By JONATHAN TILOVE
May 24, 2004
c.2004 Newhouse News Service
(UNDATED) Red America is Bush country. Blue America belongs to the Democrats. Yet more than half of Black America, the truest-blue bedrock of the Democratic base, lives in Red America, and more moves there every year.
That may spell trouble for Democrats as they attempt to assemble an Electoral College majority in 2004.
As of the 2000 census, 58 percent of African-Americans lived in states that President Bush carried over former Vice President Al Gore. With the growing migration of blacks to the solidly Republican South, that proportion swells with each passing year.
This southward movement could make the states of the Old Confederacy competitive again for Democrats in the long term. But in the near term, black movement from closely fought states like Michigan, Ohio and Pennsylvania to places where Democrats have little hope of victory could prove costly to the party’s presidential hopes.
In the cold, hard calculus of Electoral College politics, the Democrats have the majority of their most loyal constituents concentrated in states where, for all practical purposes, their votes for president won’t matter.
“I don’t think there is any Southern state where the new black migration would be large enough to swing the state to the Democratic presidential candidate, because what is also going on in the Deep South is a realignment of white voters into the Republican Party,” said Emory University political scientist Merle Black, co-author with his brother, Earl, of “The Rise of Southern Republicans.”
As of 2000, eight states _ Alabama, Georgia, Louisiana, Maryland, Mississippi, the two Carolinas and Virginia _ had black populations of 20 percent or more. Only Maryland would be considered a good bet to go for Sen. John Kerry, D-Mass., the presumed Democratic nominee, in the fall.
The source of this dilemma for the Democrats is the coincidence of two seemingly contradictory trends: In recent decades, the South became the indispensable cornerstone of the Republican political map even as it re-emerged as the center of gravity in black life, including black political life.
Democrats ruled the Solid South for 100 years. Their dominance cracked in the 1960s as they nationally became the party of black empowerment. Southern whites switched their allegiance to the GOP, first in national elections and later more broadly, as blacks, their voting rights protected for the first time, became the Democrats’ mainstay in the region.
Democratic presidential candidates from the South _ Jimmy Carter and Bill Clinton _ managed to carry a few Southern states in winning the White House. But by 2000, Vice President Gore, a Tennessean, lost every state in the South, including his own. Gore came closest in Florida, where Bush’s contested victory secured him the presidency.
The 1960s also marked the tail end of the mass migration North of blacks from the South _ the Great Migration that created the large black communities in cities across the North and West, from New York to Chicago to Los Angeles.
Beginning in the 1970s, that migration reversed direction. The South began to attract many more blacks from the Northeast and Midwest than it lost to those regions. In the ’90s, California joined the list of departure points.
“Hey, we’re all coming back,” said Andrew Hill, who with his wife, Rose, retired from Detroit to Selma, Ala., two years ago. He expects some of his children to join them, and his cousins in Cleveland are also headed back to Alabama.
Hill grew up in Youngstown, Ohio, to which his father, James, had moved from Camden, Ala., around 1940 in search of opportunity. After serving in Vietnam, the son moved to Detroit and worked as a switchman on the Chesapeake & Ohio Railroad. Twenty years ago, James Hill moved back to Camden _ 32 miles southwest of Selma _ where, at 90, he lives alone on a farm, raising sweet potatoes and collard greens.
The younger Hill’s trajectory has placed him in the path of history. He was in Detroit in 1973 when Coleman Young, born in Tuscaloosa, Ala., was elected the Motor City’s first black mayor. And now he is in Selma, where in 2000 James Perkins Jr. was elected the first black mayor of the hometown to which Perkins had returned after chasing economic opportunities in Maryland and Illinois.
In a new study for the Brookings Institution, demographer William Frey of the University of Michigan details how black southward migration has gained tremendous force in the last three decades.
In the second half of the 1990s, the South experienced a net gain of nearly 350,000 blacks from the rest of America. Moreover, Frey found, college-educated individuals _ who are those most likely to vote _ led the new southward migration.
The five metro areas losing the most black movers in the 1990s were, in order, New York, Chicago, Los Angeles, San Francisco and Detroit. The seven states losing the most blacks to others were New York, California, Illinois, New Jersey, Louisiana, Pennsylvania and Michigan.
While the data, the most recent that are reliable, capture the movement of people only through 2000, Frey said the trends are strong and ongoing.
For the Democrats, loss of black voters in securely Democratic states like New York, California, Illinois and even New Jersey is not a matter of life and death. But every departing voter in swing states like Pennsylvania, Michigan and Ohio _ which is also suffering a net loss of blacks, albeit on a smaller scale _ is costly. On the other hand, the movement of blacks to other potentially competitive states _ including Minnesota, Nevada and, most crucially, Florida _ represents a gain.
Frey said that for many blacks beyond the South, the region always maintained a sense of home, kinship and comfort. With the improved racial climate and greater economic opportunities there, many began to move back.
The return was most obvious in the “New South” _ beginning with Atlanta, far and away the most popular destination for African-Americans on the move. But by the 1990s, Frey found that even places like the Birmingham, Ala., metro area, and the state of Alabama as a whole _ which had suffered some of the greatest losses during the Great Migration _ were gaining more blacks from elsewhere than they were losing.
“I think many blacks are beginning to get a sense of the opportunities in the South,” said D’Linell Finley, a political scientist at Auburn University Montgomery.
Finley also pastors a Baptist church in Montgomery. “Just this past Sunday,” he said, “I had a young man from Detroit, Mich., come to my church, who was working with the Hyundai plant.” History had been turned upside down _ a black man had moved from Detroit to Montgomery to find work in the auto industry.
The black return to the South has coincided with and complemented a surge in black political representation in the region.
In 1960, it was rare for Southern blacks to be able to exercise their right to vote. By 2000, according to the Joint Center for Political and Economic Studies in Washington, the South, home to more than half the nation’s blacks, was also home to nearly 70 percent of all black elected officials nationally.
Many were local elected officials representing mostly black constituencies. But North Carolina had four black statewide elected officials, and Georgia had six, including the chief judge of the state Supreme Court and the attorney general. Meanwhile, black flight from California was accompanied by an actual decline in the numbers of black elected officials in the Golden State.
Despite all the talk about the profound differences between Red and Blue America, what is really being described is a political divide in white voting habits. There is no evidence of any significant deviation in the political behavior of black voters, even in the reddest of Red states in the South.
For blacks, “the party vote is around 90 percent Democratic, give or take, North or South,” said Rice University political scientist Earl Black, Merle Black’s brother and co-author.
Andrew Hill said transplants like himself tend to be more assertive than many longtime Southern blacks, and can have a profound impact on local politics. Statewide, he said, “it will be a while before enough blacks come back here to make it Democratic again.”
Hill isn’t worried about the political impact at the other end of the migration. “I think Detroit will be OK without us,” he said.
But if Michigan turns out to be the Florida of 2004, the black migration southward may figure in the Democrats’ recapitulation of what went wrong.