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By Published on .

The term “white flight� refers to a more specific phenomenon than white suburbanization, exurbanization or migration, and it was never intended to subsume these much broader movements of the white population. White flight might provide a more eye-catching phrase than “white migration to lower density communities,� but the behaviors that the expression was meant to describe can be lost and forgotten in the process. Just what are these behaviors? What does white flight mean?

White flight alludes to the out-movement of whites — often quite rapid — that can ensue once blacks or other minority populations exceed a threshold percentage of the population in a neighborhood or locality. It thus refers to a response by whites to the influx of minority populations into predominantly or exclusively white areas, and to the tendency of whites to leave many of those areas more quickly than comparable locales not experiencing such an influx.

In its original sense, white flight is certainly not a term appropriately applied to movements of the white population that cannot be directly tied to changes in the racial and ethnic composition of the neighborhoods or localities from which whites have departed. It seems likely that many, and perhaps even most, of the whites who moved to the suburbs in the decades following World War II were moving from neighborhoods that were experiencing no influx of blacks or other minorities. In the segregated metropolitan areas of the 1950s and 1960s, it is highly unlikely that blacks were moving into enough new neighborhoods to account for most of the whites moving to the suburbs. Instead, only some of the whites moving to the suburbs during that period, and since, could appropriately be described as engaging in white flight, albeit with devastating consequences for the growth of residential segregation in the neighborhoods and cities that they left.

Indeed, long before it was labeled white flight, the practice of “blockbusting� that real estate agents and developers used to rent housing to African Americans in the overbuilt Harlem section of New York City in the 1920s depended on the inevitability that whites would flee a block and neighborhood once a few blacks moved in, according to Gilbert Ososky in his book The Making of a Ghetto, Negro New York, 1890-1930 (Harper & Row, 1963). In addition, the use of restrictive covenants and other discriminatory practices to exclude African Americans from other neighborhoods, limited black migration from the South to expanding, segregated ghettos in Northern and Midwestern urban destinations. These same cities remain to this day among the most residentially segregated in the nation.

The most popular measure of segregation, the dissimilarity index, has been used by social scientists to gauge residential segregation since the 1950s. It quantifies the percentage of the minority group population that would have to move from one Census tract (or Census block) to another in order for the minority population to be represented in each Census tract at the same percentage it represents in the metropolitan area's population — for example, 25 percent in each census tract in a metropolitan area where blacks are 25 percent of the population. The dissimilarity index rose from about 50 percent for blacks in 1900, to 75 percent in 1940 and 77.5 percent in 1950, before peaking just short of 80 percent in 1960 and 1970, according to Edward Glaeser and Jacob Vigdor in an April 2001 Brookings Institution paper, “Racial Segregation in the 2000 Census: Promising News.� This means that in 1900, about half of all African Americans, on average, would have had to live in a different ward (Census tracts had not yet been created) to achieve an equal distribution of blacks within each of the nation's cities with African American populations. In 1970, however, nearly 80 percent of African Americans, on average, would have had to move to new Census tracts to achieve complete integration.

It is noteworthy that the increased residential segregation of African Americans was almost entirely accomplished by 1940, prior to the outflow of whites to the suburbs in the 1950s and 1960s. It is also notable that since 1970, the residential segregation of blacks has fallen substantially, to 65.2 percent in 2000. This indicates that “only� two-thirds of blacks would now have to move to equalize their distribution through the average metropolitan area in the United States, a level still considered highly segregated. Authors Glaeser and Vigdor argue in their report that the declines in the segregation scores reflect the decline in the number of metropolitan area census tracts with no black residents (to only 17.2 percent of all tracts in 2000, from 61.8 percent in 1960), and a corresponding increase in tracts where blacks represent less than 10 percent of the population (to 44.9 percent from 18.3 percent) and represent 10 percent to 50 percent of the population (to 20.8 percent from 11.1 percent).

There are corresponding increases in the percentage of blacks who live in metropolitan area tracts that are less than 10 percent black (to 14.5 percent in 2000, from 7.0 percent in 1960) and 10 percent to 50 percent black (to 35.6 percent from 22.8 percent). Indeed, in 2000, for the first time most African Americans (50.1 percent) no longer lived in majority black Census tracts. Segregation has thus been reduced primarily by relatively small percentages of blacks (less than 10 percent) entering predominantly white areas, especially in rapidly growing cities and suburbs. Desegregation in heavily black Census tracts and in metropolitan areas with large concentrations of blacks seems to have contributed less to the decline.

These declines in residential segregation and increases in the percentages of blacks living in integrated tracts might suggest that, if anything, white flight has abated in the past several decades: Proportionally more whites and blacks than ever before are living together in racially integrated neighborhoods. Such a conclusion, however, would ignore patterns that may indicate that white flight from blacks and other minorities persists at significant levels. For example, a study of 1990 and 1980 Census data presented at the 1992 meetings of the the Alexandria, Va.-based American Statistical Association found that in 1990, 1 in 5 blacks lived in a Census block that had been less than 10 percent black in 1980. However, because this influx often pushed black representation above 10 percent during the decade, only 12 percent of African Americans actually inhabited blocks that were still less than 10 percent black in 1990.

Evidence of how the racial composition is changing in these and other neighborhoods that African Americans and other minorities have moved into would be needed to understand how and where white flight, as well as less racially motivated processes of residential transition and succession, might still be retarding the progress toward a nation whose increasingly diverse populations actually become each other's neighbors.

Roderick J. Harrison is an associate professor of sociology and anthropology at Howard University. He directs the DataBank at the Joint Center for Political and Economic Studies in Washington, D.C. The center is a nonprofit institution that conducts research on public policy issues concerning African Americans. He can be reached at rharrison@jointcenter.org.

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