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Gastronomic Curiosity and Racial Migration in Durham


            A life-long Durham resident, I seek to learn more about the cultural and historical roots of my home. Durham has a unique reputation as an up-and-coming city worthy of New York Times appraisal and the curiosity of hipsters nationwide. My Duke friends tease that they wouldn’t venture off campus for fear of Durhamite encounter, crime or lackluster dining. I find Durham to be quite the contrary: vibrant, growing and delicious. A self-proclaimed gourmet, I have become more and more infatuated with the Durham dining scene through college. Ethnic restaurants are more prominent than I recall from my childhood, and the quality of dining has unambiguously improved. Downtown Durham more closely resembles Carrboro, with restaurants supporting local farmers and vegan diets, than the grungy urban sprawl it once was. My curiosity is endless. How does a shop like Scratch exist in the same city that scares pastry-loving Duke students? Who created the concept of Watt’s Grocery? Why did Magnolia Grill close? Who moved here to open these eateries, and who are the people keeping them in business today?

My obsession with food aside, the question can be initially expanded to national demographic trends—what factors cause Durham to be an urban hub in the South? Historically speaking, the South is not a particularly attractive destination for business. Since before the civil rights movement, the South has struggled to maintain a constant influx of business. Wright (1987) posits a model of Southern out-migration explained by rocky assimilation with Northern industrial production. A dramatic decline in low-income farm laborers forced a majority of the ethnic population out of the South.

However, Frey and Liaw’s model of racial migration trends suggests the possibility of an established minority network in the South. Their model of out-migration and destination selection suggests that minority groups tend to stay in areas that have large populations of their minority group and move toward areas with similarly established minority networks. Movement into the South has been striking across all minority groups studied, a testament to the growing economy and employment opportunities in the South. Combining Wright’s theory with Frey and Liaw’s model, I see the potential for Durham’s economic success to be explained by a flight to economic growth combined with a return of black laborers to what could be considered an informal ethnic network, a historical home base.

Zhao’s model predicting discrimination in real estate suggests that brokers of the same racial-ethnic status as their client tend to discriminate less, a testament to the cyclical potential of movement into the South. As immigration continues, the ethnic network grows and racial similarity becomes a larger factor in attracting and retaining racial minorities.

These three surveys open a discussion of the causes of Southern economic improvement but do not fully explain my question of why there are so many boutique eateries in Durham. In further investigations, I hope to answer the following additional questions: What is the ethnic makeup of migrants to Durham? Are minorities a majority in Durham? What is the demographic profile of Durham small business owners? Does the desire for racial similarity drive migration and economic growth, or is it the economic growth that fosters migration? I hypothesize that the economic growth in the South combined with its attractiveness to immigrants and minority groups has created an environment that fosters small business and boutique ethnic eateries.

Model Particulars

            Wright outlines a model more qualitative than the econometric models of Zhao and Frey and Liaw. Wright poses the question: why can’t macroeconomic factors explain the homogenization of Northern and Southern US economies, and why did the Southern economy finally become assimilated with the North? Historically, he notes that labor flows have in general occurred in an East to West direction rather than North to South, a trend “…rooted in certain geo-agricultural continuities, such as familiarity with seeds, crops, livestock, and climate.” (Wright, 164) As the North continued to receive international immigrants and technological improvements, the South was geographically isolated from this influx of productivity. The dynamic was compounded by the fact that Northern wage rates far exceeded those in the South, making economic assimilation more of a daunting task. As the North grew, Northern producers had little incentive to expand into the South because it was “…much cheaper to utilize existing channels or expand them incrementally than to lay out the large fixed cost that would have been required to redirect the established lines of the market.” (Wright, 164) The South became stagnant, despite the potential for American unity provided by the booming machine tool industry.

The largest constraint to assimilation was the large gap between Northern and Southern wage rates, and as national wage policies were implemented the gap closed. This was overall productive for the Southern economy—in-migration of educated Northerners increased, out-migration of farm laborers increased and integration began. However, this was harder on low-income workers and “…the majority of the departing farm population had few options other than leaving the South.” (Wright, 172) Particularly hard hit was the black population due to the combined reduction in agriculture and tobacco manufacture—the black share of labor force more than halved in the former Confederacy from 1930 to 1960. On the flip side, Northern migration created opportunity for education, “…yet the same migration channeled other blacks into the high-unemployment ghettos which if anything have worsened with the passage of time.” (Wright, 175)

Frey and Liaw (2005) paint a contrary picture 20 years later. Their extensive study of the effect that racial/ethnic background has on migration patterns concluded that minority migration is occurring in a general Southward direction, particularly within the black population. Frey and Liaw seek to understand the effect of two separate theories of migration. The cultural constraints theory suggests that migration networks are shaped by racial and ethnic attachment. Spatial assimilation, on the other hand, suggests that education and socioeconomic status become larger determinants of migration in the upper-middle class, even within minority populations.

Frey and Liaw consider two components of migration separately—decision to migrate out of a location (“out-migration”), and the choice of destination location. They formulate a two-level nested logit model to show the effect of observable explanatory variables on the probability of out-migration and destination choice at the state level.[1] Study conclusions were focused predominantly on migration patterns into and out of California, but will be omitted in the context of this survey.

