Racism Is Everywhere, So Why Not Move South? [The New York Times]
Last winter, while waiting for friends on the Upper East Side of Manhattan, I wandered in and out of the boutiques on Madison Avenue. I could feel eyes on me, following me, my big Afro, hoop earrings and even bigger book bag.
I went into a coffee shop — a place that specializes in espresso. It was full of white men and women laughing and chatting. I took a seat at the counter and the barista asked for my order.
“An espresso,” I replied. He didn’t budge.
“Are you sure you want a cup of espresso?”
“Yes,” I said.
He went behind the counter and grabbed a cup. “Are you sure?” he asked again. “Do you know that it comes in this small cup?”
“Yes,” I said. Why else would I have walked into an espresso bar?
I didn’t know what to do, so I did what so many millennials do. I fired off a complaint on Twitter. And I realized once again that New York is never as progressive as it’s made out to be. Often it’s a lonely place to be young and black.
So lonely, in fact, that black millennials are leaving — or not flocking here in the first place. Rather, more alluring possibilities lie in the South, specifically in cities like Atlanta, Miami and Dallas.
In 2014, the top states that black millennial migrants moved to were Texas, Georgia, Florida and North Carolina. California remained the only state among the top five outside the South. The pattern is different for their white counterparts.
A report released last year by the New York City comptroller, Scott Stringer, found that between 2000 and 2014 about 61 percent of millennials moving to New York were white, while only 9 percent of 18- to 29-year olds moving into the city were black.
Nationally, almost 82,000 black millennials migrated south in 2014, according to an analysis of census data done independently by Artem Gulish, a senior analyst at the Center on Education and the Workforce at Georgetown. Forty percent of these black transplants came from the Northeast, 37 percent from the Midwest and 23 percent from the West. Black millennials from abroad are more likely to settle in the South.
Black people have been moving to the South for years, of course, and it’s not a trend reserved for the young. But to me it’s beginning to seem that black millennial culture — the center of black life — and the idea of black hope and opportunity are now squarely located in the South.
Over the last year, while doing research on black millennials, I have interviewed many black people in their 20s and 30s — lawyers, hairstylists, writers, secretaries — who moved from the North to the South or were planning to do so. The reasons they gave me were variations on this theme: Black life is now the South. Racism is everywhere. And at least in Atlanta real estate is more affordable than in New York.
So, I wonder, should I go, too?
I grew up in Englewood, N.J, happily going to Baumgart’s, which serves some of the best ice cream I’ve ever tasted. My mother told me she wasn’t allowed into the cafe when she was a child. It would be surprising if I weren’t always followed in Barneys. Eric Garner was killed 30 miles from my home.
The Southern Poverty Law Center reports that New York and Pennsylvania each had more hate groups than Georgia, Alabama, Mississippi or Virginia. The Center for the Study of Hate and Extremism, at California State University, San Bernardino, found that more than 1,000 hate crimes were reported in nine major cities in 2016. New York City had 380 incidents, the highest nationwide.
Given all that, the way Southern transplants talk about life in a promised land of upwardly mobile black people is appealing.
Except, I sort of hate the South.
My great-aunt Dee died recently at the age of 99. Whenever I asked her why she left Manning, S.C., in the 1930s during the Great Migration of Southern blacks to Northern cities — after explaining to her what the Great Migration was and that she was in it — she said her family moved for the chance of a better life, better jobs. She would never go back, she told me. There was nothing there for her to go back to.
I visited Manning, a small city a little more than an hour southeast of Columbia, this year, and that feeling — nothing to go back to — followed me around as I tried to find relics of my great-aunt’s South. I was overwhelmed when I learned that Brown v. Board of Education had roots in a case in her county.
I learned about a pool that was covered over after failed integration efforts. I read about two white men who were affiliated with the Ku Klux Klan who burned a black church in Manning — in 1995.
I also met Meesha Witherspoon (possibly a cousin of mine), who is young, educated and made a conscious decision to stay in Manning, where she grew up. I wondered if her life could have been mine, or how my ideas about where opportunity lies in this country would have been shaped by life in the town my great-aunt left.
This South where history looms large, filled with Confederate flags and songs of Dixie, isn’t the South black millennials are flocking to. Perhaps that, too, is part of my Northern elite imagination, or just a tired stereotype. Instead, they are headed to a modern, progressive South brimming with black politicians and business executives, a formidable black activism scene and black middle-class suburbs.
Most of the people I talked to who had moved from Northern cities to the South were upbeat about their new home but also frank about its shortcomings. The lower cost of living drove many of the conversations, but people were also returning for other reasons.
I spoke with Jessica M. Barron, a sociologist and demographer based in Durham, N.C., who moved from Los Angeles and counts herself in the migratory trend. “There is something about black millennials wanting to find some type of reclaiming or resurgence in terms of moving back to the South, reclaiming the South as a place where black folks can thrive,” she said.
