The Urbanist Musings of Pete Saunders

Black Exodus From Chicago


I’m the oldest of three siblings. My siblings left the Rust Belt for the East Coast; my sister and her family are in suburban Washington, D.C., and my brother’s family lives in Brooklyn. Both have been encouraging me for years to make the leap and join them. I stay in touch with friends and other family from my birthplace of Detroit and my current hometown of Chicago via Facebook, and they have fanned throughout the country — Atlanta, Los Angeles, Las Vegas, Phoenix, Denver, Dallas, Houston.

I stayed in Chicago, the capital of the Rust Belt. I love it here and despite its flaws, I love what it is and what it can be. I believe in Chicago. I believe in Detroit too. But I also recognize that the outmigration of black residents to other cities is part of a growing pattern among black Rust Belt residents. There is indeed a black Rust Belt diaspora.

Black population loss in Chicago is substantial but has received scant attention. In the city alone the black population has dropped 8.9% since 2010, and almost 25% since 2000. Blacks were once the largest racial/ethnic group in Chicago, but are now second behind whites; blacks are close to being surpassed by Latinos. In the entire metro area, black population is down about 5%.

This wouldn’t be a concern, necessarily, if population declines were evident across the board. But they’re not. Outside of African-Americans Chicago’s city and metro population have steadily, if slowly, grown over the same period. The American Community Survey shows Chicago growing by just 0.77% between 2010 and 2017, the lowest of the ten largest cities. The next lowest is Philadelphia, at 3.6%. The same is true at the metro level. Chicago added just 0.76% to its population between 2010 and 2017, with Philadelphia the next lowest at 2.2%.

Chicago’s differences become even clearer when looking at this in a chart. Here’s how Chicago’s black population loss compares with the ten largest cities:

And here’s how it compares among the ten largest metro areas:

Oddly, the only comparable places at the city level are Los Angeles, San Diego and San Jose, California cities with far different demographics and economies. At the metro level, only Los Angeles is comparable.  I haven’t pulled the data, but I suspect a similar phenomenon is evident in other Rust Belt cities like Cleveland, Milwaukee, Detroit and St. Louis, and to a lesser extent in cities like Indianapolis, Minneapolis, and Pittsburgh.

Where are blacks going? Mostly to Sun Belt metros, in particular their suburbs. Despite what my siblings did, blacks aren’t necessarily following the larger trend of relocating to the nation’s growing global cities.

Why are they leaving the Rust Belt? There’s at least three theories as to why:

  • Conditions in many Rust Belt cities have deteriorated to the point (high crime, poor schools, moribund economies, etc.) that blacks are giving up on the Rust Belt.
  • A related theory is that Rust Belt metro economies are in the midst of a makeover, and are jettisoning off much of the labor that would’ve been manufacturing workers in an earlier time. And the service sector hasn’t yet added enough jobs at comparable wages to fill the gap.
  • A third theory is that today’s black middle class Rust Belt residents are simply following the same pattern that other Rust Belters established in the ’80s and ’90s.

In a sense this is reminiscent of the Great Migration, when blacks migrated from South to North in search of better opportunities at the beginning of the twentieth century. Not only were blacks looking to escape violence, but the South in general was in a state of economic stagnancy that lasted from the end of the Civil War until the end of World War II. Only in the second half of the twentieth century did the South begin to right itself and become a stronger region economically. A similar transition may be happening in reverse today.

I’m concerned, however, that this could have more dire economic impacts for today’s middle class blacks than for the earlier Sun Belt trailblazers. We’re seeing greater concentration of wealth within the superstar global cities, as they’ve been able to reverse their decades-long population loss trends. They’re doing better than their suburbs. In some respects today’s Sun Belt metros are comparable to the suburbs of the global cities; doing well but not keeping pace with the change taking place in the city core. They may find themselves on the outside, looking in.

It leads to a legitimate question with no real answer: are blacks moving to new spaces with greater opportunity, or moving away from their next best shot at it?

3 Responses to “Black Exodus From Chicago”

  1. texasdiver

    I have no idea about the answer to your question. However I am willing to bet based on my own experience living in Texas is that middle class rust belt blacks are probably moving from more highly segregated communities in places like Chicago to much more diverse suburban communities in the sun belt. The upscale suburb I recently left in Texas was amazingly diverse. On just my block there were engineers from Korea, China, and India, doctors from India, Chile, and local Texans, black managerial professional who were mostly retired military from outside the area as we were not far from Fort Hood. The only local born and raised folks in this upscale subdivision were white. All the people of color were from outside the area. The growing black and Asian upper middle class was pretty much entirely due to people moving in from elsewhere not poor local folks from across town who have made good. What that means? I don't really know.


  2. Unknown

    Just saw an article this morning on Twitter; people with college degrees – black, white, Hispanic – typically do not live in the state where they grew up. You can regularly see this when looking at migration patterns from New Yorkers moving to everywhere else. I don't think what you see is necessarily a Rust Belt problem, a Black problem, or an Opportunity problem, nor is it good or bad. People move around to pursue opportunities. Other people, black or otherwise, will likely be moving to Rust Belt places to leverage the opportunities you see.



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