White Flight is the term for the racially based migration in the 1950s and onwards of white Americans from the central areas of cities to the outer suburbs throughout America.
In “White Flight: Atlanta and the Making of Modern Conservatism,” Kevin Kruse looks at a city at the heart of the phenomenon – Atlanta – and uses it to argue that white flight was more than just white Americans moving away from black Americans.
With Atlanta as his microcosm, Kruse argues that the process, mechanics, language and politics of white flight reshaped the modern conservative movement.
Kruse explores the tactics of “massive resistance,” the language of “freedom of association,” blockbusting, the economics of racism, the creation of public & private spheres – and has examples and anecdotes straight from Atlanta’s experience to make the concepts real.
What’s interesting to me though as a citizen of the City of Atlanta is the incredible (as in I literally couldn’t believe it) city history he writes about.
When I moved to Atlanta in 2013, I knew more than the average transplant.
I had lived for 15 years 60 miles down the road in Athens. I had grown up listening to local radio out of Atlanta. I had seen Atlanta local news. I knew the general demography of the city (Southwest Atlanta is poor and black; North Atlanta is rich and white). I had even taken an urban geography course in college that covered gentrification and the mortgage crisis in Atlanta.
And yet, I had no real idea of the politics or the history behind it all.
What I Liked
The book was heavily researched with lots of primary sources.
He was fair to everyone. In fact, the Introduction is a defense of empathy with people that, 50 years on, most people are quick to denigrate without trying to to understand or learn from them.
It’s clear, concise, well-reasoned and readable. It’s not a dry, academic reference history book. It’s meant to read by non-historians (though it has a bibliography for any professionals).
It’s acutely relevant and set in the city that I live in – not many books tick both boxes.
What I Did Not Like
Kruse had maps – but I need more maps! He relies heavily on place names but even if you are familiar with Atlanta, it’s hard to get a real sense of some if the specific events.
I wish he had provided more examples of similar happenings in other cities to connect the microscosm to the bigger national trend.
I wish he had provided a visualization of political alliances. By the mid-60s, I got lost with many of the characters.
He made so many points that I wish there was a bullet-point listing of his hypotheses somewhere.
What I Learned
There’s so many small details I learned about politics, Atlanta and more in the book. But here’s the main themes that I took away from the book.
Atlanta’s neighborhood demographics used to be completely different.
I thought that Atlanta’s neighborhood demographics have always been similar how they are now. They haven’t been. Neighborhoods that are currently majority black used to be all-white, especially in west Atlanta. I had no idea. For example, Mozley Park, West End, Edgewood, Capitol View and others are all majority black neighborhoods that used to be all-white. Every single one had a mass exodus of white people leaving the neighborhoods in the 1950s and 1960s.
The political alliance between the white & black elite of Atlanta.
William Hartsfield was mayor of Atlanta for 24 years. He set the city on the path to where it is today. He was also the penultimate pragmatist. He had a vision for Atlanta as the progressive, dynamic, global-facing center of commerce of the South. The only problem was that Atlanta was…in the South.
Mayor Hartsfield formed an coalition between the white elite (who had their private country clubs) and black elite (who had a secure market on Auburn Ave) to manage race relations and present Atlanta as the “city too busy to hate.” He engineered enough desegregation to create PR success while maintaining enough to keep the white upper middle class alright and the black students appeased.
The coalition between the white business and black elite (which, has pretty much lasted until the present day) was successful in many ways. However, it led middle-class whites to effectively opt out of city politics and turn to a new, separate conservative movement that was shaping. And with white flight, lower/middle class whites not only left politics, they also left the city.
The idea of “massive resistance.”
There was an idea in the South among racist whites that if everyone worked together to keep de facto segregation in place, then it would stay in place. While the “massive resistance” broke, in many ways it still exists via self-segregation and class defined communities.
The economics of neighborhood transition.
