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CLARENCE PAGE: Another Great Migration? Thanks, but I still like Chicago
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CLARENCE PAGE: Another Great Migration? Thanks, but I still like Chicago

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Will the last Black person to leave Chicago please turn out the lights?

That thought comes to mind whenever I see headlines or stories about Chicago losing its Black population.

It reminds me of the early 1970s when I was living near Seattle where the aerospace industry had taken a nose-dive locally tagged “the Boeing Bust.”

A couple of wry real estate agents mocked local pessimism by putting up a highway billboard near Sea-Tac International Airport, saying, “Will the last person leaving SEATTLE — turn out the lights?”

The lights are still on in Seattle and I expect them to remain on for some time to come.

Yet that billboard still comes to mind as I hear a new round of hand-wringing concern over some worrisome population trends.

Such as right now. The 2020 census confirms a long-running trend that many Chicagoans have suspected: a dramatic plunge in the city’s Black population.

Chicago’s not alone. Nine of the 10 cities with the most Black residents nationwide also showed decreases in Black population since 2000, according to a Politico study of new census data for Black, non-Hispanic residents.

Only Houston, that upstart oil town that demographers expect to overtake Chicago’s third-largest city slot during the next decade (Ah, how the mighty are slipping!), saw a Black population increase in that list.

And as much as I love my city’s racial, ethnic and cultural diversity, especially when I’m looking for good restaurants, I’m long past being surprised to learn that Latinos have surpassed African Americans as the city’s second-largest racial or ethnic group.

Ethnic succession, as some sociologists call it, is the American way — or, at least, the Chicago way.

Those of us who have been in town for more than a few years know what it means to see neighborhoods become ports-of-entry for various waves of immigrants who raise families, buy bigger houses and maybe move to the suburbs to make room for the next wave of immigrants.

Or maybe their kids move back into the city as gentrifiers in neighborhoods their parents could no longer afford, as they once might have. Cities are dynamic places.

It’s taken awhile but we are beginning to see more Black city dwellers move on as well, resulting in the so-called reverse migration of Black Chicagoans to the suburbs or other states.

That ironically includes many who moved to the South or, as my late parents called Alabama, “down home,” reversing the Great Migration that attracted some 6 million Black Americans from the South to gain jobs and freedom in the era of Jim Crow segregation.

That development has raised questions among a new generation of Black thinkers: Did we gain that much in the North?

New York Times columnist Charles Blow raises that question in his new book, “The Devil You Know,” in which he calls for a historic do-over. “The initial benefits of the Great Migration have given way, in many ways, to a stinging failure,” he writes, citing the “perpetual oppression” of brutal police, housing discrimination, persistent waves of white nationalism and the lingering sense of political powerlessness Black Americans still face.

“Black people fled the horrors of the racist South for so-called liberal cities of the North and West, trading the devil they knew for the devil they didn’t, only to come to the painful realization that the devil is the devil.”

His solution? Pick up the Black burden, so to speak, and join the reverse migration, says Blow, a Louisiana native who recently moved from New York to Atlanta. As Black populations grow toward the racial majority we used to have in some states before the Great Migration, our political clout will grow too.

That’s an intriguing thought by my friend and colleague, but count me out. It is hard enough to organize and win political victories in the short term without trying to plan them a decade or so down the road.

The biggest factor that has energized migrations by Black folks and other folks in my experience has been, simply put, jobs. The economic attraction of jobs and fair wages did more to bring my family and others up North — and we can see similar economic migrations all around the planet.

With that in mind, I think our best approach as Black people and as Americans, as Booker T. Washington famously advised, “cast down your buckets where they are.” Make the most of the resources you have at hand, helped along by the reality that we have more hard-won rights and freedom than our ancestors enjoyed in Washington’s day.

And amid such ethnic disputes and redistricting clashes, take counsel in the Rev. Martin Luther King Jr.’s, observation: We all came here on different ships, but we’re in the same boat now.

E-mail Clarence Page at cpage@chicagotribune.com.

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