A new exodus

In a worrying trend, blacks are now leaving Baltimore in greater numbers than whites

January 04, 2010|By Eric Siegel

With the first decade of the 21st century having drawn to a close, Baltimore is on the verge of a major demographic development.

For the first decade since the city's population decline began some 60 years ago, white flight is not the leading cause of the decrease in the number of residents - black flight is.

According to the most recent census estimates, since 2000 the number of non-Hispanic whites in the city has declined by about 7,000, to about 196,000. The number of blacks, by contrast, has fallen by nearly 17,000, to just over 400,000.

(Increases in the numbers of Hispanics, Asians and those identifying themselves as members of more than one racial category have resulted in a modest overall population decline over the decade of about 14,000, to about 636,000.)

The numbers could well change in the decennial census to be conducted this year - especially given the outreach efforts by the city and state to include poor minorities, who are widely thought to be traditionally undercounted.

But the mere fact that the loss of whites no longer accounts for the great majority of the city's population decline represents a major change from the pattern of the past half-century.

After peaking in 1950 at just below 950,000, the city's population began its unrelenting decline. During the next 40 years, it dropped by more than 200,000. During those years, the city's white population dropped by more than 435,000, while the black population grew by about 210,000 (even as some middle-class blacks began following their white counterparts to the suburbs).

In the 1990s, the city's population declined again. What made this decade different, however, was that for the first time the number of blacks declined along with that of non-Hispanic whites. Still, the drop in white population of some 83,000 far exceeded the drop in blacks of about 17,000. As in this decade, increases in Asians and Hispanics coupled with those who identified as belonging to more than one race (a new option in the 2000 census), led to an overall population loss of some 84,000.

Thus, compared to the 1990s, in the 2000s the drop in Baltimore's white population has fallen by more than 90 percent while the drop in black population has stayed about the same.

The city is the state's only major jurisdiction to record a decline this past decade in its black population, and it comes despite a net gain of black births over deaths of about 17,000 - what the census terms a "natural increase" as opposed to migration from other jurisdictions or immigration from abroad.

The slowing in the city's decades-long decline of white population is a source for comfort, if not celebration. It is a key reason the city's population since 2000 has declined by only about 2 percent, compared with 11.5 percent in the 1990s. And while it hardly signals the widespread resurgence of the popularity of cities so many were predicting at the start of the decade, the steep drop in the decline of whites may indicate a leveling off of disillusionment with the city that prevailed for so long. At the least, it suggests that in a metropolitan area of about 2.5 million people, two-thirds of them white, there may be a core number that, for various reasons, prefer urban living.

But the continuation of the more recent phenomenon of a decline in the city's black population is more cause for concern. Though the numbers are relatively modest, the trend is troubling - if not surprising.

After all, the city's well-known urban ills are disproportionately concentrated in black communities, providing motivation to leave for those who are able. Then, too, the planned or completed redevelopment efforts in many black communities - from the HOPE VI projects to Uplands and East Baltimore Development Inc. - have involved the relocation of hundreds of households, some of which doubtless left the city. And blacks whose families recently left may have less of a romanticized vision of returning to urban life than whites whose families left decades ago.

Baltimore's recent comprehensive plan envisions 175,000 more people than now. It's difficult to imagine the realization of that vision any time soon unless leaders address the decline in black population and come up with ways to counter it.

Eric Siegel, a former Baltimore Sun reporter, lectures in the graduate program at the Johns Hopkins University's Institute for Policy Studies. His e-mail is ecsieg@ aol.com.

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