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White flight is where whites move out of a neighbourhood in large numbers. You see this in America when a place becomes more than about one-tenth black. It is a big reason why so many whites left American cities in the 1950s and 1960s - because blacks started moving in.

White flight is the opposite of gentrification. It is how the white suburbs became the opposite of the black ghettos.

White Americans left the cities for many reasons:

  • In the suburbs you had much more floor space, more grass, more trees. And more quiet.
  • After the Second World War the government made it easier to get money to build a new house in the suburbs than to repair an old one in the city.
  • Government was shifting money away from trains, buses and streetcars to highways – before there was any huge demand for it.

But racism was a part of it too:

  • It is well-known that real estate agents in the city took part in what is known as blockbusting: they would sell houses to blacks in white neighbourhoods in order to get whites to rush to sell their houses for less than they were worth – and then turn a nice profit by selling these houses to blacks.
  • Once a neighbourhood becomes more than about 10% black, more whites will move out than move in. It becomes a snowball effect: white flight. After a point only the old people are white. When they die off it becomes all black.

Some whites say they are selling because they are afraid property values will fall: a self-fulfilling prophecy that all but admits that most whites are racist.

Some whites say they are selling because of crime. But the facts do not support that. They move out long before crime becomes an issue. Their move is based not on a close reading of police reports but on racist stereotypes about blacks.

Yes, some of their old neighbourhoods do become crime-ridden, but that takes years. In most cases whites are not selling to poor blacks, but middle-class ones. It takes years of bad police protection and maybe even a black flight of the black middle-class before a neighbourhood gets that bad.

White flight is not just a city/suburb thing: Nearly 90% of suburban whites in America live in a place that is less than 1% black, and yet 9% of the middle-class is black! White flight has little to do with class, crime or wanting a nice place in the suburbs. It has to do with whites not wanting to live with blacks no matter how rich blacks are.

White flight is not always a black/white thing or even a Hispanic/white thing. It seems that Cupertino, Calfornia in the Silicon Valley has experienced white flight because “too many” Asians have moved there. Some say it is because the public schools there have become “too hard”, but the schools in nearby Palo Alto, which is much whiter and far less Asian, are just as hard and yet whites there are not leaving in large numbers.

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A parody of white gentrifiers

Gentrification (1964- ) is where a poor neighbourhood in the city turns into a well-to-do one. Not because the people living there are doing better, but because well-to-do people are moving in.

It causes a good deal of bitterness: while the neighbourhoods do become safer and better, the rents and taxes also go up. That means the people who have lived there all their lives are forced out, one by one, one way or the other. So are small businesses.

Some point to studies showing that the poor stay on. Some do for a time, but not forever: Park Avenue and 52nd Street in Midtown Manhattan are no longer poor neighbourhoods. Neither are Greenwich Village, the West 90s or Park Slope, places in New York that were poor within living memory.

So gentrification often becomes the rich against the poor. And in America that can mean whites against blacks or whites against Hispanics. But not always: in Harlem the gentrification is largely black-on-black.

In the 1950s and 1960s whites in America left the cities in large numbers and moved to the suburbs. The black middle-class soon followed. Factories left too, going to places with cheaper labour, like East Asia. The cities became poor and violent and began to fall apart.

But starting in the 1970s the middle-class started moving back. At first it was just the brave few: artists, students, gays and bohemians.

Their money – or their parents’ money – followed them and the neighbourhoods started to get better. More to the point, they became hip and fashionable. That brought in others, those with less courage but more money. That in turn pushed out the poor – and the bohemians too – as the place gentrified: new apartments went up, upmarket shops began to appear. In time you had to be a doctor, a lawyer or a banker to afford to live there – and the place becomes quiet and boring.

In the meantime the bohemians have moved on to another neighbourhood and the process starts all over again.

Knowing this some city governments and land developers try to draw artists to their city hoping to jump-start gentrification and make a mountain of money. But sometimes city governments simply pour in their own money, offer tax breaks and cross their fingers.

Gentrification means more tax money for city governments – and huge profits for land developers. The price of apartments in Harlem, for example, nearly doubled in 2007. Yet 20 years ago owners were giving them up to the city as a lost cause.

There have been several studies on gentrification. Most of the ones I have read about argue that it is not so bad for the poor after all. One of those studies was done at Columbia University, which stands to gain hugely from the gentrification of Harlem. But, so far as I know, no one has studied what becomes of all those poor people who once lived where the Starbucks now stands.

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Steada treated,we get tricked
Steada kisses, we get kicked

A black ghetto, also known as the hood or the inner city, is a part of an American city where nearly everyone is black. Most ghettos are poor, but not all. Some of the black parts of Queens in New York, for example, are richer than some of the white parts.

For many who live in black ghettos, even in some middle-class ones, racism seems like more than just a few bad apples. The police, the courts, the press, the hospitals, the schools, the housing market, all of it, seem to be based on the idea that black life is not all that important. Everything is second-rate or kind of broken.

When whites see a black ghetto they think it is completely the creation of blacks living there: drug dealers, hookers, crackheads, bad fathers, poor people, etc. True enough in so far as it goes, but ghettos are not on the moon – they are part of a larger American society.

For example, you would think that city services would be the same all across the city. Not so. They are way worse in black ghettos. Even in the black middle-class parts of town it is not that great. Things like trash pick-up, ambulance service, street repair but, most of all, schools and police protection. Those things are beyond the control of the ghetto.

Whites think ghettos are dangerous because the people there are poor and black. What they forget is that the police are not all that interested in protecting the lives and property of poor black people. Not as interested as they are in protecting rich white people or even not-all-that-rich white people. They will even protect white foreigners over black Americans. I have seen it with my own eyes.

When middle-class whites see buildings and houses falling apart in black ghettos they think it is because “blacks do not take care of their neighbourhoods”. What they do not know is that it is hard to get a bank loan or insurance for property in a place like that. Because the banks and insurance companies redline black ghettos, refusing to put much money there. You might think they are just being hardheaded businessmen. That would be understandable. But no, it goes beyond that into racism.

Government policies after the Second World War made it easier to get money to build a house in the suburbs than to repair an old house in the city. That is part of why so much of America’s cities began to fall apart. And that was just when blacks began moving to the big cities like New York and Chicago in huge numbers. And just when most whites left those cities – white flight.

Despite all this black ghettos have produced some of the world’s greatest music and some great writers too. Amiri Baraka says it is because people there are still in touch with their hearts. Yes, and they also see the world more clearly, they see through the middle-class lies.

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