Planopedia

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What is White Flight?

'White flight' refers to the exodus of white Americans from central cities to suburbs in the early and mid-20 century, a phenomenon which led to declining tax revenue and business closures that created lasting damage to urban neighborhoods.


Suburban Pittsburgh

Wade H. Massie / Shutterstock

As Black Americans and other people of color moved to northern cities in the 'Great Migration' of the 20th century, which lasted from around 1915 to around 1970, observers noted a significant number of white households moved away from urban centers. This phenomenon became known as "white flight" and has come to symbolize the housing discrimination and disinvestment faced by ethnic minorities and urban neighborhoods in the post-World War II era. 

The loss of tax revenue from wealthier families and closure of businesses left urban neighborhoods with few resources, precipitating, in many cases, decline and deterioration of central cities. The proliferation of highways and expressways and decreasing cost of car ownership, along with the dispersal of manufacturing jobs to the exurban periphery, also facilitated flight from central cities and reduced job opportunities for urban dwellers. As neighborhoods with high minority populations were redlined by financial institutions, fewer people were able to buy homes or open businesses. The "inner city" became associated with poverty and crime. 

A combination of factors–access to low-rate mortgages, more widespread auto infrastructure, and the growth of suburban enclaves–coalesced to allow many white families to seek housing outside of crowded cities and buy their dream home in a spacious, orderly suburb. Famously, the Levittown developments, mass-produced homes built for returning soldiers, did not allow sales to people of color. Redlining encouraged by the Federal Housing Administration (FHA)–whose Underwriting Manual explicitly stated "If a neighborhood is to retain stability it is necessary that properties shall continue to be occupied by the same social and racial classes. A change in social or racial occupancy generally leads to instability and a reduction in values"–cemented the race-based lines dividing American neighborhoods and perpetuated the self-fulfilling prophecy that increased diversity meant lower home values. Less well-known is the FHA's propensity to favor loans in suburbs rather than urban neighborhoods with older housing stock and stance against school desegregation. Later, when more explicit discrimination was outlawed, developers used racial covenants to restrict sales and residency in many communities, creating whites-only enclaves under the guise of protecting property values and individual freedom of association (or lack thereof). 

The trend accelerated after World War II, when returning veterans could access affordable mortgages under the G.I. Bill, which overwhelmingly favored white veterans. An analysis of 70 U.S. metro areas shows that between 1940 and 1970, two white residents left the city for every Black arrival. When President Lyndon Johnson commissioned an investigation into the causes of racial tensions and rioting in the 1960s, the resulting Kerner Report ultimately concluded that "[o]ur nation is moving toward two societies, one black, one white—separate and unequal."

Some scholars caution that attributing white flight entirely to racist causes is reductive, obscuring other factors that drove demographic changes. Others point out that northern cities began segregating in the early decades of the 20th century, when Census data show an increased outflow of white residents from cities and neighborhoods as the Great Migration brought Black families north. Economist Allison Shertzer and her colleague Randall P. Walsh examined census forms from the early 20th century to track the rise of white flight even before the mid-century rise of suburbs, signaling a set of reasons unrelated to improved housing or better schools. The Black populations of major Northern and Midwestern cities such as Chicago, New York, and Detroit grew by close to 40 percent between 1910 and 1930. Shertzer and Walsh point to the behavior of individual homeowners and discriminatory institutional forces as causes for the movement of white households away from central cities. 

Today, the legacy of formal and informal segregation has created an ecosystem where race, poverty, and crime are conflated and interconnected more than ever before. The patterns created by white flight continue to impact demographic and social patterns in today's cities. Despite increased diversity in city populations as a whole, research finds that many neighborhoods remain sharply segregated. Studies showing declining segregation over entire metropolitan areas fail to capture the street-level reality visible only at the neighborhood scale. 

White flight is no longer a strictly urban-to-suburban pattern, however. A 2015 study found that segregation from suburban communities to other suburbs, known as macro-segregation, is increasing: suburbs that become more ethnically diverse have been shown to experience higher rates of white flight to other suburbs. While more people of color are moving to suburbs, these suburbs tend to have majority-minority populations. White households, meanwhile, are moving farther out to master-planned communities on the exurban periphery or back to newly desirable, gentrified city cores. Exclusionary zoning practices, such as single-family zoning and lot size minimums, continue to erect barriers to people of color and keep housing costs high while excluding lower-income households from economic and educational opportunities.