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‘Black flight’ is new, troubling problem for St. Louis

ST. LOUIS – As middle-class African Americans left the city for a better life elsewhere, young whites moved in for the urban lifestyle. The two factors combined to bring an overall drop of nearly 6 percent in the population since 2010, all fueled by an exodus of African Americans from St. Louis.

That’s the analysis of four academics of the drop in population from the 2010 census count of 319,294 to 300,576 in the Census Bureau’s 2019 population estimate.

Those figures showed the Black population dropped by 21,777 from 157,944 in 2010 to 136,167 in 2019. The white population actually increased by 919, from 143,730 in 2010 to 144,649.

With that, whites took over from Blacks the status of largest racial group in the city. African Americans accounted for 49.4 percent of city residents in 2010, but only 45.3 percent in 2019.

The percentage of whites grew from 45.2 in 2010 to 48.1 in 2019.

“There’s no doubt that St. Louis has a problem of Black flight,” said Todd Swanstrom, a political science and public policy professor at the University of Missouri-St. Louis. “In many cases, it’s stable working- and middle-class families.”

The words “Black flight” contrast with “white flight,” two words referring to the way many whites left cities in past years, often to get away from Blacks integrating their neighborhoods.

Stresses such as mortgage foreclosures in the recession of a decade ago also may have contributed to Black flight, Swanstrom said.

With the move of young whites into the city, Swanstrom sees the development of three voting blocks: Blacks, traditional whites and a progressive coalition. 

St. Louis isn’t the only city to experience this, said Richard Rosenfeld, a criminologist at UMSL. 

“It’s certainly not specific to St. Louis. We’re seeing that in lots of big cities,” Rosenfeld said. In this, African Americans who have the wherewithal are seeking a better life.

“North side wards are depopulating at a rapid pace,” Rosenfeld noted. “That raises the possibility of increasingly integrated wards on the south side.” 

The depopulation of Blacks makes it imperative that living conditions be improved in the city, especially for people of color, Rosenfeld said. 

Alan Mallach, a senior fellow at the Center for Community Progress in Washington, said that in 2000, St. Louis had a substantial middle-class population on the north side. Most moved to the suburbs and some to the south side.

Mallach notes that Black neighborhoods were hit especially hard by the economic downturn and foreclosures of the recession.

Meanwhile, “There’s a constant outflow of working-class and middle-class whites,” he said.

An inflow of young middle-class whites has not been able to keep up those losses, resulting in continued population decline for a city that has already lost more than 65% of its population since its peak of 856,796 in 1950.

Many black families who lost their homes in the mortgage crisis then rented homes in northeastern St. Louis County, said Kenneth Warren, a professor of political science at St. Louis University. Others have gone to the suburbs in search of better schools and to escape high crime in the city, Warren contended.

“Whites, on the other hand, moving into the city, are affluent enough to afford homes or rentals in nicer neighborhoods. Many of them have no children or have enough money to send their children to private schools,” Warren said. 

Michael Gearhart, an assistant professor of social work at UMSL, said development was happening in some areas of St. Louis and not others. He questioned whether building $700,000 to $800,000 townhouses would add to racial and income equality.

He said, “We have schools in St. Louis that many of us wouldn’t bother sending our children to.”

The 2020 U.S. Census is underway and the final numbers won’t be known until mid-2021. But based on the estimates, St. Louis City’s population may drop below 300,000 for the first time since 1860, fueled largely by the mass exodus of black residents fed up with violence, racism and inadequate schools.


2010 census populations
Total: 319,294
White: 144,058 45.2 percent of whole
Black: 157,944, 49.5 percent of whole
2019 census estimate of population
Total: 300,576
Black: 136,167, 45.3 percent
White: 144,649, 48.1 percent

Jim Merkel

southsidemerkel@gmail.com Born and raised in the St. Louis area, Jim Merkel covered communities throughout the area from 1991 to 2013 for the old Suburban Journals of Greater St. Louis. He is the author of five books about the Gateway City published by Reedy Press. The latest is Growing Up St. Louis: Looking Back Through the Decades. He and his wife, Lorraine, live in the Bevo Mill neighborhood of south St. Louis with Miss Jenny the Cat. For more about Jim, visit www.jimmerkelthewriter.com.

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  1. Is it really black fight? Or is it family flight. It’s been going on since 1970, so 50 years or so. Over a 50 year span, folks die, and their groan kids choose to live elsewhere. So I’m not sure it is people moving out as much as new people, especially families, choosing to buy their first home in the burbs.

  2. With other ethnic groups, when they leave the city it is seen as a good thing. People like the Bosnians came here and moved into modest housing in the city. But as they grew more prosperous the moved to the suburbs. Why should it be different for blacks. And why is it worrisome that they are moving out of the impoverished neighborhoods of the City.

  3. Why did you decide on spray painting the poster proclaiming ‘black flight’ black? Are you new?

  4. Hi Jim,

    Just curious as to why you feel the need to capitalize one skin color and not the other. Did your wife’s boyfriend tell you to do that, or did you come up with that on your own?


      1. WTF, Jim? Am I just supposed to pretend you didn’t have a stroke while you wrote this or somethin’? Just type ‘A’ in the reply so I know you’re alright.

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