The term “inner city” has long been used as a derisive euphemism for Black — poor, blighted and in distress. But many inner cities in the North and West are becoming less and less Black because Black people are moving out.
For example, according to estimates by William Frey, a demographer at the Brookings Institution, the Black population of Washington, which for more than half a century was a majority Black city, fell below 50% in 2011.
In 2018, a church elder, Jeanne D. Cooper, told The Washington Post that the District of Columbia used to be called “Chocolate City.” She continued, “Now it’s Chocolate Chip City.” Her historic Black church, Lincoln Congregational Temple United Church of Christ, which was founded just after the Civil War in 1869, was being forced to close because of gentrification and low attendance.
According to the most recent census data, the Black population of D.C. fell to 41% in 2020.
The dwindling of the Black population in what had come to be Black strongholds is happening all over the country, either because of pricing pressure for housing spurred by gentrification or the reverse migration wave of Black people from the North and West moving back to the South.
This has been a boon for Black power in many of the places to which Black people have moved, but there has been another undeniable impact — a vanishing of culture and a hollowing out of power in the places they fled.
The Black share of the population of Oakland, California, the birthplace of the Black Panthers, has fallen from 44% in 1990 to just 20% in 2020, a drop of over half in just 30 years.
Detroit, once the Blackest big city in America, home of Motown, dropped from 82% Black in 2010 to 77% Black in 2020. The Hispanic, white and Asian populations all grew in the city over that period.
New York City, with 2 million Black residents, more than any other city in America, saw its Black population fall by 4.5% over the past decade. This came on the heels of the Black population declining 5.1% the previous decade, the first drop in the number of Black residents in recent history.
Perhaps no neighborhood embodies this Black flight, or Black displacement, in New York City more than Harlem, one of the most famous historically Black neighborhoods in America.
As The New York Times reported in 2010, after Harlem lost its majority Black designation: “The number of Blacks living in greater Harlem hit a high of 341,000 in 1950, but their share of the population didn’t peak until 1970, when they made up 64% of the residents. In 2008, there were 153,000 Blacks in greater Harlem, and they made up 41% of the population.”
In the 2020 census, the Black population of Harlem fell even further and now accounts for just 37% of the total.
Chicago, a major destination for Black people during the Great Migration, has seen its Black population decimated. As NPR reported last year: “In 1980, decades of Black population growth in Chicago stopped and reversed. By 2016, Chicago’s Black population had decreased by 350,000 from its peak level of nearly 1.2 million in 1980.”
The 2020 census showed that Chicago’s Black population fell by roughly 85,000 from 2010, a decline of nearly 10%.
Philadelphia also saw a drop in its Black population, with The Philadelphia Inquirer writing, “The decline in Philadelphia’s Black population — a loss of about 30,500 people — is the city’s steepest in history.”
In 2010, Black people were the largest racial group in Philadelphia. That is no longer true. Now white people are.
Even before this census, The Los Angeles Times was reporting on a Black exodus from Western cities like Los Angeles, San Francisco, Seattle and Portland, Oregon, writing, “West Coast progressive enclaves are either seeing an exodus of Blacks or are failing to attract them.”
Whether Black people are moving to the suburbs or the South, they are changing what Black America is and where Black culture is expressed and Black power is exerted.
These shifts don’t mean that there are now fewer cities with Black majorities; the number is on the rise, as Brookings pointed out in 2019. It’s just that 90% of majority Black cities are now in the South. In fact, I think it would be safe to say that much of the municipal South is Black.
Indeed, many of the cities we associate with the racist South and the civil rights movement — Selma and Montgomery, Alabama; Jackson and Philadelphia, Mississippi; Little Rock, Arkansas; and Atlanta — now have Black mayors.
Black presence and Black power in America are on a seesaw: As they fall in some cities, they rise in others, with more Chocolate Chip Cities in the North and West, and more truly chocolate ones in the South.