What We Still Get Wrong About White Flight—And Why It Matters

This week I went with my son on a church mission trip to Detroit. After living most of my adult life in segregated black neighborhoods in Chicago and Philadelphia it was more than a little unsettling to approach Detroit from the position of a white short-term mission-tripper from a small town. In Philadelphia I often spoke to short-term mission teams to orient them to the historical and racial context of what they would experience during their week of volunteering in the city. To be on the other side and be spoken to was a healthy blow to my ego.

Our time in Detroit was also a reminder of why it’s so important that we talk accurately about the past. One evening we went to the site where the 1967 Detroit uprising began. Our guide, a white woman in her sixties, said she vividly recalled hearing the news of the riot when she was a child. She told us that police mistreatment of black residents and lack of opportunity were primary causes of the rebellion. So far so good. I was glad she spoke clearly about this. Then she told us that on the eve of the rebellion Detroit was a vibrant and bustling city but that the riot caused a fundamental shift.

“That was when white flight began,” she said.

This historically false claim may have tragically undercut all the good she was trying to communicate to us. I’ll explain first why it’s false and then explain why this particular false statement is so consequential.

By the time of the uprising, Detroit had already been weathering two decades of economic restructuring as postwar industry moved out of central cities. As factories built in urban cores in the early twentieth century became obsolete, companies decentralized their operations, building more modern and automated facilities in spacious suburbs. They looked even further afield to other states in search of more pliant workforces in places where unions held less power. Industry spread out. Capital moved. In the twenty years before the uprising, Detroit lost nearly half its manufacturing jobs! Hundreds of thousands of white residents had already left and the city had entered into an era of sustained population decline that has continued to the present day. Indeed, the very neighborhood where the riot began was nearly all white twenty years before, but flipped to all black during the 1950s.

In short, the 1967 uprising was the exclamation point on two decades of economic restructuring and white flight, not the sudden start of something new. The uprisings of the 1960s only added fuel to fires that had started burning decades earlier. Tom Sugrue made all of this painfully clear over a quarter century ago in The Origins of the Urban Crisis.

Describing the 1967 rebellion as the starting point of white flight has deeply troubling implications. The volunteers who hear this narrative are left with only one logical conclusion: a sensational act of black violence touched off Detroit’s catastrophic decline. This leaves impressionable visitors to the city ill-equipped to interpret the economic devastation they see around them. Faced with this seemingly incomprehensible hollowed-out city, they may resort to well-worn tropes of contempt on the one hand, and pity on the other. The conservative-minded volunteer may blame the people in these places for their poverty. The liberal-minded person may pity them. Both may fail to understand the forces that made these neighborhoods.

They are even less likely to be able to see these oppressed places as sites of ordinary community, where neighbors help neighbors, children play, and, against the odds our society imposes, people build lives for themselves and fulfill their dreams. Here’s how you know you’re operating in the contempt/pity paradigm: you can visit the place for a week but you can’t imagine living there. But really, these places are very livable! The forces of oppression are not total, and people can and do make homes for themselves in the places society has tried to leave behind.

So if the uprisings of the 1960s didn’t cause white flight, what did? The wrenching economic changes of the era were only part of it. The stark fact is that the mere presence of a black family moving into a neighborhood was enough to cause white flight. Banks, realty companies, governments, and churches all conspired to make white flight worse, but we must not evade the simplicity of what happened in the texture of peoples’ daily experience. Millions of white homeowners simply refused to have black neighbors. The white housewives in the infamous Crisis in Levittown documentary spoke for millions when they said things like this:

“If there are too many colored people around here I definitely will get out…”

“Well I just could not live beside them. I don’t feel that they should be oppressed, but I moved here — one of the main reasons was because it was a white community — and that’s the only place I intend to live. If I have to leave Levittown I will do so.”

These women declared their intentions in 1957, years before the uprisings of the 1960s. This intractable white hatred is what hurled American cities into crisis in the twentieth century. The economic restructuring of the postwar world was always going to be difficult. Cities across the western world faced similar changes and periods of decline. But in the United States white racism guaranteed that instead of facing these challenges together we would face them apart and make them worse. And we would offload the costs of the new economy on the very people with the fewest resources. Like millions of European immigrants, black migrants came to northern cities in search of the American Dream. But they were treated differently than any immigrant group. As white businesses and residents fled, they pulled up the ladders of opportunity behind them.

White flight was not a response to black violence. White flight was a riot itself. We’ve got to get this history right so that we at least have a fighting chance of seeing what is right in front of our noses when we go on a “mission trip” to “the inner city”: the people living in these places are utterly ordinary. They are not to be feared, pitied, or romanticized. They are not so different from us in their hopes and dreams for their children, but probably quite a bit more clear-eyed than you and I about the sickness still lurking in America’s soul.

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