One emotion predominated among my white neighbors. That was fear.
White flight refers to the phenomenon of urban neighborhoods changing their racial composition from exclusively white to largely black. This happened in the 1950s and 1960s in New York City, Chicago, and other urban areas. As this happened, white residents sold their homes at an increasing clip, and blacks moved in to replace them.
Emotions still run high as pundits debate the causes for white flight and its role in degrading inner city neighborhoods. There is little question that, as blacks moved in, white residents felt increasingly fearful. They feared that their homes would lose value. Above all, they feared the deterioration that afflicts many black inner city neighborhoods to this day: poorly maintained homes, crime, threats of violence, drug dealing, gang activity, and poor schools. Blacks resented what they believed was racism among the former white residents of their neighborhoods.
Who is to Blame?
Recently I saw a showing of a 1997 film, Blacks and Jews. Much of the film detailed white flight of the 1950s and 1960s.
In my early years, in the 1950s, my family and I lived in a mostly black inner-city neighborhood. In 1959, my family “got out” and purchased a home in an all-white neighborhood.
The film portrayed the actions of white homeowners as irrational and implied that they were motivated by racism. But this narrative obscures the truth.
What the film never said was that the concerns of white residents were largely based in reality. When blacks moved into previously white neighborhoods, property values did plummet as increasing number of whites sold their homes and moved away.
Anyone who lived in New York City, where I lived, could see the tangible differences between white and black inner city neighborhoods. Not all, but many, black neighborhoods were riven by crime and gangs. The schools were terrible, full of drugs, gang activity and poor learning outcomes. Teachers struggled with student discipline problems that were far worse than those in white schools. This should not obscure the fact that most black residents in these neighborhoods never engaged in criminal activity, that they held responsible jobs and did their best to protect their children from gangs and drugs. Black families were as distressed as white ones about inner city problems.
But that does not change the reality of the character of many black inner city neighborhoods.
Did Whites Leave Because They were Racist?
It is hard to determine people’s motives because none of us is privy to others’ feelings and thoughts. From time to time, I heard our white neighbors talk about black people and about changing neighborhoods, the contemporary euphemism for blacks moving into formerly white neighborhoods. Were my neighbors racist? That is not a simple question.
I do not believe they were racist against blacks in the same way as white southerners in the deep south before the Civil Rights movement. White racists from the traditional south believed that blacks were inferior to whites. They believed blacks were lazy, unintelligent, potentially violent, and had poor impulse control. According to these racists, blacks were incapable of managing their own lives and needed the restraining influence of white people to “keep them in their place.”
Among my white neighbors in the 1960s, I never saw a hint of these attitudes. Most white people I knew never talked about these issues. At times, seeing the problems in black neighborhoods, they expressed contempt for blacks. But I never saw open hostility or hatred of any kind. I never heard the “N-word.” That would have been unacceptable.
But one emotion did predominate. That was fear.
My white neighbors feared becoming victims of black crime. Most of all, they feared the loss of their neighborhoods, that is, the decline in property values, and especially, the decline in their feeling of safety. They were also concerned about the quality of the schools to which they sent their children.
In the 1960s, a number of urban areas were beset by mass riots in black neighborhoods. Many believe that the 1967 Detroit riots led directly to massive white flight. We all saw dramatic footage of the riots on the nightly TV news programs. We all read news reports about crime in black neighborhoods. We saw images of abandoned or dilapidated homes. Especially stark were photos and film of entire city blocks with burned out shells of buildings. We heard reports of small businesses abandoning these areas, insurance companies that would not ensure them and even local police departments that had abandoned entire areas due to the danger.
The film took particular aim at Jewish realtors, and also at bankers, few of whom were Jewish.
The makers of the film accused Jewish realtors of causing white flight, first by selling homes in white neighborhoods to blacks, and then by frightening white homeowners into selling. The implication was that the realtors and bankers engineered the entire problem of white flight. Tellingly, the film did not include interviews with realtors or bankers active at that time.
It is unlikely that realtors were so Machiavellian that they deliberately engineered white flight. More likely, they merely took advantage of an emerging economic opportunity. I imagine that the filmmakers, like the realtors, would not have passed up an opportunity to make a buck.
Particularly odd is the charge that realtors were at fault for selling homes to blacks. Would the filmmakers have the realtors refuse to do business with blacks? Realtors may well have drummed up business by taking advantage of white fears—-but they cannot be accused of causing those fears.
Race and Crime
Were whites’ fears of black crime irrational? To answer this question I looked at police statistics on crime and race.
Below I have summarized arrest statistics from a 2017 report issued by the New York City Police Department: Crime and Enforcement Activity in New York City. This report was based on police arrest data collected in 2017. (I was not able to find statistics from the period of white flight in the 1950s and 1960s.) Because this post concerns black-white relations, I excluded Hispanics from the statistics presented below.
According to the 2016 US Census, 31.8% of the New York City population was white and 22.0% black.
Black and white arrest rates differed dramatically:
Crime and Enforcement Activity in New York City (2017)
(Percentage of Arrestees of Different Races)
Crime Whites Blacks
|Misdemeanor Assault, Related Offenses||10.4||47.4|
|Murder and Non-Negligent Manslaughter||6.9||54.8|
Some will take issue with these statistics. These are arrest, rather than conviction rates, and the latter may be a more reliable indicator of crime. Further, some will argue that racial disparities in arrest rates are due to police racism and the resulting tendency of police to pursue black, and avoid white, criminals. But given the magnitude of the racial disparities, it is unlikely that these differences are due solely or largely to police officer bias.
What Are We to Make of All this?
Some whites who fled their neighborhoods may have held racist attitudes, and that may have played a part in their decisions to flee to all-white areas. Some Jewish realtors and some bankers may have been racist. Some black people may have held racist attitudes and that may have affected their behavior as well.
But white flight and urban decay should not be blamed on one race alone.
Although some whites may have acted out of irrationality or racism, there were real causes for concern that motivated homeowners’ decisions to sell.
No one should be given a free pass for racism. White and black racism are equally destructive and have real world consequences.
The black community needs to face up to the disproportionately high crime rates among its members. This has been impeded by a prevailing narrative—-among blacks and some whites—-that negative social outcomes for blacks are due to black victimization. The lingering effects of slavery, Jim Crow and discriminatory lending policies have impeded black progress. But race demagogues like Al Sharpton, Jessie Jackson, Louis Farrakhan and others—-are doing no favor to blacks by pushing a victimization narrative. That is because, until the black community faces up to reality, things will not change. Whites can help, but blacks need to go part of the way as well.
Above all, whites and blacks need to realize that urban social pathologies hurt everyone, but blacks most of all. It is often blacks who have to live and send their children to schools in neighborhoods where life has been degraded by these pathologies.
In recent years, signs of hope have emerged. An increasing number of black intellectuals has debunked the “black-as-victim” narrative. They have encouraged blacks to confront their problems head-on and to accept the reality of black personal responsibility. These voices include Candace Owens, Thomas Sowell, Larry Elder, and others.
Over half a century has passed since the white flight of the 1950s and 1960s. Resentments linger. Each side wants to blame the other.
Both whites and blacks need to take a hard look at reality and accept personal responsibility for everything that happened.