|Map showing increases and decreases in white and black population in the St. Louis metro area, between 1960-1970. Source: societypages.com|
I encountered some pushback on a post from earlier this week, called Part of the Calculus. Honestly, I’ve never had that happen in an online form before (well, there were a few dissenters to Reasons Behind Detroit’s Decline piece, but I simply let that stand on the research I did for that), so I used the last couple days to look into the critiques that were raised.
My general point in my post was that racial discrimination still is a largely under recognized factor in suburban white flight, particularly in northern Rust Belt cities, and that building an awareness of the impact of racial discrimination in the lack of economic progress in Rust Belt metros will go a long way toward overall revitalization. I said that many Rust Belt cities were reliant on African-American migration to meet manufacturing labor needs in the middle of the 20th century, but were not as welcoming to them in other aspects of economic and social life in Rust Belt cities. Here’s where I make the point that might cause the pushback:
This(white flight) has had detrimental impacts on the economic fortunes of the Rust Belt. Metros with little African-American migration, like Seattle, Portland or Austin, have boomed. Metros that were less reliant on African-American migration, like New York, Boston and Pittsburgh, have rebounded well from deindustrialization. Metros that were a little more reliant on African-American migration, like Chicago and Philadelphia, have also rebounded but still face significant obstacles. Metros that were most reliant on African-American migration, like Cleveland and Detroit, have lagged.
If I could summarize the critiques, they would be:
· Get a better understanding of the factors behind white flight
· Suburban sprawl was overwhelmingly economically driven
· Get a better understanding of the factors behind the Great Migration
So I decided to follow up on those items. This is hardly a comprehensive analysis, but does illustrate some of the findings in these areas.
White flight as a phenomenon probably first surfaced with Kerner Commission Report in the late 1960s. The Kerner Commission was established by President Lyndon Johnson in 1967 after the wave of urban riots that took place over the previous two years, and was actually announced during the midst of the 1967 Detroit riot. The commission’s final report came out in March 1968, and is perhaps best remembered for this phrase — “Our nation is moving toward two societies, one black, one white—separate and unequal.”
The Wikipedia entry on the Kerner Report sums up the findings and recommendations:
Its results suggested that one main cause of urban violence was white racism and suggested that white America bore much of the responsibility for black rioting and rebellion. It called to create new jobs, construct new housing, and put a stop to de facto segregation in order to wipe out the destructive ghetto environment. In order to do so, the report recommended for government programs to provide needed services, to hire more diverse and sensitive police forces and, most notably, to invest billions in housing programs aimed at breaking up residential segregation.
The Commission’s suggestions included, but were not limited to:
- “Unless there are sharp changes in the factors influencing Negro settlement patterns within metropolitan areas, there is little doubt that the trend toward Negro majorities will continue.”
- “Providing employment for the swelling Negro ghetto population will require …opening suburban residential areas to Negroes and encouraging them to move closer to industrial centers…”
- “…cities will have Negro majorities by 1985 and the suburbs ringing them will remain largely all white unless there are major changes in Negro fertility rates, in migration settlement patterns or public policy.”
- “…we believe that the emphasis of the program should be changed from traditional publicly built slum based high rise projects to smaller units on scattered sites.”
President Johnson largely ignored the report’s conclusions, perhaps believing that supporting passage of the Civil Rights Act and Voting Rights Act was sufficient involvement in civil rights policy, and never developed any policies or programs associated with the report. However, the report did stimulate research on the rationales behind suburban sprawl, particularly white flight.
Throughout the ‘70s there was research done on the reasons behind white flight. In 1978 the Institute for Research on Poverty with the University of Wisconsin reference an earlier study, and subsequent follow-up research by demographer William Frey:
It seems fairly clear that the massive suburban relocation of whites immediately after World War II resulted in part from racial motivations.’ But has the recent white out-movement from large central cities been heavily influenced by interracial housing dynamics? Frey has argued that current white flight can be explained much more fully by nonracial economic and environmental factors than by those directly related to race.
That view – race was a determining factor in early suburban sprawl, but less so in later iterations – seemed to be the consensus on the matter. More recent research, like this study from 2003 and this study from 2010, note the correlation between racial discrimination and white flight, but acknowledge that the complexity of the decision process behind suburban sprawl makes it difficult to model.
To which I say, yeah. I agree, and never disputed this. Economics were the primary determinant behind suburban sprawl. Like I said above, suburban sprawl/white flight has had an under recognized racial component, particularly impacting Rust Belt cities, and that the Rust Belt metro that figures this out best will reap the benefits. I think I stand on pretty solid ground saying this.
Perhaps the most salient recent research on this, which bolsters my point, could be the Organization of Economic Coopertation and Development (OECD) report done for the Chicago metropolitan area and completed in 2012. In it, the report acknowledges the three-state Chicago region as an economic powerhouse on a global scale, but also says that it rests at a critical tipping point. The region has been a growth laggard since 1995, with an unemployment rate hovering around 10% since 2009. A key part of the lack of economic growth, according to the report:
Skills mismatch lies at the heart of these challenges. Low-skilled workers are not finding jobs, while manufacturers can’t fill medium-skilled job vacancies. High-end knowledge-intensive companies are attracting talent from outside the region, while local university graduates are leaving for jobs elsewhere.
A racial and spatial divide is exacerbating this mismatch. The unemployment rate for African-Americans (24%) in the area is nearly four times that of whites, and minorities are more likely than white kids to drop out of high school. Low-income populations in the Chicago Tri-State metro-region are concentrated in pockets of poverty: 25% of the poor in Cook County and 20% of those in the metro-region live in neighbourhoods with poverty rates in excess of 35%, which typically have little access to jobs and services.
I even think that research on the recent growth of downtown and inner-city areas, and the demographics of the people behind it, supports my thinking. Blogger Richey Piiparinen penned an interesting article some time ago, suggesting that “white infill” into downtowns and gentrifying neighborhoods is the “new white flight”:
Specifically, a recent study out of Brandeis University showed the wealth gap between blacks and whites has nearly tripled over the past 25 years. That said, the people of means wanting to be in cities is largely the same people who always had means, and they are simply taking their means from one geography to the next; that is, from the suburban development to the urban enclave…
(S)uch developmental strategy is a game of whack-a-mole in which the raison d’être for the mole won’t stop until real economic restructuring happens, or until equity truly starts entering into the lexicon of our shared language.
I won’t go into the same detail showing an understanding of the Great Migration. But I think it’s fair to say that most everyone who has studied the phenomenon, from African- American history scholar John Hope Franklin to author Isabel Wilkerson (Warmth of Other Suns), agrees that “push” forces were likely equally at work with “pull” forces as a catalyst for rural South to urban North migration. Yes, the factories of Rust Belt presented a great opportunity for Southern black job seekers, but injustices related to Jim Crow, and a frustration with the ability to change it, were a significant impetus.
Back to cities. I am interested in an honest assessment of the factors that make our Rust Belt cities what they are today. African-American migration in the mid-20th century, and the response to it, has to factor into the equation for Rust Belt conditions today. Recognition of this absolutely must be a part of the economic restructuring that is desperately needed in the Rust Belt.