“White flight” is usually described as a post-World War II phenomenon, one that required highways and suburbs and big lawns to flee to.
But whites in northern cities really began re-sorting themselves–specifically away from blacks–in the first decades of the 20th century, and what happened then remains relevant to American cities that are still racially divided today.
“If you want to understand the origins of segregation in the U.S., you have to look at this period between 1900 and 1930,” says Allison Shertzer, an economist at the University of Pittsburgh who has studied detailed, digitized census forms from that era with Pittsburgh colleague Randall P. Walsh.
In their new research, they studied how the arrival of blacks in 10 northern cities at the time influenced white behavior. Over the course of the first three decades after the turn of the century, coinciding with the start of the Great Migration of blacks out of the South, this pattern accelerated: As blacks arrived in northern neighborhoods, more whites left. By the 1920s, there were more than three white departures for every black arrival.
Shertzer and Walsh, who tried to account for other reasons why neighborhood populations shifted, believe this was causal. “Whites left the neighborhood as a result of blacks arriving,” Shertzer says, “not for other reasons.”
The suburbs we know today effectively didn’t exist at the time, so whites were leaving these neighborhoods for other neighborhoods in the city. That makes this earlier form of white flight even more striking; their new homes didn’t necessarily have lower taxes or better school districts, factors that complicated the motivations of later generations of whites.
Even if the Fair Housing Act had existed back then, if restrictive covenants were illegal in 1920s America, we’d have gotten segregated cities anyway because of behavior that’s beyond the reach of regulation. You can create a lot segregation, this research says, without having any discriminatory institutions. Uncoordinated market choices create it.
And this is the part that’s particularly relevant today. All of those historic institutional barriers have largely (but not entirely) been eliminated. But we know from research on the behavior of people searching for homes that racial preferences still shape where people choose to live today.