Posted on January 4, 2021

The Truth About White Flight

William Voegli, City Journal, Autumn 2020

Speaking at an October 2019 Obama Foundation Summit, Michelle Obama reminisced about growing up in South Shore, a Chicago lakefront neighborhood. Some memories were bitter. The former First Lady, born in 1964, lamented living through “white flight.” As “upstanding families like ours, who were doing everything we were supposed to do . . . moved in,” she said, “white folks moved out.”

In her telling, the whites who abandoned South Shore had motives as obvious as they were ugly, choosing to relocate because “they were afraid of what our families represented.” They voted with their U-Hauls to reject families like hers because of “the color of our skin” and “the texture of our hair,” those “artificial things that don’t even touch on the values that people bring to life. And so, yeah, I feel a sense of injustice.”

Worse, the whites who fled did more than wound feelings. As “one by one, they packed their bags and they ran from us,” the departing whites “left communities in shambles.” They “disinvested.” In her 2018 memoir Becoming, Mrs. Obama, née Robinson, recalls that the “tilt was clearly beginning” in the South Shore of her youth, with “the neighborhood businesses closing one by one, the blight setting in.” Beyond the loss of economic capital, disinvestment entailed the withdrawal of social capital.

In its factual basics, Obama’s account is accurate. Becoming points out that South Shore’s population was 96 percent white in 1950 and 96 percent black in 1980. (The big change took place in the sixties, when the neighborhood went from 89.6 percent white at the start of the decade to 70 percent black by the end. As of 2015, South Shore was 93.5 percent black and 2.2 percent white.) Nor was this location an outlier, locally or nationally. In the 1920s, University of Chicago sociologists divided the city, for analytical purposes, into 77 “community areas,” defined by boundaries that the city government still uses for planning and assessment. Of the 18 community areas now more than 90 percent black, ten were at least 75 percent white in 1960. Nationally, millions of blacks moved from the South to northern and western cities during the Great Migration. Economist Leah Boustan’s examination of 70 metropolitan areas found that for every black family that moved into a central city between 1940 and 1970, two white families moved out.

Michelle Obama’s interpretation of these facts is widely shared. {snip}


But the contention that white racism caused white flight, which then caused disinvestment, leaving behind devastated majority-black communities, is suspiciously tidy. Rather than being a single result derived from a single cause, this social transformation, unfolding over decades, involved decisions and actions by millions of people in dozens of metropolitan areas—and almost certainly had multiple causes, interrelated in ways too tangled for simplistic explanations.

Boustan, who made the Great Migration and white flight the subject of her 2016 book Competition in the Promised Land: Black Migrants in Northern Cities and Labor Markets, cautions that few whites who moved from cities to suburbs in the decades after World War II “left personal accounts, and they may not have been able to articulate exactly why they moved.” She concludes that “only a portion of white flight can be traced back to the now-classic dynamic of racial turnover.” Other motivators included a wish to reside in less densely populated communities and concerns about tax burdens and public services. Ascribing white flight solely to racism is “reductive,” says Charles Marohn, founder of the nonprofit Strong Towns. As Marohn writes, “for an individual or a family whose home is losing value, when another home on the outskirts of town—one that just happens to be newer, more spacious, and served by better schools—is gaining value, it’s very logical to make that move given the opportunity.” Even if we were to hypothesize an ethnically homogenous America, he argues, suburbs would have grown in much the same way as they did after World War II.

Suburbanization was a phenomenon even in metropolises that saw little demographic change from the Great Migration. Boustan cites Minneapolis–St. Paul, which, after World War II, saw only a small increase in the number of black residents but rapid growth of its suburbs. The “newly prosperous families,” she writes, were “seeking larger houses and more open space.” {snip}

These quality-of-life considerations must have been important, Boustan notes, since the whites who made up the mid-century diaspora drove their moving vans right past city neighborhoods “no different in racial composition from the surrounding suburbs.” That remains true even today. Though non-Hispanic whites now account for less than one-third of Chicago’s population (32.7 percent, as of 2017), eight of the city’s 77 community areas are at least 70 percent white and less than 5 percent black. Together, they’re home to 300,000 Chicagoans, one-ninth of the city’s population. Some, like Lincoln Park, are too expensive for most families. But other neighborhoods, mostly on the Northwest Side, feature the same modest bungalows and three-flats as South Shore.

