White Flight

So this isn’t really a political blog but I’m not going to pretend I haven’t been watching what’s going on in Ferguson.  And as usual, I get into arguments in comment sections about various facts of the case.  It’s pretty stupid actually, but sometimes I get bored.  Oh well, we all have hobbies we’re not proud of.  I’m not going to drag those arguments over to my own blog, but I did want to talk about one subject I keep seeing mentioned, in a mostly incorrect way, because it’s interesting to me- white flight.

My mom tells a story of moving into a part of Los Angeles that was predominately white.  My grandfather was an engineer and could afford an upper-middle class life.  He bought a house and they moved in.  I forget what part of LA it was.  I also don’t know if they were the first Mexicans in their neighborhood.  But whites saw Mexicans and Cubans moving in and quickly moved out of that neighborhood.

Well, apparently some black Angelenos got word that it was a safe neighborhood to move into (because moving into all white neighborhoods back then was a dangerous proposition).  So they started moving in.  AND THEN THE LATINOS STARTED MOVING OUT.  They were like “oh no, black people moving in.”

It’s a story about how silly people are, and how even people who are victims of bigotry can turn around and victimize others.  According to my mom, my grandmother didn’t care, and they stayed, at least for a while.

My mom also went to a school that the LA district bused black kids into.  According to my mom, the district wanted to make a good impression, so they bused in only the best students- star scholars and athletes.

I bring this up because it illustrates something that people trying to defend white flight as not racist but instead as a pragmatic decision tend to ignore.  The people moving into a white neighborhood are literally the most capable people moving out of ghetto neighborhoods.  If a white neighborhood can’t accept those people, it cannot accept anyone of color, because at the beginning of white flight, black and brown people were almost universally confined to areas of the city that were ghettos.  There was no where else they would have been coming from, except maybe from out of state.

I recently read Isabel Wilkerson’s The Warmth of Other Suns.  If you haven’t read it, I suggest you do.  It’s a beautiful but tremendously sad book.  But one of the points it makes is that the people emigrating from the south were the most capable, the most educated and some of the hardest working.  How would it be otherwise?  Getting up and moving cross country to get a job isn’t easy, especially if you’re poor.  And there were few opportunities for them to make something of themselves in the South at that time.  The north was getting the best of the best.

And the same applies to people moving into white neighborhoods.  They saved up the money to buy that house, clearly they’re responsible people.

The other thing I see is people claiming that white people were moving out of the ghetto.  This is nonsense.  White people had their own ghettos in the 50s and 60s, and black people weren’t trying to move into them.  Why would they be?  That makes no sense.

The shocking thing to me about white flight was how fast it would happen sometimes.  Real estate agents had a method they’d call blockbusting.  First the agent would convince a seller on a block to sell to a black family, usually in secret so other neighbors wouldn’t have a chance to weigh in.  Then when the neighbors find out and sell off their houses en masse, the agent would buy up the devalued properties at a huge discount, then sell them back to black families, who had few other options for housing, at a huge markup.  It was quite a racket they had going.

White people mostly weren’t escaping bad neighborhoods.  They were escaping good neighborhoods that they didn’t want to share with blacks.  Only those few who didn’t have the means to move out in the initial rush could properly be said to be fleeing ghettos. The majority moved out long before cities hit bottom in the 70s and 80s.

Of course, collapse in property values helps no one, especially the city and schools that rely on them for tax revenues.  I’m not super knowledgeable about this, so I’m going to leave it right here.



  1. I have multiple stories about this … and Garry has even more. I’ll have to get him to write some of them. Garry has been the only person of color in all white neighborhoods … and I’ve been the only white person in an otherwise Black area. Ironically, in both cases, we were the leading edge of integration for both areas. An interesting side effect of inter-racial marriages.

    Really excellent post!

    1. Thanks! One of the reasons I wanted to live in Japan was to see what it was like to be an ethnic outsider. It was eye opening! I try not to take my situation here for granted- how easy it is to do what I feel like almost all of the time.

      1. It’s an interesting reversal, living on the other side of the race equation, isn’t it? Completely changes the way you see stuff. I think everyone should live in a different culture for at least a couple of years. Get the bubbles out of their brains. That’s a lot easier in Europe than North America, though.

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