Commentary by Earl Ofari Hutchinson
LOS ANGELES--A decade ago it was odd to see young (and not-so-young whites) walking their dogs, jogging and attending community meetings around my neighborhood in the western section of South Los Angeles. That’s not the case anymore.
Young and not-so-young whites are now a fixture in the neighborhood—and in many others. The black population of Los Angeles has shrunk from nearly 20 percent of the city’s overall population in 1970 to less than 10 percent today.
The population shift has happened in parts of every major city from Oakland to Washington, D.C., including cities that at one time were either exclusively or predominantly black. The latest U.S. Census figures more than confirm that America’s urban racial and ethnic demographics are fast changing.
Washington is a near-textbook example of the change. African Americans now make up a bare majority in a city that only two decades was one of the blackest cities in the United States—if not the blackest. If current trends continue, blacks could make up a minority in the nation’s capitol in the next decade.
Gentrification Only One Reason
Several factors have been cited for the emerging ethnic demographics of some inner-city neighborhoods. The most common is gentrification, that is, whites buying up homes, apartments and lofts at bargain rates in inner-city neighborhoods. There’s some truth and some exaggeration to that.
A 2008 study by researchers at three universities (University of Colorado, Boulder, University of Pittsburgh and Duke) compared census data from more than 15,000 neighborhoods across the United States in 1990 and 2000. They found that some low- and many middle-income blacks moved from inner-city neighborhoods in significant numbers. The study also showed that more college-educated whites were moving to these neighborhoods.
According to this report, a large percentage of those moving into gentrified areas were better-educated and higher-income blacks.
Other factors leading to the shifts have been that inner-city neighborhoods are potentially high-value property areas that are close to downtown and commercial centers. These neighborhoods have seen more than their share of developers bulldozing whole sections of deteriorating and abandoned homes and converting them into upscale, boutique-style apartments, condos and townhouses.
The lure of relatively affordable homes and apartments for blacks in the outlying suburbs has also been a factor.
Then there’s the large number of African Americans, who have migrated back to the South to retire or seek better employment opportunities. They have bought land and suburban homes at bargain-basement prices compared to prices in New York, Los Angeles, Oakland, San Francisco or Chicago.
Black Leaders Worried
The out flight of blacks from urban neighborhoods and the increasing number of whites, Hispanics and Asians that have relocated into these areas, have plainly worried some African-American leaders. They see the falling numbers as a potential threat to diminish black voting strength and political power.
A quirk of segregation was that exclusively or majority-black neighborhoods provided steady, reliable and concentrated African American votes that fueled the leap in the number of black elected officials during the past quarter century. Black leaders fear that the drop in those numbers will result in a decline in the number of black elected officials.
And it’s a fear based in fact. In recent years, blacks have lost some mayoral offices in such cities as New Orleans and Oakland, and come close to losing the mayorship in Atlanta.
The ethnic change has forced blacks to scramble and sharply broaden their campaign pitches, appeals and promises to other ethnic groups. It’s almost mandatory that African American elected officials now have diverse campaign staffs and representatives to service their multicultural constituencies. That’s especially true for majority or near-majority Hispanic constituencies in districts that previously had solid black majorities.
The next major challenge is to forge effective coalitions within the increasingly multiethnic inner-city areas to fight for, demand and insure quality services, neighborhood schools, business development and crime reduction.
A significant reason blacks have fled the inner cities was not just to find affordable housing and jobs, but to locate neighborhoods with quality schools, businesses and low crime rates. Sadly, they could only find those quality-of-life needs in the suburbs.
Black flight to the suburbs, along with the quantum growth in the Hispanic and Asian population in major cities and rural areas, will seriously affect national politics in 2012 and beyond.
Redistricting almost certainly will result in an increase in the number of Latino elected officials, nationally and locally, and the suburbanization of blacks will also force both parties to tailor their campaign pitches and appeals to the growing black population in what were once all or mostly white suburban districts.
Black flight, then, is a double-edged social and political sword changing the face of urban America and American politics for good.