A similar question of “whodunit” inspired my research on the history of postwar white flight. White movement to the suburbs coincided with a period of substantial black migration out of the rural South: From 1940 to 1970, four million blacks settled in industrial cities in the North and West. As they moved in, the fraction of white metropolitan households living in the typical Northern or Western central city fell from two-thirds to one-third.The postmodernist, deconstructionist, critical race theorists desperately want everything to be driven by racism. And it is not so. Certainly, classical racism (prejudice, discrimination, or antagonism directed against someone of a different race based on the belief that one's own race is superior) exists but I would argue is relatively rare. The secondary definition of racism (the belief that all members of each race possess characteristics or abilities specific to that race, especially so as to distinguish it as inferior or superior to another race or races) is probably more common but still probably a relatively minor phenomenon in terms of actual outcomes.
Ta-Nehisi Coates refers to the white exodus as a “triumph of racist social engineering,” and he is not wrong. Many white households moved to suburban towns precisely because black households were effectively excluded from them by real estate agents and mortgage brokers. But that’s not the whole story. Even in cities like Minneapolis-St. Paul that had few black migrants, the suburbs were a magnet for newly prosperous families after World War II seeking larger houses and more open space.
Vocal ideologists find racism everywhere they look but the phenomena they are claiming are almost always caused by an amalgam of many things; classism being the primary but also language, religion, cultural compatibility, social status, xenophobia, racism and many other factors.
Boustan elaborates on the causes of white flight. She seeks data.
Yet only a portion of white flight can be traced back to the now-classic dynamic of racial turnover. Cities were simply too segregated by race for many urban whites to encounter black neighbors. Newly available Census Bureau maps show that in 1940, the average white urban household lived three miles away from a black enclave. By 1970, urban areas adjacent to historical black enclaves became majority black, but distant city neighborhoods remained predominantly white — no different in racial composition from the surrounding suburbs.She accepts that racism was potentially a driver of white flight but identifies concerns about city economics and taxation as key drivers as well.
We can get further insight by focusing on residents of city-suburban borders. The city side of the border was often indistinguishable from its suburban counterpart across the street: It was overwhelmingly white, characterized by tree-lined roads with single-family houses and close to the same parks and shopping districts. There was one difference: By staying within the city limits, households remained part of the urban electorate.
City voters were more racially diverse and poorer than the suburban electorate, and thus less able to offer low property taxes or high-quality public services. If border residents also fled the city as black migrants arrived, even though black enclaves were miles away, these departures signaled a concern about broader city finances rather than a dislike of immediate black neighbors.
Households in these areas were motivated by concerns about how a changing local electorate would affect property taxes and service levels. In fact, for this set of households, what mattered most about the new Southern arrivals crowding into neighborhoods across town was not their race but their lower levels of income.In fact, she attributes 67% of the removal to the suburbs as motivated by concerns about city finances.
For the third of white households near a black enclave in 1940, concerns about new black neighbors was indeed a primary motivation. And those households moved out of the city at a higher rate than others, contributing more than a third to the white exodus. But for the remainder of urban whites, most of whom never interacted with a black family, leaving for the resource-rich suburbs was an economic calculus, one that was accelerated by the steady stream of poor migrants, both white and black, into central cities.Good for Boustan for going to data instead of simply relying on ideological interpretations. But I don't think she goes near far enough.
Another avenue of investigation, which I think would bolster her 'concern for city finances' argument, would be to look at the geographic detail of not only black migration from the South to northern and midwestern cities, but also in-bound white migration as well. Poverty stricken whites from the Appalachians flooded into Midwestern cities in the forties, fifties and sixties bringing hard-drinking, hard fighting, hard partying insular mountain habits into the great cities. Boustan notes that "the third of white households near a black enclave in 1940" moved because concerns about new black neighbors was indeed a primary motivation." I would wager that resident white city dwellers demonstrated nearly identical movement to the suburbs when white Appalachian immigrants moved in as well. In other words, flight was driven by city mouse versus country mouse issues rather than white mouse versus black mouse.
In the SJW postmodernist/deconstructionist ideological view, white flight is monocausal - racist whites fleeing blacks. In Boustan's model, white flight is driven by two factors - racist white attitudes and concerns about city finances. The division of impact is 33% racist attitudes and 67% city finance concerns.
I would argue that Boustan's model is still insufficiently descriptive. Obvious additional variables that affect where people choose to live, and variables which were dynamic in the period of the great migration include: plummeting cost of transportation in the post-war years (mass production and the highway system); wealth effect (skilled workers and professionals had a huge post-WWII income bump); heightened status/class consciousness owing to high social mobility (post-WWII decades were peak income and social mobility times owing to wealth effect, to education/GI Bill, high national and global economic growth, and to "keeping up with the Jones' such that one would not wish to associate with/live next to unskilled low income country folk); differential crime increases (rocketing up in the cities after the War but low in the suburbs); disruptive meritocratic egalitarianism (if you have been a sergeant, lieutenant or captain responsible for dozens or hundreds of lives in the war, why settle for being a small fry in a Big City Political Machine, slowly paying your political dues when you can move to the suburbs and immediately be a big fish in a small pond); economic opportunities (starting businesses in low cost/low regulation suburbs being much cheaper than in high cost/high regulation cities; the list goes on.
For the SJW postmodernist, the post-war white flight was self evidently a function solely of white racism.
White Flight = f(White Racism, 100%)Boustan suggests:
White Flight = f(Declining City Finances 67%; White Racism, 33%)I would suggest that the more complete set of causal motivations for flight from city to suburbs would look like this:
White Flight = f(Declining Cost of Transportation, 30%; Crime, 25%; Economic Opportunity, 20%; Class Consciousness, 10%; Wealth Effect, 5%; Declining City Finances 5%; Disruptive Egalitarianism, 3%; White Racism, 2%)Obviously I have no source for the percentage allocation other than anecdotes and common sense. The order of the variables might be different than I have indicated and the percentages might be +/- a few points but I suspect that this model is far more descriptive and accurate than the simple White Flight = f(White Racism, 100%) model. In fact, it is obvious that it must be for the reason that Boustan mentions. Cities without black migrants showed the same white flight to the suburbs - clearly causal factors existed beyond racism.
It is fascinating to read the comments to Boustan's piece - everyone commenting on the argument from the lens of their assumptions, experiences and ideologies rather than looking at this as a matter of identifying all causal elements in a complex system.