Economists can do things that are beyond the reach of most historians. The tradeoff is that many historical economists pursue narrow questions or ahistorical formulations. This book shows what a sophisticated economic historian can accomplish and at the same time demonstrates the differences between the two disciplines. In Competition in the Promised Land: Black Migrants in Northern Cities and Labor Markets, Leah Platt Boustan zeroes in on a set of issues about the Great Migration that historians of the subject have usually treated casually as we move quickly through narratives that have sweeping agendas. This book delivers no appreciable narrative. Each chapter is a taut investigation that defines a problem, evaluates existing arguments, details data and methods, and delivers carefully reasoned results. These investigations focus on three sets of issues: (1) migrant origins: who left the South, and what factors contributed to their decisions? (2) financial impacts: did migrants earn more by leaving, and were northern-born African Americans hurt by increased competition for jobs; (3) urban effects: did the mass migration spur white-flight suburbanization and financial difficulties for core cities? As an economist, Boustan wants precise and verifiable answers, and much of her creativity lies in the data she develops. IPUMS (Integrated Public Use Microdata Series) census data are key, and the author makes effective use of newly released 100 percent samples for 1920 and 1940, linking and following several hundred thousand families across two critical decades. She is also able to link names from a large 1968 survey with census data and assembles a third gargantuan database based on block-by-block housing information from thirty-one cities. Clever, too, are some of the tests and proofs she develops as she works step by step through investigations. The eyes of historians averse to statistics will glaze over at the formulas in the appendixes that accompany each chapter, but they should have no problem following the main points of Boustan’s explanations of methods and data. And what do we learn? In the first two chapters, Boustan recalculates rates of black outmigration from the South, showing that it peaked in the 1940s, earlier than some have thought, and that black southerners left at much higher rates than white southerners. Less effective is her attempt to locate determinants of migration in three measures of county-level economic and social conditions, an exercise that resolves little. Much more impressive is her investigation of who left. Using linked data sources, Boustan finds that migrants were disproportionately drawn from both the upper end of the black occupational and education spectrum and its lowest ranks, and least likely to come from families where the father had been a farm tenant or semiskilled blue-collar worker. This helps explain some of the contradictions in earlier studies. The key arguments of the book, signaled in the title Competition in the Promised Land, involve calculations of the financial benefits and costs of migration. First, Boustan calculates that by 1940 the earnings of migrants improved 130 percent relative to what migrants were likely to have earned had they remained in the South. This is based on a comparison of one hundred thousand brothers, one a migrant, the other a stayer. Adjusting for regional cost of living differences reduces the migration benefit to roughly 65 percent. Then she turns to the impact on northern-born African Americans, investigating the question of whether mass migration from the South interfered with the opportunities that otherwise would have been available to the smaller preexisting black population of the North. Her answer is yes, and she calculates a 10 percent earnings cost for black men born in the North. Her proofs are nuanced and sophisticated, if not in every case convincing. An attempt to measure how much of the labor market segregation between whites and blacks derived from education levels and how much from racial prejudice yields a calculation that it derived mostly from education, and the incautious statement that “discrimination originated not at the northern factory gate but in the southern schoolhouse” (81). The final chapters examine the relationship between black migration and white flight. Like others, Boustan argues that whites moved to the suburbs for a variety of reasons, which included but were not limited to racial avoidance. With data from seventy cities, she shows a strong relationship between black population growth from the Great Migration and white departures, estimating that for each African American joining the urban population between 1940 and 1970, two whites left. And she thinks there were two distinct aspects of this, noting that the white exodus drew both from transitional neighborhoods and from those miles away. The motives here turned on what Boustan calls “fiscal/political interactions” (122) that made city living less desirable to whites who otherwise were completely insulated from the black population. These considerations included tax rates and the changing political priorities of cities as black voters gained leverage and as demand for social services increased. Her proof is a comparison of amenities and housing prices at the city/suburb borders of thirty-one cities, and the finding that whites were willing to pay higher prices for otherwise similar accommodations simply so that their address would be located outside the core city. This book is impressive on many levels. It makes new arguments and backs up older ones with impressive new data and statistics. It serves as a clinic for would-be cliometricians and shows what a resourceful historical economist (with massive funding) can accomplish. Its limitations, too, are obvious. It offers no integrated insights about the Great Migration and would be of no help to the nonspecialist. It shows, as well, the limiting effects of a discipline that demands rigid forms of proof and asks only those questions that can be answered with measurable data. Most of the questions that historians ask and many of the forms of understanding that historians bring to light require looser standards of evidence than economists allow. © The Author 2018. Published by Oxford University Press.
The American Historical Review – Oxford University Press
Published: Feb 1, 2018
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