Search This Blog

Saturday, January 10, 2015

Suburban Legend: White Flight, Black Flight and Inner City Blight

Most of us have heard an urban legend or two.

But have you heard of a Suburban Legend. Here’s one: The wealth of people who live in the suburbs has grown tremendously while the wealth of those who were stuck in the central city has never materialized. Unfortunately, this suburban legend is true. A 5-bedroom house in Harlem or downtown Philadelphia is worth a fraction of what a 5 bedroom house in the suburbs is worth.

If you live in the suburbs, like I do, you may be thinking, “Great! What luck! So glad I got out when I did!”

(If you are aware of our history as a nation, then nothing I’m about to write will surprise you. But, seeing that I am just learning all of this, I decided to write about it just in case anyone else is left who is as ignorant as I was before this week.)

Several weeks before his death in 1968, Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr., told a group of sanitation workers in Memphis:

“Now our struggle is for genuine equality, which means economic equality. For we know now that it isn’t enough to integrate lunch counters. What does it profit a man to be able to eat at an integrated lunch counter if he doesn’t have enough money to buy a hamburger?”[1]

Makes sense, right? But, then again, I always admired Dr. King and thought that he made a lot of sense.

Here’s the part I didn’t know:
A huge number of people in our country were screwed out of the ability to increase their wealth. As a country, we played a game of  “3-card Monty” with them. We created huge factories in the cities. The cities had everything. Jobs. Housing. Transportation. So, we invited these people to come into the cities, work hard and get a taste of the American Dream.

When they came, homes were built for them. Lots of homes, but not suburban homes. Mostly these homes were built up. Huge apartment buildings were built one after another to house these factory workers. We even used Federal money to subsidize them.

These people moved in and worked hard. (Living the dream.)

Everyone knew we needed more housing and with better transportation, people, especially the middle class, could afford to travel a little further to work. So we built suburbs. Some of these suburbs were very specific about who could and who could not live in them. Levittown is possibly the most famous example, but not an isolated one. (Google it, if like me, you had never heard of it.)

Levittown received those same government subsidies. (And lots and lots of people were shut out from receiving any of the benefit of that money.)

They were free. Free to live where they wanted, work where they wanted, and grab hold of the American Dream just like everyone else. But, they just weren’t free to live there, in Levittown or in a hundred other suburbs like it around the country. And, because of that many were stuck in the inner city.

Whites left the inner city to move to the suburbs, to find a better life. Good for them. Eventually, the jobs followed them out of the city. So, there were the blacks, left in the city, with fewer and fewer jobs, no place to move to, and free. (Free for what? Were they supposed to survive and thrive on the simple fact that they were no longer slaves?)

But, some blacks did make it out to the suburbs. Some builders were very clear that their suburbs were open to blacks. We will sell to anyone. (That makes me feel better. How about you?)

But, when someone said that, guess what happened more often than not. Blacks would buy houses and move in. Actually, just blacks would buy houses and move in. Whites usually wouldn’t.

Why? You may wonder.

Because whites are racist? Maybe some of them were. Others were just smart. A home in Levittown, which catered to 90% of the population was worth more than a home in a suburb that was perceived as catering to 10% of the population. It wasn’t a smart investment for a white to buy in these mixed race communities.

In other places, whites had already moved in and when laws changed, circumstances changed and blacks started to have greater opportunities, so they moved in as neighbors. Fearing their property values would decrease as more blacks moved in and more whites moved out, many whites bought homes further out into the suburbs, aka White Flight.

Were these fears legitimate? Yep. In almost every case, as whites left communities and blacks moved in, the property values stagnated and began to fall.

Why? Because blacks brought with them city problems higher crime, more poverty, and greater dependence on government programs? Nope. How do I know? Because it didn’t take that long for property values to drop.

They dropped fast. Too fast. So, why did they drop so fast? Because whites left these communities in droves. Supply and Demand. All of a sudden, a few black families move to a neighborhood and whether out of irrational prejudice or rational fear of losing wealth, whites fled to new communities.

If whites had stayed put, their property values would have stayed put. Since they didn’t, blacks now had a new community to move into, but there was still little true integration. And, the ability of blacks to build wealth remained stagnant.

So I can prove my point: there was a community that tried things a little differently. Oak Park, a suburb of Chicago, saw diversity as a positive thing for their community. They knew that the fears behind White Flight were legitimate, so they insured the property values, so that a family could be assured that their home would not lose its value.

As a result, whites stayed, blacks moved in and diversity was realized. Win-win.

I’m sure there’s more to it than a “They lived happily ever after,” but it serves to prove the point, that the argument has merit. White Flight is to blame for property values dropping, not an influx of blacks into a neighborhood.

So, again and again, as whites moved further into the suburbs, blacks were left closer to the center of cities. All in the name of building wealth. Blacks who were trying to better their lot in life, for themselves and their children, were shut out, again and again.

Three-Card Monty. See here it is, come get it. Oh, did you think it was there. No its here. Come get it. No, not there. Now it’s here. Meanwhile, the whites acquired wealth through hard work, careful planning, good investment, and a system that was tilted in their favor. Meanwhile blacks continued to lag behind in every respect, always fighting for a level playing field. But every argument is met by, “What about innocent whites? They didn’t do anything to you.” In other words, “Don’t blame me. I worked hard and played by the rules.”

But, the game was rigged from the start.