A South Carolina native, Jasmine Owens, 35, is a good example of that. She moved to New York after law school and built a legal career. She was working as an assistant district attorney in the Bronx when an opportunity came last spring for her to move to Atlanta and work in the Clayton County district attorney’s office. She wasn’t unhappy in New York. She had a nice group of friends, liked her job and was in the market for a home.
But she realized she could have so much more outside of New York. Instead of buying a $170,000 co-op with an $800-plus maintenance fee, she moved. She now lives in a four-bedroom townhouse that cost $200,000 in a good school district for her young son.
Ms. Owens was also attracted to the large black professional population and Atlanta’s reputation as a “black mecca,” something she believes New York doesn’t have despite its significant black population. “A black mecca in my opinion would be a location where you know that wherever you go you can find people that look like you, that have the same experiences, that have the same background,” she said, adding that you don’t have to actively seek out those people because “they’re just in your normal everyday routine.”
Takisha and Tanisha Williams, 31, agree. These twin sisters, Alabama natives and hairstylists, live in New Jersey, but told me they are counting down the days until they can leave the area. Takisha misses the stars at night. She also misses black society in the South, which she says is at a different level. “They’re educated, they’re driven,” she said. “I don’t think this is just a fad. I think this is something that has been on the come up for the last decade.”
Takisha, left, and Tanisha Williams near their home in Newark, N.J.CreditChad Batka for The New York Times
A lot of my uneasiness about the South is tied to race, or racial hatred. So I asked everyone I interviewed — some native to the Northeast, others who had moved back and forth — about racism in both regions. No one said the same thing. Tetrina Blalock of Jackson, Miss., has also lived in New York. She sees open racism everywhere in this political moment. Where she lives now, she said: “They’re bold with it now. Like bold.”
Belton Mickle, 33, a South Carolinian who moved to New York for graduate school and then recently returned to Atlanta, said people are more openly racist in the North: “In the South, no one wants to be thought of as a racist.” Instead, what he notices is “a bit of condescension.” Ms. Owens, the lawyer in Atlanta, agreed. “In the South, it’s not going to be as blatant unless you make someone upset,” she said.
There are, of course, some sights that are more prevalent in the South. Jaide Smith-Akinbiyi, 29, left the Bronx for Florida nearly 10 years ago. She said it was upsetting to see the Confederate flag on display at first. It was a shock to realize that the mentality of that era still exists for people, that they proudly hang the flag. Now, though, “I’ve become more used to it.
Jaide Smith-Akinbiyi 29, left the Bronx for Florida nearly a decade ago. She says she’s had to get used to the sight of Confederate flags.CreditScott McIntyre for The New York Times
But race was not what the people I interviewed focused on. Their reasons for deciding where to live their lives were the same reason my great-aunt left Manning for New Jersey decades ago: opportunity.
Opportunity — for work, for a bigger house. And something else. It’s a sort of visible humanity, Dr. Barron, the sociologist, said, the idea that black people can live in an area where blackness is seen as valuable, despite the horrific past, because of the legacy that black people have left in the region. “I will be seen as Jessica doing XYZ versus the black girl here doing XYZ,” she said, of making a life in the South. “I think people underestimate that.”
That thought — the idea that you could be Jessica, or Reniqua, and not a girl who doesn’t know what espresso is — stayed with me.
In May, I stood in the sticky hot heat of New Orleans watching the removal of a statue of Gen. Robert E. Lee. As workers tried to pry the statue from its pedestal, I felt that progress was being made. I was overjoyed to be in a diverse crowd. And grateful when two black men gave out some red Powerade.
But then some people came up and argued about how the statue deserved to stay, which somehow devolved into a conversation about “those people” who apparently get “plenty.” And once again, I felt suspicious of the South. As the statue was lifted off the pedestal, secured only by cords and rope, it looked eerily like a lynching.
By the time the general landed on the ground, leaving an empty column in the middle of a traffic roundabout, applause broke out. The disruptive people had been escorted away.
The next day I headed to Hattiesburg, Miss., to visit a church for L.G.B.T. worshipers, where I was greeted by a tattoo-covered, nose-ring-wearing lesbian minister and spoke to a young black couple who had driven from Alabama. It seemed like a different South was emerging. Maybe even a South I could one day call home.
Correction: July 15, 2017
An opinion essay last week about black millennials moving to the South misstated the name of a center and its findings. It is the Center for the Study of Hate and Extremism, not the Center for the Study of Human Hate and Extremism. It also referred incorrectly to the center’s research on hate crimes in New York City in 2016; the city saw the largest number of hate crimes, not the largest increase.