I learned that city & neighborhood economics work in ways that I did not expect. The growth cycle of a city is fairly well-known. People move to a neighborhood for a variety of reasons. Real estate becomes more valuable. City revenue from increased property taxes goes up. The city can provide more services & amenities. The additional people need more commercial services. Businesses start. Jobs increase and city revenue increases more. More people want to move to an area. Banks are more willing to lend against property. More people are able to move to an area. The cycle continues.
Unfortunately, the cycle also works in reverse. When people start to move away from an area, house values go down. The city collects fewer property taxes. Businesses can no longer stay profitable. Businesses close. The city cuts back on services. Banks no longer want to lend against property. Current owners can no longer invest. Prospective owners don’t want to move or can’t move into the area. The neighborhood spirals downward.
When the “massive resistance” in Atlanta was giving way, there were enough middle-class blacks to want to move into an area – away from the lack of housing in black areas of Atlanta. But when a single black family moved into a neighborhood, all the white homeowners put their homes up for sale.
It led to a failure of game theory – no white family wanted to be the “last ones out.” Houses went up at fire sale prices.
The neighborhood was left not only half empty, but also ineligible for re-investment because all the property was underwater (or “redlined” by mortgage companies). Thus proud, prosperous neighborhoods of Atlanta were left to decay – not because “it became a black part of town” – and all the racist code language that implies in the South – but because some whites would rather leave than live next to a black neighbor.
Empathy (not sympathy) for working class whites.
Kevin Kruse starts the book discussing the importance of empathy and “getting in people’s shoes.” It’s not that we can’t judge people in history, but without truly trying to understand their behavior, there’s nothing we can learn.
In that context, it’s important to remember that racism is toxic. Even if only a very small minority are truly racist – their behavior affects everyone else who just wants to live their life. The game theory of neighborhood transition meant that working-class homeowners had to make a bet with their largest (and often only) investment.
Most white were not overtly hateful, but did follow along with the crowd looking after their own family’s financial interests. Their decision to move wasn’t motivated by racism, instead, it was motivated by their fear that they would be the last ones to sell. That they wouldn’t be able to find a willing & able buyer.
Empathy for working class blacks.
Likewise, I also learned what it meant to be a working class black day to day in Atlanta. So much of civil rights history focuses on the moral rights and wrongs, the national movements and larger than life figures that the ordinary, daily struggles of black Atlantans is easily glossed over.
And one of those day to day struggles was adequate housing and public amenities. The US population was booming in the 1950s and 1960s and there was a huge housing shortage for everyone, but acutely so for blacks in the South.
Black Atlantans were cordoned off into small overpopulated neighborhoods around Auburn Avenue and Atlanta University Center. While the white Atlantans saw a housing boom offer more and more choice, working and middle class black families lived in a maddening world of no space.
They had no space in their home; no public spaces; no space in schools at all. So when a family saved enough to buy a home – it had to be maddening to have no options. Entire neighborhoods were blocked by racist whites. To really grasp the importance of civil rights, it’s essential to get that sense of empathy in someone’s daily life.
The incentives for suburbanization.
In the 1950s and 1960s, every institution in American was setup to encourage white flight and suburbanization.
The Federal government was in the middle of the largest public works project in human history – the Interstate highway system. It would controversially run not only among cities and states, but also within the urban core of all American cities, thus providing easy transportation to jobs from far-flung homes away from the city.
The federal government was offering government-backed home loans that had a strong bias towards new development, instead of intown redevelopment. Mortgage companies infamously “redlined” entire sections of cities to ban loans.
Cities – including Atlanta – introduced poorly constructed zoning laws which encouraged flight and discourages infill development.
In other words, if you were on the fence about leaving Atlanta for the suburbs, there were plenty of positive incentives in addition to the fear and financial game theory of racism.
The complicity of white churches.
I knew that many white Christian churches made immoral choices during desegregation. But I thought it was more of a “we’re not speaking out on this issue and will let people do their thing” immoral silence kind of thing.
Unfortunately, it was not. In many Atlanta neighborhoods, churches were some of the primary organizers of “massive resistance.” Their members invoked their church’s history and ministry as proof that a neighborhood should stay segregated.