Neither in Becoming nor in the recent public discussion of her childhood does Michelle Obama mention unhappy aspects about the South Shore she grew up in, other than white flight and disinvestment. “There were no gang fights,” she recalled in the talk, “no territorial battles.” With the help of Carlo Rotella’s The World Is Always Coming to an End (2019), we gain a fuller picture. Rotella, a journalist and Boston College English professor, was born the same year as Michelle Robinson and grew up five blocks from her house. Though he appears to share the former First Lady’s political viewpoint, his recollections of South Shore in the 1960s and 1970s are quite different. Rotella’s mother and father, immigrants from Spain and Italy, respectively, bought a bungalow in South Shore while both were pursuing graduate degrees at the nearby University of Chicago. {snip}

Like Michelle Robinson, Rotella grew up in South Shore before going east to college in the early 1980s. Robinson was part of the neighborhood’s large black majority by the time she enrolled in Princeton, while he had the opposite experience, coming of age in the same place as it changed from predominantly to vestigially white. During this era, Rotella points out, crime increased dramatically in South Shore, where it had previously been low. The worst felonies—murder, assault, rape, robbery, and burglary—were committed at rates nearly three times the Chicago average, turning South Shore into one of the city’s most dangerous neighborhoods.

Whites’ fear of crime, Rotella says, “wasn’t unfounded, nor was it simply reducible to white people reacting to the arrival of black people.” The many neighbors who moved away during his adolescence had their reasons, “but the way the story of their departure got told often took the form of ‘enough is enough’ after a gunpoint robbery, home invasion, or similar last-straw outrage.” One former South Shore resident interviewed for Rotella’s book said simply, “Who wants to get used to living like that?”

The last-straw outrage for some came in 1970, when, during an attempted robbery, a young black man shot and killed Manny Lazar, owner of the Wee Folks toy store. Lazar was “beloved by generations of children in the neighborhood,” says Rotella. His daughter, Caryn Lazar Amster, published a memoir, The Pied Piper of South Shore (2005), which quotes one of her father’s former customers: “The day ‘Mr. Wee Folks’ was shot was, for many of us, the day that South Shore died.”

The counterfactual is hard to resist: How differently would white flight have unfolded absent the crime wave that began in the 1960s? According to the U.S. Bureau of Justice Statistics, the national homicide rate doubled between 1960 and 1980, from 5.1 murders per 100,000 Americans to 10.2, its highest level. Chicago, always a rough city, already had a homicide rate of 10.5 per 100,000 residents in 1960, but it exploded to 28.7 in 1980 and 30.7 in 1990.

The riots of the 1960s saw lawlessness engulf entire neighborhoods. Chicago’s most serious disturbance was in April 1968, after Martin Luther King’s murder. Some of the looting and National Guard deployments were near South Shore, Rotella recounts, but most of the mayhem was on the West Side. By the riots’ conclusion, nine people were dead, more than 300 injured, more than 2,000 arrested, and 260 stores and businesses destroyed. In its aftermath, white flight from Chicago accelerated. The city, which had been 85.9 percent white in 1950 and 76.4 percent in 1960, saw that proportion fall to 65.6 percent in 1970 and 49.6 percent in 1980. (The Census Bureau didn’t begin to identify “non-Hispanic whites” as a separate category until 1980, when that group accounted for 43.2 percent of Chicago’s population.) In 1988, an official in the city’s planning department calculated that nearly 500,000 people, mostly whites, departed the city in the first half of the 1970s.


