The term white flight refers to the phenomenon of whites, usually upper and middle class, rapidly moving out of cities and into suburbs as blacks and other minorities move in. The result is residential segregation that leaves cities poorer and minority residents stranded in the city center. This demographic change strains the fiscal resources of central city governments, leaving inner-city residents with the prospect of increased taxes, diminished public services, and higher levels of unemployment.
While white flight may also occur when the newcomers are Latinos/as, other immigrants, and on rare occasions, Asians, white flight happens more often, more rapidly, and more completely when the incoming group is black. First used to describe the massive demographic shifts that took place in the period just after World War II, white flight has also occurred since then, particularly in cities throughout the Northeastern, Midwestern, and Western United States.
From 1914 to 1960, millions of blacks left the U.S. South in search of better job opportunities and greater racial tolerance in other parts of the country. Many settled in cities such as Chicago, and the overcrowded conditions created by the influx of blacks prompted many whites to seek housing elsewhere. A post-World War II housing boom made it possible for many whites to move into newly constructed homes in the suburbs, leading to what has been called “suburbanization.” Suburbanization peaked during the period from 1950 to 1960, when the total suburban populations increased by well over 60 percent. During the same period, according to data from the U.S. Census Bureau, central city populations rose by only 3 percent.
Residential change in Chicago during the postwar era offers a classic case of white flight, as whites moved beyond the city limits in a pattern of concentric circles, resulting in population loss and economic decline in the central areas. In a few short years, the population of vast areas of Chicago became virtually all black. Other cities, including Detroit, Memphis, St. Louis, Cleveland, Philadelphia, New York, Washington, D.C., and Los Angeles, also experienced noticeable population shifts, with the first three losing more than half of their white populations to white flight. Residential segregation thus became a prominent feature of the spatial organization of U.S. cities in the years after World War II.
The factors contributing to white flight have been hotly debated, but the effectiveness with which the color line remained in many cities despite massive population shifts led many to cite racism and discrimination as important factors. African Americans were routinely and systematically barred from purchasing homes in predominantly white neighborhoods by practices such as blockbusting, redlining, racial steering, and racist real-estate covenants. Whereas blacks faced such restrictions, whites wishing to make the transition to the suburbs benefited from such incentives as federally subsidized home mortgages.
Some researchers also claim that the increase of blacks and other minorities in public schools contributes to white flight. In 1954, Brown v. Board of Education called for the desegregation of public schools. Many whites who had remained in the city decided to move to the virtually all-white suburbs to ensure that their children would not have to go to school with black children. Racial tensions and riots were also a key factor influencing white flight, and the outbreak of race riots in many major cities during the 1960s confirmed for many that cities were increasingly hostile places to live. In the summer of 1967, President Johnson created the National Advisory Commission on Civil Disorders, also known as the Kerner Commission, which warned that the nation was moving toward two societies: “one black, one white—separate and unequal.” The assassination of Martin Luther King Jr. on April 4, 1968, set off another wave of riots nationwide, resulting in even greater white flight to the suburbs.
Some researchers question the role that racism and discrimination play in white flight and propose that this process may not have occurred because of prejudice toward blacks but because of “unpleasant” conditions in cities, ranging from noise and congestion to a lack of job opportunities. Others claim that whites (just as other racial groups) simply prefer to live among those who are racially similar and that the observed changes in residential patterns are due to simple neighborhood succession. These explanations, though, do not account for the rapid rate of change or for the racial disparity between those who live in cities and those who live in the suburbs. Other researchers determined that although suburban whites did not cite racist feelings toward blacks as reasons for moving out of cities, many of the reasons that they did cite—including decreased land values, higher crime levels, lower-quality public schools, and a decline in the prestige of a neighborhood—are rooted in racism and its consequences.
Recently, interesting cases of what some are calling “black flight” have occurred in cities such as Detroit and St. Louis, with middle-class blacks leaving the cities in search of better social and educational opportunities in suburbs and parts of the U.S. South. Traditional cases of white flight occur internationally as well, with British cities such as London, Manchester, and Birmingham experiencing a decline in their white populations and an increase in their black and South Asian populations. Domestically, white flight from public schools in cities such as Boulder, Milwaukee, and Chicago continues to create challenges for policymakers. These examples, in addition to the persistence of racial segregation in many U.S. neighborhoods, affirm the need for ongoing evaluations of racial prejudice, economic trends, and social policies and their impact on residential preferences and mobility.
- Emerson, Michael O., Karen J. Chai, and George Yancey. 2001. “Does Race Matter in Residential Segregation? Exploring the Preferences of White Americans.” American Sociological Review 66(6):922-35.
- Frey, William H. 1979. “Central City White Flight: Racial and Nonracial Causes.” American Sociological Review 44(3):425-48.
- Krysan, Maria. 2002. “Whites Who Say They’d Flee: Who Are They, and Why Would They Leave?” Demography 39(4):675-96.
- Massey, Douglas S. and Nancy A. Denton. 1993. American Apartheid: Segregation and the Making of the Underclass. Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press.
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