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Why aren’t blacks migrating like they used to?

Sandra Susan Smith, associate professor of sociology | February 24, 2015

In a recent publication in the journal Demography, Patrick Sharkey analyzed patterns of geographic migration of black and white families over four consecutive generations. In prior generations, the NYU sociologist observed patterns of migration consistent with conventional wisdom, with massive outflows of blacks from the South toward cities in the Northeast, Midwest, and eventually the West — flows commonly referred to as the Great Migration

However, in the most recent generation of blacks (those born from the mid-50s to the early ’80s), Sharkey observed relative immobility. Not only were they substantially less likely than their parents and grandparents to cross county, state, and regional lines, they were also much less likely than whites of the fourth generation to move long distances. Because the purpose of Sharkey’s study was in large part to describe this noteworthy change in blacks’ migration patterns, he leaves for others the task of explaining this latest development.

The factors that shape internal migration patters are complex, and I am no migration scholar, but my first thought was this: Why would they move, and where would they go?

Scholars of the Great Migration never fail to mention the social, economic, and political factors that both pushed and pulled massive numbers of blacks out of the South and towards major cities in the Northeast, Midwest, and the West. This is for good reason. Despite the horrendous conditions of the ghettos that awaited them, their circumstances would be much improved, at least in part because of the economic opportunities they would come to enjoy, if only for an historical moment, and because of the political influence they would increasingly wield. And to some extent, too, the institutional ghettos of the North protected them from rituals of subservience expected in the South. No more ‘Yes, sa’, and in the context of the ghettos, “boys” could be men.

But what would be the major pushes and pulls for Sharkey’s fourth generation? One would be hard pressed to identify regions of the country or states in the union where blacks’ civil rights are not daily challenged. Questionable police shootings of blacks are a nationwide phenomenon — Oscar Grant in Oakland; Michael Brown in Missouri; Eric Garner in Staten Island; Tamir Rice in Cleveland; Trayvon Martin in Florida (granted, not by a real cop, but the understandable impression is that justice failed here, too).

Class mobility might act as a buffer from such an unthinkable fate, but moving long distances across this country won’t necessarily do that. And while many expressed outrage (and for good reason) when the Supreme Court struck down Section 4 of the Voting Rights Act, throughout the country Republicans have attempted to erect obstacles to limit blacks’ access to the polls — with voter ID laws, the revocation of same-day registration, and county-specific limitations on the days and times polls were to be open, clear replacements of Jim Crow’s poll taxes, grandfather clauses, and literacy tests.

What happened in Ohio occurred to me as the most blatant of such attempts, but Ohio was hardly alone. Not only should Section 4 have remained on the books, it should have been extended to all states, given recent efforts by some in Southern and non-Southern states alike to disenfranchise.

And then there is the all-important question of economic opportunity. The economic expansions of the last 25 years or so that might have inspired families to move have been concentrated in industries and occupations that have not been traditional niches for blacks, because historical and contemporary patterns of discrimination have essentially placed these opportunities off limits — construction in the 1990s and 2000s until the bust; technology especially in Silicon Valley and maybe the Research Triangle in NC; energy sectors in parts south, like Texas. If you’re black, these economic developments would not likely have caused you to pick up and leave.

So, why has the current generation of blacks become relatively immobile. My question is, why not?