American Spirit / Shutterstock.com

Over the course of the last century, black Americans went from being one of the groups most likely to move to one of the least.

As we've learned since the most recent economic crisis, the inability of Americans to pick up and move for new jobs or new housing often comes hand in hand with an inability to climb up the socio-economic ladder. Now new research finds that even before the recession, black households in the U.S. experienced a stark slowdown in their mobility.

The study, by my NYU colleague and sociologist Patrick Sharkey and published this month in the journal Demography, provides a detailed examination of the migration patterns of black households compared to their white counterparts across nearly a century.

The data, drawn from the Panel Study on Income Dynamics (PISD,) provides information on where families lived based on interviews with over 4,500 households between 1968 and 2007, which enables Sharkey to trace mobility across four generations of families. The focal cohort for the study is composed of people born between 1952 and 1982. Generation 1 is their grandparents; Generation 2 is their parents; Generation 3 is the focal cohort as children; and Generation 4 is this focal cohort as adults.

The data enable Sharkey to empirically examine three key trends: First, the extent to which earlier cohorts conform to the “Great Migration” of black Americans from the South to the North; second, the degree to which more recent generations follow the so-called “reverse migration,” with blacks heading back to the South; and third, to compare the mobility of blacks to that of whites.

His fascinating results defy some conventional wisdom and point to an especially troubling and recent source of racial inequality in this country. The maps below chart the key patterns.

(Sharkey)

On the one hand, Sharkey finds that the earliest cohorts of black Americans in his analysis—Generations 1 and 2—conform to the Great Migration, with black families in those generations moving dominantly northward and eastward.

Moving one's household became even more common among black Americans between Generations 2 and 3, as the map below shows. During this time, 32 percent of black families moved, compared to 23 percent of whites. Sixteen percent of black households moved northeast, while six percent moved straight north.

(Sharkey)

But as Generations 3 transitioned to Generation 4, Sharkey finds limited evidence for a reverse migration. Startlingly, he instead finds that black mobility has slowed to a crawl. The vast majority of black families—85 percent—did not move at all between Generations 3 and 4. Just 8 percent of black households moved South during this time.

(Sharkey)

When Sharkey drills down to the county level, his results become even more worrying: almost seven in 10 black Americans of Generation 4 remained in the same county from childhood to adulthood, over one and a half times the rate at which whites in the same generation stayed (45 percent). More than eight in 10 (82 percent) black Americans of Generation 4 remained in the same state. And 90 percent remained in the same region. “The degree of intergenerational geographic immobility among black Americans not only is much greater than for whites,” Sharkey writes, “but also represents a marked shift from the prior generation.”

The graph below, made from Sharkey’s data, charts the mobility levels for blacks compared to whites across the four generations studied.

Percentage of Black and White Families Who Have Stayed

There are other significant predictors of geographic mobility besides race, according to the study. Children with parents with more schooling, high social status and higher incomes are less likely to remain in the same counties, states and regions into adulthood. Children with larger families and with parents who remained married throughout their childhoods are more likely to stay. “However,” Sharkey writes, “these family characteristics play only a limited role in explaining why black Americans have been more likely to remain in place in the most recent generation.” The recent immobility of black Americans cannot simply be pinned to fixed features of black families, black culture or black preferences, he adds, pointing out that black families were some of the most mobile in the country just a few decades ago.

These key findings reinforce and deepen the conclusions of Sharkey’s 2013 book Stuck in Place, which found that over 70 percent of the African-American residents of America’s poorest and most segregated neighborhoods remain in the same disadvantaged neighborhoods as their parents and grandparents. “[S]evere neighborhood disadvantage experienced by black American families during the civil rights era has been passed on to the current generation, with little change,” he told me an interview about the work for CityLab.

Historian Ira Berlin described the historical black American experience as one often suspended “between the great migrations [and] periods of rootedness.” “Movement might be omnipresent in the African American experience between the sixteenth and twenty-first centuries,” he writes in his 2010 book The Making of African America, “but so too has been a sense of place.” But today, a defining feature of African American families is their lack of mobility.

Top image: American Spirit / Shutterstock.com

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