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Black Migration Changes the Political Landscape in Many States

Nadra Kareem Nittle | 7/20/2011, 11:59 a.m.
Similar to the Great Migration that saw millions of Blacks migrate from the South to the North and West, many African Americans are relocating to other areas of the country for greater financial stability. / Courtesy photo

African-Americans once were clustered so heavily in urban areas that the terms "Black" and "inner city" came to be used almost synonymously. According to the 2010 U.S. Census results, that time is history.

While Blacks have by no means vanished from cities, unprecedented numbers have headed for the suburbs or left the big cities of the North and headed south. As legislative districts are redrawn, nonpartisan groups and both political parties are watching how this unexpected migration will affect local and state elections.

Moreover, redistricting experts say the Black exodus from cities such as Detroit, Cleveland and Philadelphia contributed to placing Michigan, Ohio and Pennsylvania among the 10 states that will lose congressional seats because of reapportionment after the census. With Republican governors in 29 states, the GOP has greater influence over redistricting than Democrats.

But it is unclear whether the migration of African-American voters will change the number of congressional districts where Black candidates can win. Rob Richie, executive director of Fair Vote, based in Takoma Park, Md., notes that Republicans often join civil rights leaders in supporting African-American legislative districts rather than creating politically diverse districts where the Black vote could decide close elections.

"Republicans have a political interest in concentrating the African-American vote," Richie says. "When Blacks are concentrated, they can't have their votes in as many districts. It's a trade-off."

Experts on redistricting foresee multicultural coalitions emerging in formerly all-Black communities and people of color eventually gaining more political clout in suburbs and exurbs.

In California, the independent Citizens Redistricting Commission will carve out the state's electoral districts for the first time. Voters authorized having a nonpartisan board, not legislators, delineate these districts in passing the Voters First Act (Proposition 11) in 2008. To ensure that new districts don't dilute black voting power, grass-roots organizations mobilized to present the commission with recommendations for keeping communities of color intact. New district lines must be drawn by Aug. 15.

Although Black flight from California cities is changing demographics, experts say that is unlikely to shake up the state's political scene.

"The 2010 census showed that there has been a drift of the Black population away from the coastal areas to more inland areas in California," says Michelle Romero, a fellow at The Greenlining Institute, which is based in Berkeley and advocates for racial and economic justice. "But fortunately in Los Angeles, there's the potential to build multi-ethnic coalitions of voters after this new redistricting cycle."

While Republicans may not gain power where blacks have departed, blacks who have headed south will probably not be able to turn red states blue in the near future, says Herb Tyson of Tyson Innovative Government Relations Solutions in Washington, D.C.

The Black migration "doesn't help Democrats because the South is so heavily skewed Republican you would have to have a huge representation of African-Americans to make a difference statewide," he Tyson says.

On the other hand, in cities such as Atlanta, the black population is so large that African-Americans relocated there from throughout the nation won't change the political landscape. The Atlanta area now has the greatest number of Blacks in the country outside of New York City. For years, Chicago held that distinction. Moreover, three-fourths of the 25 counties in which the Black population rose most over the past decade are in the South.

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