Why Black People Are Leaving Chicago In Record Numbers

Black residents are leaving Chicago for suburbs, the West and the South in what is called a "reverse migration."

Photo credit:Photo: Andre Van Vegten

| June 23 2017,

8:10 pm

We think of Atlanta as the black metropolis but during the Great Migration, where did all the black Southerners go?

A lot went to Chicago, and their descendants are still there.

Or were.

Cause it turns out, the “black exodus” is very real in the city of Chicago.

Chicago's Cook Country had — and has — the largest population of black people of any county in the United States. But Cook County has shown noticeable dips in its black population within the past year or so.

In fact, the Chicago Tribune reports that more than 12,000 black residents left the county for warmer climes down South or to the West and for the city's suburbs between 2015 and 2016.

The move from the North to the South, is, in reference to the First and Second Great Migrations, has been termed "reverse migration" by demographers.

What is known as Chicagoland — an area that encompasses the city, its suburbs and parts of Indiana and Wisconsin — has seen a decrease of close to 46,000 black residents since 2010.

Roughly 10,000 black residents have left the state of Illinois between 2015 and 2016 alone, a decrease far greater than any other state in the Union.

So, what’s the reason behind the exodus?

The Chicago Tribune conducted a survey of those who left Chicago over the past year, asking for their reasons. Answers ranged from high taxes (the state has been increasing taxes markedly over the past few years), the state budget stalemate (the state hasn't had a budget in almost two years) and the weather.

Two answers the Tribune saw repeatedly will surprise no one: families answered and time again that Chicago didn't have any available jobs and that the city was horribly unsafe.

"It's not just gang violence retaliation," Brooks said. "[Violence] is about economics. People can't eat. People can't sustain their families."

William Frey, a demographer at the Brookings Institution felt that violence alone didn't explain the shift, particularly because the city has been seen as violent for some time. "People move from the city to the suburbs for a host of things, crime being one of them. But I wouldn't expect those people to move from a whole metropolitan area. Something bigger's going on," Frey said.

Frey believes that a mixture of economic and cultural factors are why so many black Chicagoans have headed south. He said there is a perception that the South holds more jobs and that the region's lower cost of living is attractive.

He also feels that many black people feel that moving to the South will help them to reconnect with their history, and that, for middle and upper class blacks, the South has far more opportunities for making business and networking connections.

Whatever the exact reasons, the numbers support the idea that black people who leave Chicago are headed south. Atlanta, for example, had the largest numerical increase of black residents in 2016, with its population increasing by more than 46,000 black residents.

With the city of Chicago shrinking in general, the loss of its black citizenship is worrying. Brooks also worries that the loss of the city's more affluent blacks will lead to the city being whitewashed. 

Chicago was once a destination for black families with money; it was once the city with the seventh largest concentration of black wealth in the country. Now it is 21st. Brooks feels that wealthy blacks helped to stem the tide of gentrification and helped to preserve black cultural institutions in the city. Now he fears, that without financial protectors, black neighborhoods and accomplishments will be paved over by developers.

"Unless we all come together as a community to try and resolve these issues ourselves, unless we build businesses and create jobs," Brooks said, "we'll be left with communities ravished by crime, violence and a bad economy."