The demographic changes that came with the migration transformed both the character and representation of the race problem in America and, as a consequence, the image of African Americans. Since the arrival of the first Africans, the black presence in America has been framed as a problem - a labor problem, a social problem, a political problem. For the first three centuries, when most African Americans lived in the South and earned their livelihood from agriculture, the so-called Negro Problem was distinctly Southern and linked to the backwardness of the Southern economy and society. Blacks were backward because the South was backward, or the South was kept back because of deficiencies in the African-American character and culture. Either way, it was a regional problem.
With the urbanization of the African-American population and its spread all over the country, the "problem" became a national one, and its terms of reference began to change. In popular speech as well as in literature and art, in sociological and historical work, black urban life became the dominant setting and motif.
In a very brief time, the now-familiar image of a black inner-city core surrounded by a white suburban ring emerged as the dominant pattern of American life. Thus did the "ghetto" become dominant in scholarly and creative literature by the 1960s. The term "inner city" became a virtual synonym for black people.
Although this rural-to-urban shift was evident even during the Great Migration, there were decisive changes in its character and nuances during the post-World War II era. Unlike the earlier urban expansion, this one was generally portrayed negatively, by blacks as well as whites. The novelty, excitement, and creativity of black urban life that figured so prominently in the literature and art of the Harlem Renaissance, for example, gave way to themes of deterioration. The visual and literary images were now accented in emotional tones of lament, loss, and despair.
The magnitude of the change is made clear by the fact that the very nature and terms of discussion of what had once been referred to as "the Negro Problem" were radically altered. Black life and racial conflicts were now characterized by phrases like "the rise of the ghetto," "the problem of the inner cities," "urban disorders," and "the underclass."
In contrast to this view, however, black urban communities across the country became centers of political and cultural activity. The New Deal coalition formed in the late 1930s, the civil rights Movement of the 1950s and 1960s, and the various liberation struggles of the late twentieth century all were grounded in the social and political ferment of these new urban societies.