The culprits behind white flight
- Coates refers to the white exodus as a ‘triumph of racist social engineering’, and he is not wrong
May 16, 2017-
In Agatha Christie’s “Murder on the Orient Express,” the detective Hercule Poirot proposes an improbable theory to explain an improbable murder: Maybe they all did it. Twelve riders each stabbed the victim once, making it impossible to know who struck the fatal blow.
Poirot’s solution offers some insight into a debate among journalists and Democratic strategists: Was Donald Trump’s surprise victory due to his voters’ racism or their economic anxiety? The right answer might be that it was both. A similar question of “whodunit” inspired my research on the history of postwar white flight. White movement to the suburbs coincided with a period of substantial black migration out of the rural South: From 1940 to 1970, 4 million blacks settled in industrial cities in the North and West. As they moved in, the fraction of white metropolitan households living in the typical Northern or Western central city fell from two-thirds to one-third.
Ta-Nehisi Coates refers to the white exodus as a “triumph of racist social engineering,” and he is not wrong. Many white households moved to suburban towns precisely because black households were effectively excluded from them by real estate agents and mortgage brokers. But that’s not the whole story. Even in cities like Minneapolis-St. Paul that had few black migrants, the suburbs were a magnet for newly prosperous families after World War II seeking larger houses and more open space. And so I found myself caught in the same debate: Did whites leave cities for racial reasons or for economic ones?
Some additional data can help. I compared the patterns of black migration into cities and white departures for the suburbs in 70 Northern and Western metropolitan areas from 1940 to 1970. I found that for every black arrival, two whites left the central city. This figure puts a precise value on what contemporaries already suspected: When black people moved in, white people moved out.
Yet only a portion of white flight can be traced back to the now-classic dynamic of racial turnover. Cities were simply too segregated by race for many urban whites to encounter black neighbors. Newly available Census Bureau maps show that in 1940, the average white urban household lived 3 miles away from a black enclave. By 1970, urban areas adjacent to historical black enclaves became majority black, but distant city neighborhoods remained predominantly white—no different in racial composition from the surrounding suburbs.
We can get further insight by focusing on residents of city-suburban borders. The city side of the border was often indistinguishable from its suburban counterpart across the street: It was overwhelmingly white, characterized by tree-lined roads with
single-family houses and close to the same parks and shopping
districts. There was one difference: By staying within the city limits, households remained part of the urban electorate. City voters were more racially diverse and poorer than the suburban electorate, and thus less able to offer low property taxes or high-quality public services. If border residents also fled the city as black migrants arrived, even though black enclaves were miles away, these departures signaled a concern about broader city finances rather than a dislike of immediate black neighbors.
Not surprisingly, houses on the suburban side of the border have always been a little more expensive than their city counterparts. Using data on 100 border neighborhoods in the 1960s and 1970s, I find that this cross-border housing price gap grew by a few percentage points—to a 7 percent suburban housing price premium from a 5 percent premium—as black migrants flowed into the city, even though new black arrivals lived miles away.
Households in these areas were motivated by concerns about how a changing local electorate would affect property taxes and service levels. In fact, for this set of households, what mattered most about the new Southern arrivals crowding into neighborhoods across town was not their race but their lower levels of income.
That doesn’t mean racism wasn’t a motivating factor. For the third of white households near a black enclave in 1940, concerns about new black neighbors was indeed a primary motivation. And those households moved out of the city at a higher rate than others, contributing more than a third to the white exodus. But for the remainder of urban whites, most of whom never interacted with a black family, leaving for the resource-rich suburbs was an economic calculus, one that was accelerated by the steady stream of poor migrants, both white and black, into central cities.
Just like Trump voters in 2016, different people in the same group—white urban households—took the same action, around the same time, but for different reasons. To complicate the picture, few of them left personal accounts, and they may not have been able to articulate exactly why they moved. We are left reconstructing the pieces through careful detective work. In my own work, I have found that Poirot
is often right: Each suspect wielded his own knife.
—©2017 The New York Times
Published: 16-05-2017 08:01