July 28, 2008
Written by C.N.
In case you were not already familiar, the term “White Flight” refers to the phenomenon of White residents leaving central urban areas of major cities and moving into suburbs or even farther. This process began after World War II and coincided with the birth of suburbanization.
Unfortunately, White flight is also associated with the systematic segregation and “ghettoization” of people of color in these same central urban areas. That is, a combination of unequal government policies, discriminatory lending practices, and unethical real estate agents led to a vast majority of the Black population being prevented from joining the suburbanization movement and instead, were left behind isolated in neglected and marginalized central cities.
However, things apparently are changing. As the Wall Street Journal reports, in recent years, demographers and city planners have noticed that in many metropolitan areas, White flight has slowed considerably and in many of these cities, has actually been reversed. That is, because of increased investment and development (some would call it gentrification) of downtown areas, many Whites are returning to the central cities. However, this slow reversal of White flight has led to some unanticipated consequences for people of color:
Between 2000 and 2006, eight of the 50 largest cities, including Boston, Seattle and San Francisco, saw the proportion of whites increase, according to Census figures. The previous decade, only three cities saw increases.
The changing racial mix is stirring up quarrels over class and culture. Beloved institutions in traditionally black communities — minority-owned restaurants, book stores — are losing the customers who supported them for decades. As neighborhoods grow more multicultural, conflicts over home prices, taxes and education are opening a new chapter in American race relations. . . .
In recent years, minority middle-class families, particularly African-Americans, have been moving to the suburbs in greater numbers. At the same time, Hispanic immigrants (who poured into cities from the 1970s through the 1990s) are now increasingly bypassing cities for suburbs and rural areas, seeking jobs on farms and in meat-packing plants.
Cities have spent a decade tidying up parks and converting decaying factories into retail and living space. That has attracted young professionals and empty-nesters, many of them white.
The article goes on to mention a few more interesting points. First is that as middle-class Blacks leave the central cities, those who are left are predominantly lower-income and as a result, the tax base gets smaller as well, further reinforcing and perpetuating poverty.
Second is that as White residents slowly return to the central cities, some tensions with residents of color have risen. Such tensions may initially be based on class differences (i.e., most returning Whites are middle class or affluent) while resident of color are more likely to be working class), but inevitably, it leads to racial overtones.
For example, the article mentions that in New York City, a group of White parents proposed creating a new, separate school inside Public School 84. Not surprisingly, a large number of minority parents saw this proposal as blatant racial segregation, since the proposed new school would presumably consist almost entirely of White students.
From a sociological point of view, this trend of reversing White flight is most interesting because it represents an 180 degree turn of a long-established and momentous process that has taken decades to occur, has resulted in significant social changes and inequalities, and has still not ended entirely.
With that in mind and at least on the surface, we should be thankful for its reversal. However, as the article points out, the return of Whites to central cities has led to a different set of problems and tensions, many of them rather unexpected.
It just goes to show that race relations is not a simple equation that can be solved easily. Instead, it is a dynamic and fluid mix of historical and contemporary factors that operates on many levels and can have multiple and contradictory outcomes. In other words, we as sociologists have our work cut out for us here.