White flight refers to the residential movement of whites to avoid self-determined, unacceptable levels of racial integration. Scholars disagree on how much race acts as a singular factor in white migratory decisions, many preferring a natural process called "ecological succession" in which older and less desirable housing stock filters down to lower status classes. The great episodes of neighborhood turnover in the United States after World War II, however, prompted social scientists to focus specifically on race as a "tipping point" that stimulated white exodus to suburbs and newer suburban areas.
White flight was principally a twentieth-century urban phenomenon. Before 1900, ninety percent of African Americans lived in the South. The few black populations in northern cities were small and highly centralized. Occasionally, upper-class blacks intermingled with whites and other ethnic groups. Deteriorating social and economic conditions in the South, including lynchings, led to a mass exodus of African Americans to northern cities starting around the time of World War I. These migrations increased the populations of African Americans in cities such as Chicago from as little as 2 percent in 1910 to more than 30 percent by 1970.
At first, newer ethnic groups were the most affected. Jewish residents felt compelled to move from Chicago's Maxwell Street neighborhood and New York's Harlem area by increasing numbers of blacks around 1920. The latter process contributed directly to the Harlem arts and cultural renaissance. Threatened by the social and cultural disruptions portended by African American mobility with time, native-born whites responded as well. They lobbied politicians, bankers, and real estate agents to restrict blacks informally to designated black neighborhoods, usually comprised of older housing stock. The Baltimore city council enacted an ordinance forbidding any black person from moving into a block where a majority of the residents were white in 1910, and a dozen other cities followed suit, even though the United States Supreme Court declared residential segregation unconstitutional in 1917. The all-white apartment house of Ralph and Alice Kramden as portrayed in the 1950s television series The Honeymooners personified inner-city racial exclusion. When legal or extra-legal exclusionary tactics failed, whites resorted to out-migration, turning over a neighborhood to their former adversaries. Residential homogeneity could be based on factors such as class, religion, or ethnicity, but white flight came to be the term for relocation related to racial differences.
Housing demand, restricted by the Depression and the exigencies of World War II, exploded in the decades following the war. New developments appeared almost overnight in outer-city and suburban areas, yet existing social standards continued to dictate settlement patterns based on racial considerations. The attractions of new suburbs, available only to middle and upper class whites, and the growing housing needs of African Americans produced an era of unprecedented racial turnover in cities as neighborhoods, sometimes triggered by blockbusting—the intentional placing of an African American in a previously all-white neighborhood to create panic selling for profit—changed their racial characteristics in short periods of time. Legal challenges to the status quo, judicial and legislative, contributed to the out-migration of whites from older urban areas. Although the white flight expanded areas for African Americans, it preserved traditional patterns of racial segregation. All-white suburbs were personified in television programs such as Ozzie and Harriet, Leave It to Beaver, and The Dick Van Dyke Show.
White flight became a particular problem in the wake of school desegregation decisions in the 1970s. Mandatory busing programs in cities such as Norfolk, Virginia, and Boston, Massachusetts, were given special examination, especially as to whether they were being counterproductive in achieving desegregation. While some used the trends to argue against forced busing, others maintained that metropolitan solutions were the only remedy for white flight. To a great extent, the debate over racial factors in changing school demographics mirrored the older debate about race and residence, with the same divergent results.
The last third of the twentieth century saw a replication of urban white settlement patterns as middle-class African Americans began to suburbanize. In part, the out-migration involved aging inner-ring suburbs which experienced the same type of ecological succession as inner-city neighborhoods did before and after World War II. But enhanced personal incomes and job expectations, improved infrastructure, and cheap gasoline prices allowed increasing numbers of blacks to become suburban home owners, a trend reflected in the 1980s television program The Cosby Show. In some cases, suburban white flight was matched by equally affluent blacks interested in the same personal safety, good schools, and aesthetics. Overall, the percentages of suburban blacks remained below urban averages, but African Americans became more of a factor in the suburbs than they ever had before.
Demographic studies in the 1990s have revealed a slower pace of racial turnover in metropolitan areas as some whites return to the cities in a process known as gentrification. The trends induced some observers to speculate that the radical racial changes of the postwar decades may have been temporary, especially in the older and larger northeastern and midwestern cities. Others theorize that small rural towns are benefitting from a new form of white flight as whites from large cities and their surrounding suburbs create a new rural renaissance. Los Angeles and New York City lost over one million domestic migrants (many replaced by foreign immigrants, not black) each in the 1990s while the greatest domestic migration gains during the decade occurred in predominately white, non-metropolitan areas such as the Mountain states, south Atlantic states, Texas, and the Ozarks. If the patterns continue, these scholars predict the traditional city-suburb model of white flight may have to be replaced by a urban-rural dichotomy. "The Ozzies and Harriets of the 1990s are bypassing the suburbs or big cities in favor of more livable, homogenous small towns and rural areas," according to University of Michigandemographer William H. Frey. Perhaps they aspire to another all-white 1960s television program, The Andy Griffith Show.
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