would argue that minorities are leaving cities like New York because they are being priced out by gentrification - that’s a theme we’ve looked at in City Journal of late. What’s your view on the gentrification debate? Is that something that is having adverse effects on black Americans?

Aaron Renn: Gentrification has occurred in some districts. Some of the research would suggest the bigger problem is actually an increase in entrenched poverty. I do believe housing costs play a role but it’s really more these region-wide housing costs, more so than specific neighborhood by neighborhood housing costs. In a place like the Bay Area, it’s expensive everywhere. Yes, San Francisco - the City of San Francisco is insane. Even the suburbs of San Francisco are extremely expensive, so it is challenging to get into housing. I suggest a bigger problem is an inability to participate in the economy. Housing crises become a problem when you don’t have a good job and when there’s not enough kind of full ladder of economic success, from the bottom to the middle rungs to the top, and you have economies that are basically predicated on high-end industries, catering to high-end industries alone, where in order to succeed you sort of come in - you may come in at the bottom in Silicon Valley, but you’re coming in, in the bottom, with a Stanford degree. That’s a very different situation. So it’s really as much about the economic policies that have hollowed out the economies of these cities. And deindustrialization and things which, you know, were going to happen anyway. As much as gentrification that’s driving some of this, obviously housing prices play a role in some of these metro areas.

Brian Anderson: Do you think the demographic shift is going to have political implications in these cities?

Aaron Renn: It’s already had political implications. In 1980, Chicago was 40% black and in 1983 elected its first black major, Harold Washington. Subsequent to that, you know, the black population has declined while there’s been an explosion in Hispanics and others. The city is now less than a third black and that creates electoral conditions that make it difficult for blacks to be elected mayors in some of these cities. And that’s not to say that you can’t elect a black mayor. Denver has elected multiple black mayors, and there’s not very many black people in Denver. But certainly in these traditional centers declines in black population has reduced their political influence. Frankly a lot of the educated urbanites today are far more interested in catering to immigrants. I mean, if you look at a lot of the theories, it’s like you have to attract gays, you have to attract immigrants, we need to attract these knowledge workers. It’s been less about the traditional civil rights inclusion agenda that was the case back in the sixties, the seventies, and even into the eighties, and demographic change has certainly been a factor in that.

Brian Anderson: You can read Aaron Renn’s “Black Residents Matter” on our website, www.city-journal.org, and you can find other articles by Aaron there. You can also subscribe to our daily email update and get the latest articles by City Journal contributing editors like Heather Mac Donald, Nicole Gelinas, and Steve Malanga, delivered straight to your inbox. You can find Aaron Renn on Twitter, @urbanophile, or on his blog,urbanophile.com. Please tweet comments and questions about today’s discussion to @CityJournal with the hash tag #10blocks and if you like our show and want to hear more, please leave ratings and reviews on iTunes. I am City Journal editor Brian Anderson, thank you for listening to the 10 Blocks Podcast and thank you, Aaron, for joining it.

Aaron Renn: Thank you.

Photo: Portra/iStock

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