Why Black folks move back South

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Posted: Monday, January 30, 2012 12:00 am

I remember that my friends would laugh uncomfortably when I explained to them the reason why I was always so diligent in reading newspapers and listening to broadcast news reports, every day, early in the morning, before doing anything else.

I would only half-jokingly say: “I do that because, if the day ever comes that they pass laws that make it illegal for black people to walk outside, in public, I want to be the first to know.”

At that point, we’d both chuckle; they would wander off to continue their day, and I would go right back to reading everything I possibly could in that day’s paper.

One part of me was having a funny little joke and getting a rise out of my friends; another part, on the other hand, was dead serious. In the back of my mind, I really did have a sneaking suspicion that the day would actually come when I would no longer feel comfortable living in Philadelphia, or even in the U.S.

I had pretty much forgotten those days, until a couple of months ago, when I began to notice a very disturbing pattern: While Black Americans had been “movin’ on up,” listening to Hip Hop, assimilating into the larger culture, moving away from each other and becoming “post-racial,” somebody reintroduced the concept of slavery to the broad American consciousness.

No, I’m not talking about the “sex slavery” stories, or the "adolescent workers in developing nations” kind of slavery that pops up in news reports, from time-to-time. I mean the good, old fashioned, no-paying, manual labor, second-class citizenship, devoid of voting rights, kind of slavery.

For example, the Atlanta Journal and Constitution carried a story, just a few weeks ago, that described a Georgia teacher who used slavery-themed questions in teaching math to her third-grade students.

You remember the old grade school test about the train that traveled at 50 miles per hour, and took three hours to get to its destination? The question was always, predictably, “How many miles, therefore, did the train cover in those three hours?”

Well, the questions in the Georgia teacher's math class were a little bit like that, except they went like this: “Each tree has 56 oranges. If eight slaves picked them equally, then how much could each slave pick?"

If that one didn’t shock you quite enough, then how about this one from the same math teacher: “If Frederick got two beatings per day, how many beatings did he get in a week?” It turns out that these racially demeaning questions actually spread to four classrooms, in all. In each, the teachers said they were simply trying to make their history lesson about Frederick Douglass a bit more interesting.

Hey, they certainly got my attention.

And, here’s the worst part: The school in Gwinnett County, Ga., has a student population that's 88 percent comprised of Blacks and Hispanics.

Curiously, just a few weeks later, in another elementary school, in the same Gwinnett County, another teacher allegedly organized and played a game of “tag” with his students that included some students pretending to be “slaves,” while some of their classmates pretended to be “slave catchers.”

The slave-catching teacher, a man whose name happened to be Luis Rivera, adamantly denied that he was being, in any way, “malicious or offensive” in putting his students through that insensitive ordeal.

Is that right, Luis?

Then there was the candidate for U.S. president, a man with the extraordinarily uncommon name of "Newt Gingrich," who, at a FOX News presidential debate vigorously defended his earlier proposal that black youth be employed as janitors in their own schools.

When well-respected, African-American journalist and FOX correspondent Juan Williams challenged Gingrich’s statement, Williams was roundly booed and shouted down by the overwhelmingly mainstream audience members, who applauded every snide, condescending comment Gingrich made to Mr. Williams. All that, just when Williams had started — working for FOX TV, and all — to believe that he had finally entered the American mainstream, himself; just when he had grown comfortable in the belief that he had become a “journalist first” and was, now, just a Black man, by happenstance.

No, there was not much sympathy for that particular Black journalist, in that room, but there was a whole hell of a lot of support, it seems, for the idea of taking young black males back to an earlier 20th century focus on janitorial careers. They seemed to think it was a great idea, judging by the standing ovations they gave ol’ Newt.

If you were thinking, despite Gwinnett County, and despite the cold-bloodedly condescending, racially insensitive Gingrich, that it was still safe to leave your house in the morning, perhaps you didn’t hear about Jesse Lee Peterson. That’s the Rev. Jesse Lee Peterson, of South Los Angeles, to you.

Not only does Rev. Peterson find no fault with Gingrich’s comments, he is obviously prepared to “out-Newt Newt” on the subject of black servitude in this country. In fact, the Rev. told the "Huffington Post" last week that, if it were up to him, the government would “take all black people to the South and put them on the plantation so that they would understand the ethic of working."

What comes after that, Rev, re-introducing lynching so that Blacks “would understand the ethic" of dying by asphyxiation?

Peterson, you may recall, is the same questionably African-American man who is the founder of the Tea Party of South Central Los Angelas. Tea Party organizer, return-to-slavery advocate; he sounds like a candidate for President Gingrich’s cabinet. He’d fit right in, it seems, as Gingrich’s Secretary of Agriculture.

Just when I thought those isolated circumstances and gross racial insensitivities were enough to turn me forever against living in the South, or even in South LA, I stumbled across a 2008 report by Thomas J . Sugrue, Professor of History and Sociology at the University of Pennsylvania. Sugrue documented that, at the outset of the 21st Century, the 15 most segregated metropolitan areas were in the Northeast and Midwest, that racial segregation “Is still the norm in northern public schools,” and that the five states with the highest rates of racial segregation are all outside the South – in states such as New York, New Jersey, Illinois, Michigan and California.

Sugrue also points out that, despite the relatively low-level focus upon those phenomena in northern news media, “cross-burnings, arson, window breakings and mobs greeted black new comers in white neighborhoods in nearly every major northern city between the 1920's and the 1960's."

That stuff was getting old, fast, and with more-subtle, but still racially insensitive trends continuing into the early  21st century, a growing number of black Americans decided they were ready to evacuate their homes in the North and return to the South, where racial antagonism is not actually as severe as it has been in the North.

Today, in fact, the percentage of Blacks living in the south (57 percent) stands at its highest level in the past 50 years, according to the U.S. Census Bureau. Most of the Black population shift has been concentrated among younger, more educated African Americans, who moved south to seek jobs and business opportunities.

The Census Bureau also tells us there are now one million African Americans living in the South, who were born in the Northeast, and one in four, like my own son, has, at least, a four-year university degree.

I guess I wasn’t totally wrong, after all.

It looks like there were at least one million other Black people in the North who felt the same way I was feeling. The difference is ….they did something about it.

They moved.


A. Bruce Crawley is president and principal owner of Milennium 3 Management Inc.

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