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White flight didn’t disappear — it just moved to the suburbs

“It used to be that white flight was predominantly thought of as an urban to suburban phenomenon: chocolate cities, vanilla suburbs,” said researcher Samuel Kye.

The term “white flight” is usually used to refer to a migration phenomenon in the post-World War II era. As people of color moved into predominantly white neighborhoods in cities from which they had previously been excluded, many white residents of those neighborhoods picked up and left. They resettled in newly built, overwhelmingly white suburbs.

Nowadays, those suburbs aren’t looking as white as they used to. And as suburbs are getting more diverse, the pattern of white flight is repeating itself.

That’s the argument of an article, “The persistence of white flight in middle-class suburbia,” published in the journal Social Science Research last month, by Samuel Kye, who is pursuing his Ph.D. in sociology at Indiana University.

In an analysis of the 150 largest metro areas in the U.S., Kye found 3,252 suburban Census tracts that had seen white flight in recent years. Seven of them are middle-class suburban neighborhoods in Hennepin County.

A racial phenomenon

Millions of African Americans moved from the American south to cities in the Northeast, Midwest and West, like Chicago, New York, Detroit, and Minneapolis during the Great Migration between about 1915 and 1970.

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In northern cities, people of color were met with redlining, segregated schools and other discrimination designed to keep communities from integrating. During the Civil Rights era, as courts forced school integration and shot down other discriminatory practices, many whites moved out of the city.

Over the decades, one of the central debates surrounding white flight in the U.S. is whether it’s had more to do with economics than race.

Historically, people of color have lived in economically disadvantaged areas, so some have argued that white people were leaving for opportunity elsewhere rather than for reasons motivated by race.

“There have been some who have argued that white flight isn’t actually a response rooted in racial prejudice or attitudes, but instead a natural response to a decline in a neighborhood’s median household income or declines in property values that had tended to occur in the past when you had an influx of non-white residents,” Kye said.

That’s what makes studying white flight in middle-class suburban areas, which are more economically stable, interesting.

“It used to be that white flight was predominantly thought of as an urban to suburban phenomenon: chocolate cities, vanilla suburbs,” Kye said, but his research suggests it’s happening in middle-class suburbs, as white people move to other suburbs or exurbs as their neighborhoods become more racially diverse.

Studies of neighborhood desirability show that whereas non-white people say their ideal neighborhood is integrated, white people, on average, say predominantly white neighborhoods are more desirable, Kye said.

In his research, Kye accounted for factors like housing stock and availability, education, and other socioeconomic factors that could affect people’s movement in and out of communities. He wanted to isolate movement that could be considered a response to changes in neighborhoods’ racial composition.

Kye considered a tract to have seen white flight if, over the course of the 2000-2010 decade, a quarter of its white residents moved out (it had to have had a significant white population to begin with). The total loss of whites also had to be greater than 100 individuals. That was the threshold, Kye said, but the average neighborhood flagged lost more.

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More than two-thirds of the 3,252 tracts that met these criteria were poorer neighborhoods, which could mean economics were a big driver in people’s moves. But many others were not, suggesting race may have played a part in motivating whites to move.

Finding white flight

Kye’s study explored national trends. It didn’t look at individual neighborhoods as case studies. But he ran the numbers on Minnesota for MinnPost, and found seven middle-class Census tracts in Hennepin County — four in Brooklyn Park, two nearby in Brooklyn Center and one in Edina, north of I-494 at Highway 100, not far from Southdale Center.

Brooklyn Park and Brooklyn Center tracts with signs of white flight

These communities aren’t singled out because they show the largest amount of white flight, but rather because they are the ones that meet the criteria in the study: They saw a loss of white population but remained middle class.

All of the neighborhoods Kye flagged for white flight in the Twin Cities saw drastic change in their populations over the 2000-2010 decade, each going from predominantly white to largely minority in the course of ten years.

Brooklyn Park, the sixth largest city in Minnesota, has quickly become one of the state’s most diverse communities. The city is home to sizable populations of African Americans, plus residents born in Africa, Asia and Latin America.

“I always say my bus stop looks like the United Nations when I walk my son down,” Brooklyn Park mayor Jeffrey Lunde said. “We think our city looks like the country in 2040, we think we’re ahead of the curve.”

It looked less that way in 2000, when the city was 70 percent white. By 2010, it was 50 percent white, and today, it’s an estimated 46 percent white.

But as people  of color have moved in — many from all over the world — in some neighborhoods, Brooklyn Park has seen white people leave.

Lunde said in large part, the decline in the white population has to do with the life cycle of houses. Many neighborhoods in Brooklyn Park are filled with smaller houses built in the 1950s and ’60s. As Baby Boomers have aged out of them and sold them, families with kids — many of them people of color — have moved in.

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Meanwhile, during the 2000 to 2010 decade, the housing bubble was imminent, and many opted to move out of the post-war homes to bigger houses in other suburbs.

That may be the case, but parts of Brooklyn Park and its neighbor, Brooklyn Center, showed signs of white flight when Kye accounted for factors like this.

Lunde acknowledged race could be a factor to a degree, too.

“Am I saying there’s not tension? No, I would never say that,” he said.

People who have lived in neighborhoods for a long time oftentimes get to know their neighbors, and when some of those people start moving out, replaced by newcomers, those neighborhoods can change quickly.

That makes some people uneasy, especially when the new neighbors are from another culture, or speak a different language and have different norms, Lunde said.

“People, I think, kind of shut down and they forget (how they got) a great neighborhood in the first place — by going over and meeting people and talking to them,” he said.

But from a citywide perspective, the more Brooklyn Park has embraced its diversity, the more its metrics in education, crime and business have improved, Lunde said.

Some have a misperception that crime increases as cities become increasingly diverse, Lunde said, but Brooklyn Park shows otherwise: as its population has grown and its diversity has doubled, the number of crimes has been cut nearly in half.

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Silver lining

Hennepin County is far from alone in seeing middle-class suburban Census tracts that are losing white population. It ranks 30th of 646 counties in the dataset, far behind Los Angeles County, Prince George’s County, Maryland, and Gwinnett County, in suburban Atlanta, with the highest levels of middle-class white flight.  

White flight is pervasive today, Kye said, even if it’s not as overt as it once was: oftentimes, people’s rationales for moving aren’t rooted directly in race, but rather in perceptions of what it means to be living in an integrated neighborhood.

“A lot of people tend to think of their rationale (for moving) as not being racially motivated: ‘I simply want the best school for my kids. I want to live in a neighborhood where I feel comfortable.’ But a lot of that roots itself in stereotypes of what it means to live in integrated communities … that integrated neighborhoods are in some ways less desirable,” he said.

There are other dynamics to the issue, too, he said: for example, some research has found that white flight is more common when the share of minorities of one group increases in a neighborhood, and less likely if it’s multiple minority groups moving in.

If there’s one silver lining, he said, it’s that millennials are tending to live in more diverse neighborhoods than previous generations, whether it be in central cities or in more integrated suburbs, reducing segregation in some areas particularly between black people and white people. In some cases, though, this is resulting in gentrification, which happens when higher-income whites displace communities of color.

But in general, if millennials keep up that trend, some of the segregation seen in both urban and suburban areas could be mitigated, Kye said.