Overall US out-migration was found to be reduced by the cultural constraints hypothesis, with education level playing a minimal role—“…these [racial similarity] constraints do not play a stronger role for less educated than more educated members of these [coethnic] groups.” (Frey and Liaw, 236) Destination selection is also affected by racial similarity, with “…positive effects on migrant destination selections for each race-ethnic group” (Frey and Liaw, 241). However, distance from previous location, contiguity and population size along with employment growth rate affect destination selection more strongly than racial similarity.

Two of their findings provide a possible explanation for minority (and black in particular) migration back to the south and are thus most relevant with respect to my topic: first, the finding that “both persons born in a different state and the foreign-born are more likely to out-migrate than persons born in the same state” (Frey and Liaw, 240) and second, the fact that destination selection is positively affected by racial similarity. Aside from cultural constraints and spatial assimilation, the human capital investment theory of migration is supported in the finding that less out-migration occurs as employment growth rate and per capita income increase. This may explain the success of the Southern economy, as it is able to attract and retain laborers.

Zhao (2005) investigates the question of whether number of homes showed by a broker varies with the homeseeker’s race, a proxy for racial discrimination in the housing market. He conducted a paired experiment in which two auditors of similar gender and age but different minority status (one white and one minority) were assigned similar income levels, marital status and parental status and sent to the same real estate agency to be shown available houses. Zhao built off of Page’s 1995 Poisson model with fixed effects, which established a relationship between auditor characteristics and discrimination. This study did not predict discrimination using a more complex model that incorporated auditor and agent characteristics and interaction terms. Zhao expands Page’s basic model to include visiting order, agent characteristics, actual auditor socioeconomic characteristics, as well as interaction terms between race and auditor characteristics, agent characteristics, house value, neighborhood characteristics, month of visit and site of home. He interprets each variable’s coefficient as the effect of the variable on the number of houses shown to the auditor, testing each coefficient for significance in the complete model (including all variables and interaction terms above).

Zhao additionally hypothesizes three potential causes of discrimination. First, broker’s prejudice, summarized as “distaste for minorities.” (Zhao, 135) White customer’s prejudice is defined as discrimination by brokers based on perceived desires of whites in the local community. For instance, if a broker has a large base of white customers he or she might act to satisfy their needs rather than the minority client. Finally, statistical discrimination involves prediction of minority behavior based on the probability of a transaction occurring. If the broker believes a minority buyer would not be interested in a residential area with a large white population or would not be able to pay for a home, he or she may be less likely to show the house.

Focusing on the black/white paired samples, Zhao finds that the customer prejudice hypothesis is true to the extent that discrimination decreases once the share of black residents increases. Additionally, discrimination increases with percent of owner-occupied homes and with value of house. Black homeseekers are shown overall 30% fewer homes than white homeseekers, which reflects an increase in discrimination of 12% since 1989 (Zhao, 144). Though the South is quickly re-establishing itself as an economic hub, there may be evidence of racial discrimination that limits economic development in the real estate market.


Bo Zhao, 2005. “Does the number of houses a broker shows depend on a homeseeker’s race?” Journal of Urban Economics 57(1): 128-147.

Gavin Wright. 1987. “The economic revolution in the American south.”  Journal of Economic Perspectives 1(1): 161-178.

William H. Frey and Kao-Lee Liaw, 2005. “Migration within the United States: role of race-ethnicity,” BWPUA 2005: 207-248.

[1]This includes race, immigrant status, age, immigration rate, employment growth rate, population size and housing value, along with a number of other variables and interaction terms


1 Comment

  1. I thought this was a pretty good article overall. I was expecting more on the food scene, but nonetheless, this proved rather enlightening.

    One of the things that I think you did an excellent job in identifying was the overall migration trend back to the south. It’s certainly been the case that a large amount of the American industrial base has begun to shift southward and westward. One of the more interesting assumptions in the model is that the implementation of national labor policy was the motivating force behind a large amount of this resettlement. An interesting topic of further research would be how much of an effect this had. I had always assumed that a lot of the transfer of industry to the south actually had to do with large wage differences (i.e. things were cheaper in the south). Other potential factors include increased transportation/communication opportunities and the large amount of undeveloped land available in the south.

    I also think it was valuable that you took into account various studies across time. This is important as the conclusions can often change with the frame of reference. Specifically, I think your assessment of how Frey and Liaw explain the return to the area is important and stronger than Wright’s theory. Something to consider with regards to the “two separate theories” you present in paragraph 3 of section two would be what role Duke has played in attracting the educated, upper-middle class (given that Duke somewhat caters to that demographic).

    One thing that was confusing about your survey was the introduction. I was expecting more of a piece about restaurants and food. If I understood you correctly, you’re trying to posit a link between ethnic and culinary diversity. That’s a solid hypothesis. As the survey went on, I did lose sight of how restaurants fit into the bigger picture. It does sound like that might be something you investigate in your final paper as well. Nevertheless, a clearer connection between racial composition of a city and its culinary establishments would be helpful here.

    Overall I thought that this was a very good article, and presented many compelling theories about why people first moved away from Durham, and then back to it. Finally, you may want to consider contrasting with another city–Greensboro, Winston-Salem, and Richmond immediately spring to mind. All of these have at least one major university, and are former southern hubs. Some are currently doing better than others. Greensboro in particular has a good foodie scene from what I understand. In any case, food for thought!

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