Since moving here five years ago I can’t count the number of times I’ve heard people say that Austin’s Black population is in decline. The claim probably hasn’t been true for at least a decade, but it’s still treated as unassailable fact in many conversations about the city’s future.
Part of the confusion is due to the fact that there was a significant exodus of black residents in the first decade of the 21st century and that an academic study examining that decline was published in 2014, prompting umpteen rounds of navel-gazing among the city’s political class about how Black Austin could be saved.
The good news is that, beginning four years ago, we started to see evidence that the Black population was growing again. Here is what I wrote at the time:
…city demographer Ryan Robinson explained to Council members that the black population within Austin’s city limits increased by an estimated 8,000 in the four years following the 2010 census. In the entire Austin metropolitan area, it grew by an estimated 20,000.
The figures are not based on a survey as comprehensive as the decennial census, but rather on estimates from the annual American Community Survey. The margin of error for the estimate of the city’s total black population from the (ACS 1-year estimate) was +/- 4,771. The five-year estimate from the American Community Survey, which only has a margin of error of +/- 2,036, estimated that the black population had grown by roughly 7,000.
As you can see, the margins of error are very big, particularly for the 1-year ACS estimate. The 1-year estimates are OK for analyzing trends for much larger population groups, but they’re really not supposed to be used to look at something as small as Austin’s Black population.
But that’s exactly what the Statesman did two weeks ago, resulting in an alarming claim that the Black population is once again dropping fast (emphasis mine):
The latest numbers show an abrupt about-face for Black residents in Austin. From 2010 to 2018, the number of Black residents grew 29%, from 63,504 to 82,148 — outpacing the city’s overall population growth, along with increases in Latino and white residents. The 2019 numbers show a sudden decrease of nearly 5,700 Black residents.
It looks like what they did was simply take the figures from the 2019 ACS 1-year estimates (below):
And then they compared them with the figures from the 2018 ACS 1-year estimate:
But just check out the margins of error in the right-hand column. The 2019 MoE is +/- 6,997, which exceeds the total change in population the Statesman is reporting.
The ACS comes out with new 1-year estimates every year and they invariably show wild swings for small subgroups simply because the sample size isn’t large enough to be reliable. The 2019 estimate showed a decrease of 5,700 Black people while the 2018 estimate showed an increase of nearly 9,000. Absent a Hurricane Katrina-type population disruption, none of this actually took place. It’s just statistical noise.
That’s why it’s better to look to the five-year estimates. If you look at the five-year estimates, which are updated each year, you’ll see a slow but steady increase in the black population throughout the decade. The 2018 5-year estimate (2019 isn’t available yet), shows 73,390 people who identified black as their only race, with a MoE of +/- 1,926. That’s up from 67,000 in the 2013 5-year estimate.
This is an understandable oversight by the Statesman, especially given how thin the reporters are stretched by the horrible company that owns the paper. Everyone makes mistakes; my goal is not to beat up on the Statesman but to prevent another round of baseless speculation about why Black people are leaving Austin.
There’s another issue with the data that trusty Twitter pundit Julio Gonzalez Altamirano commented on:
In conclusion, the evidence suggests that Austin’s Black population has increased in the past decade, but the growth in the Anglo, Hispanic and Asian populations means that Blacks will continue to be a smaller proportion of the population than they were 20-30 years ago.
Despite all of the problems with the 2020 census, it will still provide a much more reliable picture of population trends and hopefully put much of this confusion to rest.
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