Whatever else it may accomplish, the recent upheaval following the death of George Floyd in Minneapolis seems likely to cut the Gordian knot posed by gentrification. Across the country, thousands chose to honor Floyd’s memory by making clear that riots are not an artifact of the distant 1960s but an ever-present possibility—and then by guaranteeing a sharp rise in crime after delegitimizing and defunding city police departments. A dramatic rise in crime is not only bad in itself but also a pervasive problem affecting those other facets of community life that determine whether people stay or leave. Rotella reports that by the mid-1970s, “vacancy rates on South Shore’s main shopping streets had reached 20 percent.” Even residents prepared to tolerate more crime will eventually consider relocating to places where, of necessity, they end up working, shopping, or going out for dinner.


From 1960 to 1980, South Shore’s homeowners saw the value of their primary asset decline, landlords found it increasingly difficult to attract and retain tenants who paid the rent regularly, and enterprises lost good employees and customers. In these circumstances, even the most rooted businesses and residents eventually capitulated and stopped fighting the tape. Such decisions don’t really qualify as disinvestments because those who stayed in South Shore as these trends became undeniable were no longer making investments. Either knowingly or in effect, they were making donations—advancing others’ interests through choices inimical to their own.

During the two decades that South Shore changed from a white neighborhood to a black one, it also changed from a safe neighborhood to a dangerous one. Over the four decades since it became overwhelmingly black, it has remained dangerous. {snip}


The dangers that, 50 years ago, caused the Robinsons’ white neighbors to move away are now causing black families to abandon South Shore. {snip} Rotella records that the net decline in South Shore’s black population between 2000 and 2014 was 12,790. (Its total population in 2015 was 51,451.) As of 2017, the Parks family was preparing to move into a new house in northern Indiana. There was nothing anomalous about their decision. Last year, the Chicago Sun-Times reported that “[t]he city’s black population has fallen from a peak of 1.2 million in 1980 to fewer than 800,000 now and is predicted to drop to 665,000 by 2030.”

Though especially pronounced in Chicago, black flight is a national phenomenon. Brookings Institution demographer William Frey noted in 2015 that nine of the ten U.S. cities with the largest black populations in 2000 saw those numbers decline over the ensuing decade. According to Frey’s calculations, the proportion of blacks residing within “urban cores” fell from 47 percent to 41.7 percent between 1990 and 2017. “Much of that population,” he says, “is suburbanizing.” Ninety-six of the 100 largest metropolitan areas showed gains in the number of blacks living in suburbs. “Leading black movement to the suburbs,” he adds, “are the young, those with higher education, and married couples with children—attributes that characterized white suburbanization for almost a century.”


Because better-educated and more affluent blacks are especially likely to depart cities for the suburbs, the urban neighborhoods that they leave behind experience the same disinvestment that Michelle Robinson discerned as a child in South Shore. “The loss of the black middle class deprives their communities of their skills, tax revenue and political clout,” the Chicago Tribune’s William Lee wrote in 2016, “while also robbing a younger generation of desperately needed role models.” {snip}


In short, the thesis that racism alone caused white flight, disinvestment, and ultimately neighborhood decline is dubious, both empirically and logically. Some whites who fled South Shore and communities like it in the decades after World War II were prejudiced. Others were simply observant—of rising crime, devastating riots, deteriorating public schools, vanishing business opportunities, and plunging property values. Their departure does not amount to a moral transgression. Further, one cannot blame South Shore’s decline on departing whites without also maintaining certain corollaries: that by remaining in large numbers, they would have either prevented the arrival of “the element” that wrecked the neighborhood or would have had an edifying, pacifying effect on youths otherwise drawn to street or thug culture. It would then follow that the white owners of homes and businesses there had a duty to stay, risking solvency and safety, for the sake of their new black neighbors. To state such propositions is to demonstrate their unreality.