Political language of segregation.
If you’ve ever heard of Frank Lutz, you know that language can be very political. Changing a term from “estate tax” to “death tax” can completely shift public opinion.
But language goes further, especially in the South. Language during desegregation went beyond positioning and framing into the realm of meta-symbolism and code language. Throughout the book, I was shocked to learn about all these terms & issues that (nowadays) seem normal, but are actually shibboleths or dog whistle type terms for segregation.
I always thought “freedom of association” was a normal piece of discourse in American politics. It’s not. It’s code for segregation and only came into common use in the 1940s onward. And just to check the author’s facts – here’s Google Book’s n-gram of “freedom of association” which shows how often the term is used in books.
Beyond language, there’s whole issues like school choice, privatization, etc that have deep association with segregation.
In the 1960s, “privatization” of city services was not a way to streamline services, increase efficiency, or draw on private sector expertise. Nope – it was a straight-up ploy to keep public services segregated via “choice” – which would, of course, maintain a form of massive resistance.
Same with school vouchers, “Christian” schools, and [name anything in public] – all to keep segregation in place and keep white kids away from black kids.
And it’s really unfortunate for those of us in the generation after all this. I’ve learned exactly why so many real political issues have so much baggage and controversy nowadays…because the segregationists torched and burned all notions of good faith & fair public policy.
It’s like a real life version of the Boy Who Cried Wolf fable – segregationists in the South screamed “States’ Rights!,” “Freedom of Association!”, “Big Government!”, “Law & Order!” so often when their actual problem was “Black People!” that when States’ Rights and Big Government are actually issues – it’s simply not worthwhile to even start to untangle those issues.
Alignment of new conservative politics.
Middle-class whites never had the gated communities and country clubs of the white elite. But they wanted the same thing. They wanted a space apart…from people with a different skin color. Before the Civil Rights Act, this meant government enforced segregation through race-based property deeds, zoning and homeowner’s covenants. It meant public parks, schools and services defined by race. But once desegregation started, those lower and middle class whites found themselves with not as much political power as they thought. So they fled to create public spaces of their own.
Even though they couldn’t buy into private communities, they could self-segregate in the suburbs and create new voting blocs. These predictable voting blocs in the suburbs fit in perfectly with the new conservative coalitions formed in the late 1960s under Goldwater and continued through to the ultimate election of Nixon and Ronald Reagan on the strength of suburban voters.
The political divide in the black community.
I had heard about the wealthy black elite of Auburn Avenue who had done well in their community. But I didn’t realize the extent of the divide between the older elite of the black community and the more radical black students. I didn’t realize the extent of their disagreements and how much of Martin Luther King Jr.’s accomplishment was persuading the older black elite that radical change was possible.
How white flight in the 1960s affects my everyday life.
I live in the beautiful neighborhood of Grant Park in Atlanta. It endured white flight in the 1950s and 1960s. Grant Park was once one of Atlanta’s most sought-after neighborhoods. But it was left for nearly empty by the end of the 1960s after a couple black families moved in.
House prices declined. A massive Interstate was built with no regard to the neighborhood. The Park became underfunded with little money for basic maintenance. Crime increased. The Zoo began catering to suburban commuters. Renters had no incentive or resources to maintain the beautiful historic architecture.
With time and serious dedication from Atlanta politicians and long-time neighborhood residents – Grant Park is again one of the most sought after neighborhoods. But my family, my neighbors and fellow Atlantans are also spending money and time repairing damage that should have never happened in the first place instead of investing in addition.
Whether you live in Atlanta or not – the trends that Kruse talks about happened across America. It’s a history book that is not only interesting, but also practical and pertinent to every day political issues in 2016.
Unlike the Mexican War or some other big but distant piece of American history – this history happened in living memory of my parents. It matters not only for the real lessons it has but also because it directly affects modern day issues like education funding, gentrification, policing, taxes and so much more.
If you want to get a sense of the broader historical picture before you read this – I recommend Nixonland by Richard Perlstein.