The Online Encyclopedia and Dictionary






White flight

White flight is a colloquial term for the demographic trend of whites moving away from areas with large non-white populations.


White flight in the United States

White flight has been taking place in many American cities and even regions, especially in the Northeastern, Midwestern, and Western sections of the United States since the 1950s.

The effects of white flight have been significant for the cities that have been hit by this phenomenon, especially Detroit, Michigan and St. Louis, Missouri, which lost more than half of their peak populations largely due to white flight. In New York City many whites have moved from parts of the Bronx and Brooklyn to Staten Island or suburban Long Island and suburban New Jersey. Other U.S. cities that have been noticeably affected by white flight include the West and South Sides of Chicago, Illinois, Cleveland, Ohio, the Greater Los Angeles Area (in inner suburbs such as Compton and Inglewood in the mid-20th century and in many other places since then - see "White flight in Southern California" below), Baltimore, Maryland, Newark, New Jersey, and numerous smaller cities.


Due to the economic boom and growth of suburbia in the years after World War II, whites —many of whom were the children and grandchildren of immigrants—began to move away from inner core cities and to newer suburban communities. They did so in some cases to escape the increasing crime and racial tension in inner cities throughout the country but, in other locations in the immediate postwar years, many whites left core cities because they believed that suburban communities, with their new housing stock, roads and schools, were more desirable places to live than the inner cities.

Prior to the Civil Rights Act of 1964, due to racist real-estate covenants and other discriminatory practices, non-white people were almost always not afforded the same opportunities to move away from the cities, even when they may have been economically able to do so.

As wealthier white residents abandoned the inner city neighborhoods, they ultimately left behind increasingly poor non-white populations whose neighborhoods rapidly deteriorated, beginning in the 1950s and especially in the 1960s. Jobs and businesses disintegrated along with the neighborhoods and ultimately turned the increasingly poverty-stricken areas into crime-ridden slums with failing and dilapidated public schools.

It should be noted that several predominantly poorer white communities also face conditions similar to those of areas that have experienced white flight. The cities of Buffalo and Niagara Falls in New York serve as prime examples. In these areas, manufacturing jobs were once dominant but have now largely disappeared, resulting in urban decay.

Schools and busing

White flight has also affected education. The landmark 1954 Supreme Court decision of Brown v. Board of Education ordered the desegregation of schools. American cities affected by white flight also witnessed growing disparities in the quality of education. Thus, to achieve racial balance and equality in schools, the Court subsequently mandated in the 1971 decision of Swann v. Charlotte-Mecklenburg Board of Education controversial school busing to mainly all-white schools in the suburbs. From the mid 1970s, many minority students (especially African Americans) were transported long distances from poorer core cities to newer affluent suburbs. As Justice William Douglas observed in his dissent in Milliken v. Bradley (1974), "The inner core of Detroit is now rather solidly black; and the blacks, we know, in many instances are likely to be poorer ..."

In turn, busing and desegregation orders in education have in some cases led to a further, non-geographical white flight, one out of the public school systems which are subject to desegregation orders and into private schooling. For instance, in 1970 when a federal court ordered desegregation of the public schools in Pasadena, California, the proportion of white students in those schools reflected the proportion of whites in the community, 54 percent and 53 percent, respectively. Although staying in place geographically, after the desegregation process began large numbers of whites in the upper and middle classes who could afford it pulled their children from the public schools and placed them into private schools instead. As a result, by 2004 Pasadena was home to sixty-three private schools, which educated one-third of all school-aged children in the city, and the proportion of white students in the public schools had fallen to 16 percent. The superintendent of Pasadena's public schools characterized them as being to whites "like the bogey-man," and mounted policy changes and a publicity drive to induce affluent whites to put their children back into the public schools.

White flight in recent decades

White flight continues in some areas to the present day but has taken on a new trend as some of the older suburbs have been experiencing urban decay similar to their parent cities, such as in some of the southern and western suburbs of Chicago adjacent to the city. East St. Louis and many of the neighboring communities on the Illinois side of the St. Louis metropolitan area have also long suffered from urban decay with the decline of the manufacturing industries that had once powered the economies of the region.

