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Black Belt Power: African Americans Come Back South, Change Political Landscape

Much of the media buzz about the 2010 Census has focused on the role of Latinos and new immigrants in changing the face of the country.
It makes sense. According to the U.S. Census Bureau, about half of the nation's growth over the last decade was driven by growth in the Latino community, much of it in Southern states.

But equally influential in the South's rapidly-changing demographics is another story with a longer historical arc: The return of many African Americans to Southern states after a decades-long exodus during the Jim Crow era.

The Great Migration of some 6 million African Americans from the South between World War I and 1970 is one of the most significant demographic upheavals in U.S. history. According to author Isabel Wilkerson, at the turn of the last century, 90 percent of all African Americans were living in the South. By the end of the Great Migration, nearly half were living outside the South, mostly in the cities of the North and West.

The civil rights movement did not end racism, of course, but it did change the South enough to entice many African Americans to come back, igniting a reverse migration movement that continues to gain steam.

As a result, the South's share of the black population—57 percent—is now the highest it has been since 1960.* That is still less than the 90 percent mark before the Great Migration, but as the New York Times reported earlier this year, it is a dramatic change.

During the turbulent 1960s, black population growth in the South, and Southern states was less than 10 percent of the national increase. Since then, the South has increasingly claimed a greater share of black population growth—about half the country's total in the 1970s, two-thirds in the 1990s, and three-quarters in the decade that just ended.

The shift could significantly strengthen the political power of African Americans in the South, especially in the historic Black Belt stretching from the mid-Atlantic to East Texas. (See map on page 16 showing where the South's African American communities are concentrated, according to the latest Census data.)

 A glimpse of the political force this represents was seen in 2008, when record-breaking African American turnout helped push Florida, North Carolina, and Virginia into blue territory.

It's also seen in Georgia, the epicenter of the Black Belt, where the African American community grew by more than 579,000 since 2000—the leading ingredient in making it the seventh fastest-growing state in the country.

The 2010 Census also offers a glimpse of how Southern African American communities are changing. Atlanta echoes a trend found across the South and the country, where suburban black neighborhoods are growing at the expense of the urban core. The New York Times notes that “just 2 percent of the black population growth in the last decade occurred in counties that have traditionally been black population centers.”

African Americans moving South also tend to be young: 40 percent were ages 21 to 40, meaning that the political force of the latest phase of African American reverse-migration to the South will be felt for years to come.

Chris Kromm is the executive director and publisher of Facing South and Southern Exposure where an earlier version of this article appeared.


Autumn Awakening | Vol. 18, No. 2– 2011 | Credits

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