Forget race for a moment and think about the frustration that you would feel if this happened to you. You hear about a job opportunity, so you leave everything you know and go to a city hoping to make a better life for your family. You work hard, save your money, and see that your children aren’t safe in this neighborhood. So, your kids grow up and they decide to move out of the dangerous part of the city into a nice neighborhood in the suburbs. They work hard, save their money and move, but when they get there, the landscape begins to change almost immediately. The neighborhood they saw when looking for a home is not the one they wind up raising their children in. Many of the neighbors they had seen when shopping for a home have left, taking with them their businesses, money and the infrastructure starts to fail.

And, your kids once again are growing up in neighborhoods that aren’t safe. And. All of this. All of it is subsidized by the government.

Now remember we are back in reality, and we are talking about blacks. If you are white, none of this happened to you. So does that make it any easier to swallow?

But, the government is supposed to be the good guys. Really. The government is the provider in our minds. It was through the government that blacks received freedom from the atrocity of slavery. It was through the government that the civil rights movement made huge strides toward integration and equal rights under the law. It is the government that makes discrimination illegal in the workplace.

It is natural that blacks would look to the government to solve this problem as well.

But, it was also the government that enslaved blacks in the first place, created these laws and then loopholes in the laws that allowed blacks to be shut out from wealth.

But, then I read about a woman applying for a job year after year without success until she alters her profile slightly, only changes her name, telephone number and checks off one box differently: the white box instead of the black box. In other words, you’re trying to tell me that a qualified black woman can’t get a job that a qualified white woman can get in a heartbeat. Today! This pisses me off. (Actually, it happened 2 years ago and this is the first I am hearing about it. That just makes me feel completely out of the loop. Because I am white, I have no idea what it is like to be black. Giving your child a “black sounding name” can hinder their ability to get a job? Really? Really. What world have I been living in? A world of white privilege.)

The disparity of wealth that Dr. King saw as the next hurdle is still the next hurdle. In today’s society, there is enough blame to go around. Whites are to blame for being racist or prejudice, for working the system to their benefit while not being concerned by the negative effects to blacks, and, even if unwittingly, benefiting from a system that is tilted in their favor. Middle and upper class blacks are to blame for Black Flight which continues to have a devastating effect on primarily black communities. Poor blacks are to blame whenever they give up, stop working hard, stop trying to make a better way for their kids and turn to drugs to numb the pain, crime to take what should have been given, or wait for the government to save them.

Ok, there is enough blame to go around. Now I see that more clearly than ever before.

For whites and middle/upper class blacks, the work that needs to be done is the easiest and for poor blacks, the work is the hardest. For one simple reason… resources. We have them and they don’t. There are tremendous obstacles standing in the way of American blacks, some cultural, some societal, some internal and many external. In light of all of this, every one of us bears responsibility and has an opportunity to make change.

So, we all have a role to play in bringing about true equality. Equality of opportunity. Equality of wealth building potential. Equality of income.

So what do we do?

First things first, see reality. Blacks stuck in a cycle of poverty today need more than just a good work ethic to pull themselves out of poverty. Disparity of wealth in this country was in large part by design. It is going to take a thoughtful plan to change it.

Then, we each have to acknowledge our part in this tragic story, whatever that may be. Confess it.

But it can’t end there. There must be a change in our actions. We have to act based on that new knowledge and understanding. We have to make different choices. We have to talk differently, spend our money differently, teach our kids differently, have different relationships, live in different communities.

We need to see diversity of race and culture as a benefit worth creating, worth building together. Then we need to sacrifice in order to make it happen.

Please comment and let me know what I am missing, who else I should read, or what your thoughts are about the next steps. What is my best next step and what is yours?

Bonus tidbit about race: Race is a human construct. Scientifically speaking, there is only one human race. Skin color and other differences in appearance, shape of eyes, type of hair, etc. are not genetically significant. “On average, any local population contains 85% of all genetic variation and any continent contains 94%.”[2] This is because as a race, humans have migrated and intermarried throughout their history. There has not been enough time or isolation for us to have developed into different races.

So, what we refer to as different races, white, black, etc. are only recent additions. “When the US was founded, equality was a radical new idea. But our early economy was based largely on slavery. The concept of race helped explain why some people could be denied the rights and freedoms that others took for granted.”[3]


  1. It deleted my previous comment when I signed in...
    I could not agree more with how you have written and executed this writing. It has always seemed clear to me that the issues facing our 'racial' groups like all parts of our lives are multi faceted and interconnected. There is no single issue which has created what we know and experience today as a society. We won't fix problems through blame or forgiveness but through opening our eyes and minds to the many aspects that impact history and the present. Understanding that some issues have become institutionalized while others are purely a subconscious construct we as people have a lot of the changes to go through. Some will have a harder more difficult struggle to go through, but others will be called upon to make perhaps the more difficult realization that sometimes you owe more to privilege than to your own effort. We are all a product of those who came before us, just as much as we are a product of who we become from each days choices.

  2. Thanks for your thoughtful comment. I have believed that if you work hard, you will have a better chance to succeed. Which is true. But I never realized that I have been provided much better opportunities than many of my fellow Americans and world citizens simply because of my skin tone. It was a reality that people live with everyday that I took as a thing of the past. Now its about taking steps to help change the system and make a difference in someone's life through intentional relationships. One person at a time.