The End of White Flight

Conor Dougherty, Wall Street Journal, July 19, 2008

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For much of the 20th century, the proportion of whites shrank in most U.S. cities. In recent years the decline has slowed considerably—and in some significant cases has reversed. 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.

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The Census data “suggests that white flight from large cities may have bottomed out in the 1990s,” says William Frey, a demographer at the Brookings Institution, a Washington think tank.

For instance, while most of the 50 largest cities continue to see declines in the share of whites, it is at much-reduced rates. In Los Angeles the share of the white population declined only about a half a percentage point between 2000 and 2006, compared to a 7.5-point decline the previous decade. Cities including New York, Fort Worth and Chicago show a similar pattern.

‘Natural Decrease’

Demographic readjustments can take decades to play out. But if current trends continue, Washington and Atlanta (both with black majorities) will in the next decade see African-Americans fall below 50% for the first time in about a half-century.

Meantime, in San Francisco, African-American deaths now outnumber births. Once a “natural decrease” such as this begins, it’s tough for the population to bounce back, since there are fewer residents left to produce the next generation. {snip}

There are myriad factors driving the change. 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 shift has put the future at odds with the past. New York City’s borough of Brooklyn has seen its proportion of whites grow to 36.1% in 2006 from 35.9% in 2000—the first increase in white share in about a century.

Hoarding Computers

While the root of neighborhood conflicts is often money or class differences between white-collar and blue-collar workers, it often unfolds along racial lines. About two years ago Public School 84, in a largely Hispanic section of Brooklyn, meetings of the Parent Teacher Association started drawing a more professional, wealthier and whiter group of parents.

Soon, disagreements spilled into the open. Arguments concerned everything from how PTA money was spent, to accusations that some white parents were hoarding computers for their kids.

Even ice cream became a point of contention: In the past year, a group of mostly white parents took issue with a school tradition of selling ice cream to raise money. They felt the school shouldn’t be serving sugary foods to kids, but the break with tradition angered many minority parents who felt the sales were an important source of money and that ice cream is a harmless treat.

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Cries of ‘Segregation’

A few months later, a small group of families, most of them white, proposed establishing a new public school, to be located inside the existing P.S. 84. Hundreds of minority parents reacted by putting out a press release calling it de facto segregation. The proposal is “clearly discriminatory,” the release said. “Children will suffer the effects of negative stigma as a result of this segregation which will send our City back 120 years!”

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Elsewhere in Brooklyn, in a majority African-American section of the borough, Councilwoman Letitia James says a handful of predominantly white parents last year asked her if some of their local tax money could be steered to schools in a nearby neighborhood. The parents wanted their kids in schools with a more diverse racial mix, Ms. James says, rather than the majority-black schools in her district.

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Cities Get a Makeover

Today, cities are refashioning themselves as trendy centers devoid of suburban ills like strip malls and long commutes. In Atlanta, which has among the longest commute times of any U.S. city, the white population rose by 26,000 between 2000 and 2006, while the black population decreased by 8,900. Overall the white proportion has increased to 35% in 2006 from 31% in 2000.

In other cities, whites are still leaving, but more blacks are moving out. Boston lost about 6,000 black residents between 2000 and 2006, but only about 3,000 whites. In 2006, whites accounted for 50.2% of the city’s population, up from 49.5% in 2000. That’s the first increase in roughly a century.

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Washington—where African-Americans have been in the majority for a half-century—has lost about 80,000 black residents between 1990 and 2006. Whites had been leaving, too, but recently they’ve started coming back. Between 2000 and 2006, Washington gained 24,000 whites and lost 21,000 blacks. Whites are now 32% of the population, up from 28% in 2000.

Churches Take a Hit

This is a problem for Washington’s African-American churches. The past few years, numerous black churches have relocated to suburban Prince George’s County, Md., to follow their parishioners. Later this year, Metropolitan Baptist Church (founded by freed slaves during the Lincoln administration) plans to leave town as well.

Some of the remaining black churches are now courting white members. On a recent Sunday, the Rev. John Blanchard, the 64-year-old pastor at Ebenezer United Methodist Church, preached to a thin crowd; several pews were empty {snip}

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While his church flounders, the predominantly white Capitol Hill United Methodist Church just down the street is flourishing. {snip}

In San Francisco, the African-American population has fallen by a third, or about 30,000 people, since 1990, largely due to surging housing costs and redevelopment that destroyed some public housing. {snip}

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From Poor to Poorer

As middle-class African-Americans have left San Francisco, the remaining black population has gone from poor to poorer. In 1990, half of the city’s African-American population was very low-income; by 2005, that number swelled to about two-thirds. The number of black-owned businesses fell 25% between 1997 and 2002.

As blacks migrated to San Francisco’s suburbs, so too have many social activities centered on the community. {snip}

The Western Addition, a historically black neighborhood in San Francisco once home to many jazz clubs, has lost much of that character. Powell’s Place, an iconic soul-food restaurant that had been located in or around the neighborhood since the 1970s, has moved to Bayview-Hunters Point. Charles Spencer, who owns a barbershop catering to black men, says he has lost many of his customers and is trying to diversify. His Web site has a picture of a white client to go with three black faces.

‘An Act of Faith’

The city has celebrated its traditional black culture by designating a stretch of Fillmore Street the “Fillmore Jazz Preservation District,” yet the businesses that defined the era are now gone or dying. Raye Richardson, owner of Marcus Book Stores—its motto is “Books by and about black people everywhere”—has been in the Fillmore district since 1946. She remembers the clubs, the black tailor shops and the many black residents who supported her shop. Today, Ms. Richardson says her store is losing money; much of her business comes from mail-order traffic.

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