How “White Flight” Segregated American Cities and Suburbs
White flight refers to a mass exodus of white people retreating from an increasingly diverse setting—such as, most notably, the mid-20th-century migration of white households from cities to the suburbs as more people of color moved into America’s urban neighborhoods.
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Seeking to flee the oppression and terror of the Jim Crow South and to pursue new economic opportunities in more industrialized areas, millions of Black southerners migrated to northern and western U.S. cities from 1940 to 1970, in the second half of the Great Migration.
And when cities integrated, whites emigrated. Princeton economics professor Leah Boustan found that, for every Black resident who moved into a northern or western city from 1940-1970, two white residents left for the suburbs—which, not coincidentally, were effectively off-limits to most Black homebuyers, who were thwarted by realtors, mortgage lenders, and racist obstacles.
Boustan contends some white flight was motivated as much by economics as by racism. There was a booming postwar economy, newly prosperous households could afford cars and bigger, newer homes, and the government was investing in highways that made car commuting easier. And cities were already so segregated, she argues, that some white households were leaving all-white urban neighborhoods for all-white suburban ones.
But even “economic” reasons for white flight were underpinned by racism. The Federal Housing Authority’s lending guidelines were explicitly racist, instructing banks not to write mortgages in redlined neighborhoods, or areas with Black residents that were deemed undesirable. (The neighborhoods were literally outlined in red on maps, hence the term.) The FHA also subsidized the construction of entire suburbs—including 85 percent of New York-area subdivisions built during the 1930s and ‘40s—with explicit covenants barring developers from selling to Black homebuyers.
The popular GI bill made it possible for millions of World War II veterans to purchase a home—but not Black veterans, because the Veterans Administration adhered to FHA policy on matters of housing. And mid-century urban renewal projects quite intentionally razed or hemmed in communities of color with federally funded highways so white suburbanites could zip into downtown.
Perhaps no housing practice married racism and capitalism with such sickening synergy as blockbusting. Speculative realtors would sell one home in an all-white neighborhood to a Black family, then approach the other white homeowners on the block and stoke racial fears, warning them to sell quickly and at a discount, before more Black families moved in and property values dropped.
As more white homeowners fled to the suburbs, the remaining ones agreed to sell their homes at deeper discounts, fearful of falling prices. Then, the speculator would resell the homes to Black families at an exorbitant markup of 80 to 100 percent or more—a devil’s bargain plenty of Black families accepted, having been previously shut out of the same neighborhood or, indeed, any homeownership opportunity whatsoever.
In 1950, Chicago was 86 percent white, with more than 3 million white residents. By 1980, the city’s Black population had more than doubled, from about 492,000 to 1.2 million. At the same time, more than 1.5 million white Chicagoans had moved out. Former first lady Michelle Obama told an audience last year how she witnessed white flight firsthand growing up in Chicago. “As we moved in, white folks moved out, because they were afraid of what our families represented,” she said.
The same phenomenon occurred across the country. In 1950, Boston was about 95 percent white. By 1980, the city’s black population had more than tripled, from 40,000 to 126,000, while the white population had nearly halved, from 759,000 to 394,000. Oakland was 85 percent white in 1950, with 329,000 white residents and 47,500 black residents. In 30 years, the black population nearly quadrupled to 159,000, outnumbering the 130,000 whites who remained. White immigrants fled cities at this time, too, especially since they were viewed more culturally “white” as they worked to assimilate. They distanced themselves from Black Americans physically and culturally, reinforcing the idea that becoming American meant becoming anti-Black.
White flight wasn’t confined to northern or western cities, though. In his book, “White Flight: Atlanta and the Making of Modern Conservatism,” Princeton history professor Kevin Kruse chronicles what he calls a “suburban secession” as whites around the country isolated themselves in white suburbs under a barely-veiled cloak of “freedom of association.”
Nor is white flight merely a remnant of the past. As our suburbs have grown more diverse, some white residents segregate themselves in gated communities or move to farther-flung exurbs. Affluent white towns effectively block the types of housing development that could encourage a greater diversity of residents through exclusionary zoning practices, such as banning most multifamily housing, or requiring a one-acre minimum lot size.
And even in what appear to be well-integrated cities, white families still try to send their children to majority white schools, says Erika K. Wilson, economics professor at the University of North Carolina. Often these are charter schools where more than half the student body is white, even in a neighborhood of more than 70 percent minority residents. “The emergence of white charter school enclaves is the result of a sobering and ugly truth,” Wilson says. “When given a choice, white parents as a collective tend to choose racially segregated, predominately white schools… even when presented with the option of a more racially diverse school of good academic quality.”
In fact, one modern manifestation of white flight that Wilson finds fascinating is the vast number of middle-class and affluent white families fleeing predominantly Asian schools in places like Silicon Valley. “The phenomenon cuts counter to the typical retort that white parents are fleeing because of class,” Wilson says, because the predominantly Asian schools from which they’re fleeing are often high-performing and well-resourced. “[It] underscores the extent to which flight is often about race and a desire to not have their children be in the racial minority.”
White flight drains resources from communities of color, particularly Black and Latinx students, Wilson says. “Green tends to follow white,” she says. “Schools with fewer white students often have a harder time attracting high quality teachers. They are less likely to have sufficient money per pupil. They miss out on the intangible benefits that a racially and economically diverse student body brings.”
But Wilson says white flight fails white kids as well. “Because white students are more likely to live in racially segregated places, white flight out of schools with significant minority populations means that white students are having limited exposure to people of color on a peer to peer level,” she says. Negative stereotypes get reinforced, and they never learn how to live in a racially diverse environment. “There is even recent empirical research that shows that police killings in places like Ferguson, Missouri, might have some roots in the fact that the white officers attended racially segregated, predominately white schools and lacked the proper context to deal with Black citizens in an appropriate manner. I think it is really important to note that it’s been harmful for our democracy as a whole.”
Here’s some suggested reading if you’d like to learn more:
- “The Warmth of Other Suns,” by Isabel Wilkerson
- “The Color of Law” by Richard Rothstein
- “White Flight: Atlanta and the Making of Modern Conservatism” by Kevin Kruse
- Choosing a School for My Daughter in a Segregated City, by Nikole Hannah-Jones