Blacks returning to (fill in blank) ...

GetReligion readers who have been in the journalism biz for several decades will remember some of the curses that were hurled at the creators of USA Today. Yes, those newspaper boxes looked a lot like television sets and, yes, the whole McPaper thing was yet another chilling sign that America's attention span was shrinking at a rapid rate. Truth is, it's hard to cover complex news stories in 300 to 400 words or less.

However, careful readers know that each section of USA Today includes a news feature that starts out front and then jumps inside -- allowing for quite a bit of depth. These pieces almost always include a wide variety of voices and look at important topics from a number of different directions. These features are always the first things that I look for whenever I pick up a copy of McPaper.

Thus, this recent A1 headline -- "Blacks return to Southern roots" -- drew my immediate attention, in large part because this is a subject that has interested me for quite a while. Demographics are destiny, after all.

Here's the top of the story:

PALM COAST, Fla. -- On a recent Wednesday evening, a group of about 25 friends, mostly 50- and 60-somethings, gather at a home for an evening of revelry. They sip margaritas and graze on munchies as they catch up.

As the evening wears on, the party kicks into high gear, and they shove the chairs aside to cut a rug. No one seems overly concerned about partying too late on a weeknight: Most of them are retirees, African Americans who moved to this young city of 95,000 midway between Jacksonville and Orlando in search of the good life. All but one of the couples are from New York.

"It's all about quality of life," says Mike Morton, 57, a retired corrections officer from New York who moved here in 2006. "It's like living on a vacation. When I visit New York now, it's culture shock. I don't hear car horns down here. As soon as you get to New York, you're hearing thousands of them."

He and the other revelers are part of a major demographic shift documented in the latest Census: Blacks are moving out of cities in the Northeast and Midwest and into cities and suburbs of the South. This migration is pushing the percentage of the African-American population living in this region, where they have deep roots, to the highest point in 50 years.

Let me cut to the chase: Would you have expected a different kind of story if the headline had said, "Blacks return to the Bible belt" or word to that effect? I would think so.

This is clearly an economic story, from beginning to end, and I was disappointed that the "quality of life" angle was not unpacked a bit more.

Was there a missing religion angle in there somewhere? I suspect so.

For one thing, I would imagine the story would have been a bit more complex if it had been based in rural or suburban Texas, Georgia, Tennessee, Alabama or the Carolinas, as opposed to Florida (and I say that as someone who has lived in South Florida). The fastest area of growth mentioned in the report? It's suburban Atlanta -- an hotbed of powerful churches.

Let me stress, since I live in the Baltimore-DC area, that I do know about the vibrant black megachurch culture that has formed in parts of the urban Northeast, Midwest and Mid-Atlantic. I do know that black-church religion is important outside of the Bible Belt. I also know that more of these influential churches are struggling in the North, in part due to changing demographics in black homes and the shape of the black family in urban areas.

So who is moving back to the South? The story describes this trend only in terms of retirement and the jobs market. Is there more to it than that? We are told that these black families are moving to areas that, previously, "have not traditionally attracted black people." Are there cultural factors at work? Does this phrase, essentially, mean suburbs? Also, when these African-Americans talk about the South being more open, welcoming and family oriented, what does that mean? This is what readers are told:

... (Experts) say the southern movement is driven primarily by young professionals and by retirees such as those in Palm Coast. They are leaving cities such as Detroit, Chicago, New York and Los Angeles for cities and suburbs in the South. They are drawn south by the lure of jobs, by the prospect of making their money go further, by the warm climate and other amenities, and by family ties.

In some cases, they feel a cultural pull of a region their forebears left decades ago: They're returning to their "ancestral home," says sociology professor Silas Lee, who teaches African-American urban history at Xavier University in New Orleans.

"This (the South) really is the family roots for the majority of African Americans anywhere in the country," he says. "During the Great Migration, we had black people moving to the Northeast, the Midwest and the West Coast. That was for job opportunities and the sense that there would be a little less discrimination, a little less oppression. Fast forward from the 1900s to 2000, and a lot of those people have returned, or their grandchildren and great-grandchildren are returning."

Let me stress that I understand the centrality of the economic angle. However, I am curious about other factors that might be at work here, factors hidden in phrases such as "quality of life" and talk about family, community, "amenities" and values.

Normally, the USA Today team digs a bit deeper when researching these news features. I sense the presence of a ghost in this story. There is more to life than real estate and tax rates.

IMAGE: "Going to Church" by Hulis Mavruk.

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