For crucial periods of this country’s history, African-Americans were far more likely than whites to be mobile—to move across state or regional lines. New Orleans was shaped by the first of those waves: the former plantation slaves who moved to urban areas after emancipation. The second of those waves was the Great Migration, extending into the middle of the last century, when hundreds of thousands of African-American families in the South made the long journey to the industrialized North in search of economic opportunity.
But from 1970 to the present the reverse has happened. Black Americans are much more likely to stay in place and much less likely than whites to engage in what the sociologist Patrick Sharkey calls “contextual mobility”—moves significant enough to change circumstances and opportunities. Robert Sampson once mapped the movement of African-Americans participating in a Chicago housing experiment over a seven-year period starting in the mid-nineteen-nineties, and the graphic consists of tight clusters of very short lines—spanning a few city blocks, or extending one or two neighborhoods over. How often do African-Americans from the poorest neighborhoods of the South Side leave the city of Chicago? “Rarely,” Sharkey said.
What happens instead is “churning”—minor moves in which the new home pretty much replicates the environment and the conditions of the old home. The sociologist Stefanie DeLuca recently interviewed poor African-American families in Baltimore and Mobile about their reasons for moving, and No. 1 on the list was “unit failure”: their home became so unlivable that they had no choice but to look for another place. They moved not because they were deliberately choosing a better life but because they had to—because the landlord evicted them, or the rent went up, or they suffered through a breakup, or there was a change in their housing subsidy.
Malcolm Gladwell, “Starting Over”, The New Yorker (24 August 2015), 33.