How do we make sense of the fact that America’s most progressive cities, the ones that cherish diversity, are losing African Americans? And that the most conservative places are doing the opposite?
Between 2000 and 2010, cities like Austin, Chicago, Washington D.C., San Francisco—places that vote majority Democrat, consider themselves socially and culturally progressive, and boast racial diversity—all lost unprecedented numbers of African Americans. San Francisco, for instance, saw a staggering 20.4 percent loss in its African American population between 2000 and 2010. Chicago and Washington D.C. also experienced double-digit losses.
During that same decade, the only three major cities (populations over 500,000) that voted Republican in the 2012 presidential election— Phoenix, Fort Worth, and Oklahoma City—all saw significant increases in African American numbers; their African-American populations grew by 36.1 percent, 28 percent and 11.4 percent respectively.
Rebecca Diamond, an economist at Stanford University, offers one salient explanation.
Her research points to how cities such as Chicago, New York, San Francisco and Washington D.C. have over the past three decades attracted ever-larger numbers of college graduates. Using Census data, Diamond shows that as college graduates occupied larger shares of these cities’ work forces (while avoiding other cities they deem less attractive) income inequality in these cities grew.
Urban industries and amenities catered to the higher-waged worker, making these cities more expensive to live in. Lower-wage workers (those with only a high school diploma) also desired the enhanced quality of life offered by these cities—better food and air quality, lower crime rates—but they couldn’t afford to live in them. Simply put, as college grads arrived, lower-waged workers were driven out.
Although Diamond’s study does not analyze how specific racial groups are impacted by what she terms a “national gentrification effect,” it appears that African Americans have bore the disproportionate brunt of it.
This is certainly the case in in Austin, Tex.
A recent study we conducted at the University of Texas at Austin reveals that Austin in the only major growth city (a city with over half a million people that saw at least 10 percent growth between 2000 and 2010) that experienced an absolute loss in its African-American population.
According to the census data, Austin grew by 20.4 percent between 2000 and 2010, granting it third place among fastest growing major cities in the United States. But during that same decade, its African-American population declined by 5.4 percent or 3,769 people. This statistical singularity is illustrated in the following graph.
What happened in Austin seems to be consistent with the Stanford research. Austin has the highest percentage of college graduates as well as the highest median incomes in Texas. Census data also suggests that the African Americans who left Austin between 2000 and 2010 were by and large lower-waged workers (African American losses occurred in tracts that were on average poorer than those that did not see losses).
The loss of Austin’s African American population amid tremendous growth in its general population certainly doesn’t square with the city’s reputation as a “tolerant” place, one celebrated for its progressivism, cultural dynamism, and emphasis on sustainability.
Of course, some might argue that the notion of a liberal city—especially those as moneyed as Austin, Chicago, New York and San Francisco—is now irrelevant. But this line of argument too easily dispenses with the reality that high-earning college graduates identify strongly as liberals, and moreover, that the municipal governments they elect are taking the lead on the some of the most progressive environmental and cultural policies in the nation.
It’s not that these cities are no longer liberal, per se, but that the brand of (neo)liberalism they now celebrate is unaccountable to the concerns championed by lower-waged workers: universal prekindergarten, affordable housing, and the de-privatization of public space (crystallized by last month’s San Francisco’s playground fiasco that garnered national headlines). It’s a liberalism that has, quite literally, left no room for the low-waged worker, particularly African Americans.