No, we don’t need a new generation of Rush Limbaugh and Al Sharptons.
So much of our understanding of history depends on the narrative we’ve gotten of it. For instance, take the Rust Belt cities, places that have been in economic decline for the past 60 years. The most common narrative we [“we” being upper-middle class urban/suburban whites] know for these cities is an economic one that goes something like this:
"In the early to middle part of the 20th century Rust Belt cities were at their peak, powered by global demand for American-made products. However, thanks to a combination of globalization, unions, protectionist policies, and these cities becoming less competitive, they lost jobs, and population followed."
And indeed, here’s the population change in Rust Belt cities since 1950:
Simple, right? Except there’s another narrative we could use:
"The middle of the 20th century was a turning point for black empowerment. We saw this most visibly in the desegregation of the urban south, but it impacted the rest of the country as well. For a variety of reasons — cities getting more non-white as southern blacks traveled north for jobs, the growth of automobiles and highways making suburban living more viable, and falling economic prospects in the Rust Belt and rising economic prospects in the Sun Belt, whites abandoned Rust Belt cities.”
And indeed, look at this table, which is the above table broken out by race:
Interesting, right? Detroit’s white non-Hispanic in 2010 was 55,675, down from a peak of over 1.5 million in 1950. You could put every white person left in Detroit in Ford Field and have empty seats.
Consider the migration patterns of whites and blacks since the founding of the US. Whites left Europe for America. Then there was a wave of migration west and to the cities. As the American industrial age ended, they left the cities for the suburbs and the Sunbelt. Going Galt’s in our nature. Those with means have been doing it for 250 years. Use up a place and move on, only investing in infrastructure when absolutely necessary [places like Boston and New York excepted]. Arguably, the post-2008 angst that white voters feel is that for those who aren’t high-skilled, there’s nowhere left to run except maybe Texas.
Black migration has followed a different pattern. After the Civil War, blacks left the south for northern cities. And once northern cities no longer provided economic opportunity, those with means have come back to the economically-vibrant Sunbelt cities, the Charlottes and Atlantas and Houstons of the world.
Tyler Cowen just wrote “Average is Over,” and indeed, it appears that it is. But part of that ethos means digging deeper than aggregate and state-level data and looking into ethnicity, age, and neighborhood-level data to see what’s really going on. Why some neighborhoods have thrived or gentrified while others remain stuck. And as much as it’s uncomfortable to us, race is a big part of the story, and we have to start talking about it.