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Gary Younge
Black Americans move back to southern states

The report, by the Brookings Institution thinktank, found that southern cities such as Atlanta, Dallas, Houston and Charlotte signalled the greatest increase in attracting black migrants during the 1990s. New York, Chicago, Los Angeles and San Francisco all showed the steepest declines.

"They are following networks back to the south, but they are also following job opportunities," William Frey, a demographer at the institution and author of the report, told the Los Angeles Times.

"College-educated individuals lead the new migration into the south. Georgia, Texas and Maryland attracted the most black college graduates from 1995 to 2000, while New York suffered the largest net loss," says the report. Meanwhile older black people are also moving south in search of milder weather, cheaper housing, more space, less traffic and less crime.

The growing numbers of African-Americans moving back is a stunning reversal of most of the past century.

After the mechanisation of cotton-picking from the 1930s to the 1970s, African-Americans moved away from the low wages and racial segregation of the south to better job opportunities and greater civil rights in the north and west. In 1940, 77 per cent of black Americans lived in the south - 49 per cent of them in rural areas. By 1970 black America was only half southern, and more than three-quarters lived in cities.

Nicholas Lehmann, in his book on the first migration, The Promised Land, wrote: "Black migration was one of the largest and most rapid mass internal movements of people in history - perhaps the greatest not caused by the immediate threat of execution or starvation."

But 50 years after the supreme court, in Brown versus Board of Education, outlawed "separate but equal" facilities for white and black Americans, the top 10 most segregated cities are all in the north (with the exception of St Louis, Missouri, which came fourth). Los Angeles county saw a fall in its black population for the first time in its history, according to the US census.

Some academics suggest that the reverse migration also signals a desire for voluntary segregation, a wish to be the dominant racial minority rather than one more ethnic minority alongside Hispanics and Asians in an increasingly diverse west and north.

"Los Angeles is still a very vibrant city for all ethnic groups," said Eugene Grigsby, an urban planner at the University of California in Los Angeles. "The challenge for African-Americans is they have gone from being the number one minority to the number three, and that trend will never reverse. Manoeuvring through a multi-ethnic Los Angeles is something they're going to have to learn."

Last year the census revealed that Hispanics have overtaken African-Americans as the US's largest minority. Thanks to higher birth rates and immigration, the Latino population stood at 37 million, compared with 36.2 million for black Americans.

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