In general, the only whites who tend to remain in cities and suburbs affected by white flight are low-income whites (though many low-income whites in East Coast cities have moved to close-in, working-class suburbs or other, more heavily white neighborhoods within the same city) and senior citizens (especially "empty nesters "), who have often lived in a particular community for a very long time. Usually, when these seniors die or move to retirement communities, the process of white flight is complete.

It should also be noted that affluent and professional whites sometimes remain in specific parts of a city that has otherwise been affected by white flight. For example, well-off whites continue to live in St. Louis neighborhoods around Forest Park and the Central West End even as much of the rest of St. Louis has been utterly transformed due to the white flight that has been occurring there since the 1950s. In general, whites who remain in such locations do not have children or, if they do, their children attend private schools. Additionally, even though the demographic make-up of New York City has been dramatically altered due to white flight from the outer boroughs, parts of Manhattan have actually become more white during the past 20 years due to gentrification (see below).

Moreover, the population decline of some Midwestern, Northeastern, and Western cities has either slowed down or has even been reversed, while other areas remain economically devastated due to seemingly-permanent economic shifts and job losses. The future of this trend remains to be seen.

White flight in Southern California

The forces and groups involved in white flight in Southern California are distinct from those in other areas due to the region's demography and history.

Many whites once lived in urban neighborhoods in Los Angeles before departing the city in large numbers after the 1965 Watts Riots (a trend that actually began before the riots but accelerated after them). Major riots in Detroit in 1967 and during the following year, after the assassination of civil rights leader Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr., contributed to white flight in that city. Now, the city of Detroit is over 80% black whereas a majority of its neighboring suburbs, such as Livonia, Dearborn, and Warren, are overwhelmingly white.[1]. Similarly, after the 1992 Los Angeles riots, large numbers of white Californians left Southern California or left the state entirely. The phenomenon has affected not only the central city basin, but also the suburban regions of the San Fernando Valley and the San Gabriel Valley in Southern California, where many working-class Hispanics and lower to upper middle class Asian Americans have moved during much of the 1980s and 1990s.

Some of the people leaving Los Angeles have moved to other states. Many of these ex-Californians ended up settling in the Rocky Mountain States of Arizona, Colorado, Idaho and Nevada. As these people have tended to be politically conservative, their departure from the state has helped to transform California into a stronghold of the Democratic Party, while making their new home states even more favorable to the Republicans. [2]

White flight elsewhere in the the world

In addition to the United States, many cities in the United Kingdom, including parts of London, have also been affected by white flight, especially after South Asian, West Indian, and Chinese immigrants first began arriving in that country in significant numbers in the 1950s and 1960s. The phenomenon is also to be found in South African cities, most notably Johannesburg and Durban, which saw a mass influx of African people into the inner cities during the final years of apartheid, and from which white people fled in great numbers to the suburbs (or out of the country). In New Zealand, there has been a gradual process of suburban white flight, with mass urbanisation of Maori and arrivals of Pacific Islands guest workers between the 1950s and 1970s.

Gentrification: the opposite of white flight

The opposing social trend of wealthy social groups moving into an inner city area and displacing the existing residents is called gentrification. In Cleveland, as reported on the Newshour with Jim Lehrer on PBS in 2003, several wealthy gay and lesbian couples have purchased and restored homes in the predominantly African-American neighborhoods. In other cases, some inner city areas may witness a renaissance as a home for artists, which happens to be the case with the Silver Lake neighborhood of Los Angeles. In Montreal, as with many Canadian cities, many inner city areas have been gentrified by the usual Yuppie couples but also by "empty nesters", that is, couples in their late forties or fifties whose children have left their home, giving them an incentive to sell their large house in the suburbs and buy a condominium or townhouse in the inner city, close to the better parks, the leisure activities, the cultural attractions and the convenience of the Montreal metro.

Last updated: 08-17-2005 04:57:42