Opinion: Black flight theory doesn't stand up to facts, figures about Chattanooga population

Staff File Photo / Representing the African country of Burundi, Visesiya Uwifashije dances during the 20th Annual CultureFest, displaying the area's diversity, at the Chattanooga Market at the First Tennessee Pavilion in 2019.

The discussion an associate professor of public administration at Tennessee State University had Sunday as part of a week of virtual events sponsored by the Unity Group to mark Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. Week lacked context, we believe.

According to census figures, the Black population in Chattanooga dropped 3.5% in the 2010s, but it has fallen since 2000, when it was 35.8%.

A little history of population trends in the Scenic City might be helpful. Over the last 60 years, the Black population of Chattanooga has risen and fallen like a mild roller-coaster.

It has climbed as much as 2.6% (1960s) and fallen as much as 4.1% (the 1970s). Since the 1980 census, when the city's Black population was 31.7% of the population, it has fallen 0.3%, and in the 2020 census was 31.4% of the population.

Chilton allowed as to how there could be errors and undercounts, as there are in each decennial census, and he also said this: "We do know that African-Americans are choosing to vote with their feet and move elsewhere for better opportunities, lower costs of living or whatever."

In fact, those are time-honored reasons people of all races choose to move from one city to another. And the fact more Blacks are able to do that more frequently indicates an upward mobility in their population, a definite plus from days when a lack of income might have kept them in the same place.

But an even better explanation about the figures of the city's racial makeup lies in the city's increasing diversity.

The city's white population, for example, has fallen since the 1990s when it was 65%. Today, according to the 2020 census, it is 56%. Meanwhile, the city's Hispanic population grew from 2.1% of the population in 2000 to 3.9%% in 2010 to 9.1% in 2020. The number of Asians also increased from 1.6% to 2.7% of the population since 2000.

To have maintained the 34.9% of the population it had in 2010, the Black population of Chattanooga would need to have grown about 6,000 residents in the 2010s, and the city itself only grew by 13,455. Current birth and growth rate trends would have made it all but impossible.

And the census offers yet another statistic Chilton might not have grasped.

Starting in 2000, the census listed the population of individuals with two or more races. For most of the 1900s, intermarriage between two races was frowned upon, and in many places for most of that century, illegal.

Today, it is not, and many people of mixed races are more willing to identify with their heritage.

In Chattanooga, the number of people with two or more races increased from 1.3% in 2000 to 1.9% in 2010 to 2.4% in 2020. That could explain part of the drop in the Black-only population of the city.

Chilton spent a good part of his explanation discussing the exit of Blacks from the city's central core. He said this exit is "the result of choices made by politicians and civic elites in the area."

Such choices were made, he said, by a city intentionally attempting to "reverse white flight, to bring back higher-paying jobs, higher-paying earners back to our downtowns, back to our inner-urban neighborhoods."

We think he's largely right about the first statement, only about half right with the second.

The first statement refers to gentrification. There's no getting around the fact many of the Black residents who lived in what is now called the Southside and the Main Street corridor wound up moving because they no longer fit the neighborhood around them, their rental homes were going to be used for something else or their rent increased so much they had no choice to move. Some had lived quietly and peacefully in the same place for many years.

"Why it's happening, we don't necessarily know," Chilton said. "Where the people are going, we're not 100% sure."

Some of those lost to gentrification probably left town, but most just moved elsewhere in the area. We don't believe that group contributed greatly to the percentage loss of Blacks in Chattanooga proper over the last decade.

As to his second statement, over the past decade, largely under two-term Mayor Andy Berke, the city certainly sought more higher-paying jobs and certainly wanted to bring more people to live downtown.

But for Chilton to imply that all of that was a whites-only strategy flies in the face of most of the things Berke, Hamilton County Mayor Jim Coppinger, the Chattanooga Area Chamber of Commerce and recent Hamilton County Schools Superintendent Dr. Bryan Johnson have sought to do.

In fact, for most of the last decade, their focus has been on education and workforce training for all sectors of the population, with the desire that those leaving local high schools would get some post-secondary school training, that such training would lead toward the family wage jobs that are increasingly being offered in the area, and that by filling those jobs with local candidates the employers wouldn't have to seek employees from elsewhere.

Thus, "Black flight" may be a good catchphrase or conversation starter, but the subject needs to be examined in context to make better sense.