Politics Foreign Affairs Culture Fellows Program

Was ‘White Flight’ a Personal Economic Decision?

Race may have been an accelerant for the drain to the suburbs after WWII, but it wasn't the initial spark.
city vintage

The switch in development pattern the United States experienced after World War II—one where major cities lost population while a new series of auto-oriented suburbs sprung up on their periphery—is often referred to as “white flight”.

When this term is used to describe the results of those decades, it broadly makes sense. But I’ve always been confused when people use the term as a description of motive. As stated: white people did not want to live near non-white people, thus, white flight occurred. I don’t think it’s that simple. Or that reductive.

That’s not to suggest that race, and racism, wasn’t a motive—or even a large motive—for why settlement patterns shifted. The practice of redlining, policies of blight control and urban renewal, suburban housing subsidies only available to white Americans…. these are just three of the public policy realities with racist underpinnings that shaped our post-war development pattern.

It’s just that, if I were to reduce things to a single personal motive, it wouldn’t be racism. It would be rational economic decision-making.

Let’s pretend for a moment that there are no races—just follow me, I’m going somewhere with this—and that everyone living in the United States in 1945 was racially indistinguishable from each other. Would we still have had people move to auto-oriented suburbs? Of course we would, and those people that moved would have been the ones in the best economic position. The people left behind would have been the most disadvantaged, those without the option to move.

That’s because moving to the suburbs in the 1950’s was, individually, a rational economic thing to do. It was horrible public policy, and in the real world, it certainly had racist underpinnings. But for an individual or a family whose home is losing value, when another home on the outskirts of town—one that just happens to be newer, more spacious, and served by better schools—is gaining value, it’s very logical to make that move given the opportunity.

Nearly all of us would make that move, even if we are committed to an egalitarian public policy. Some wouldn’t, just like some send their kids to a poor-performing public school when they can afford a private education simply because they believe in public schools. And we can honor those people. But that doesn’t change the reality that most wouldn’t stay. Race may be an accelerator, but there is an underlying human condition other than racism that is a more basic, logical explanation.

Last week, I heard someone suggest that the people living in the poorest neighborhood in my town of Brainerd, Minnesota have no “pride of place.” This was said by way of explanation for why homeowners in this neighborhood allow their places to fall into disrepair. Supposedly, their motive is that they don’t care. I’ve heard this before and I find it to be a poor explanation.

A home in the poor part of Brainerd could cost as little as $60,000. Let’s say you are poor, but you’re able to get into that home. However humble, it’s shelter. It serves its core purpose.

That being said, it’s in a neighborhood of similarly priced homes. And unlike homes in other parts of the community, it’s not appreciating in value. In fact, it’s dropping slightly each year. You’re building equity because you’re making payments, but the house is not a great investment.

Why would such a person — regardless of their race or the racial makeup of the neighborhood—put thousands into new exterior paint? Or a new roof? Or to shore up the cracked foundation? Those are not very good investments, because if you can’t sell the house, that money is likely to never be recouped.

Now step back a little further and take into account that, in most of our poorest neighborhoods, the public sector is neglecting their responsibilities as well. The streets have more potholes, the parks have more weeds, and the sidewalks have more cracks and gaps than the ones in our affluent neighborhoods. The signal being sent is that decline is going to continue, regardless of what the property owners do.

Some people in these neighborhoods do take care of their homes to the best of their ability, often in the spare time they have between their second and third job. They mow the lawn and keep things picked up. Nobody in this neighborhood, however, is building huge additions or making expensive upgrades.

That’s not because they don’t have pride of ownership. Maybe some don’t, but we don’t have to assume that motive as an explanation. A more logical motive—and one that is more straightforward and universal—is that the people in this neighborhood are not dumb. No savvy person is going to invest what little wealth they have into something that is going to lose them money. The people there are making a smart decision, and suggesting otherwise sounds rather ignorant.

Let’s deeply discuss policy implications, but let’s stop assuming the motives of individuals, especially when there are other, perfectly rational, universal explanations for why someone would do something we don’t agree with.

Charles Marohn, the founder and president of Strong Towns, has spoken in hundreds of cities and towns across North America. He was recently named one of the Ten Most Influential Urbanists of all time by PlanetizenIn October 2017, The American Conservative cosponsored his “Curbside Chat” in Washington, DC.

This article originally appeared at Strong Towns and is republished with permission.