White Flight vs. Gentrification
I usually lie about my age—because I can, Skip, because I can—but for this post, I have to come clean: I’m 41 years-old, so I’m old enough to remember white flight, which was roaring in the late 1960s and early 1970s when I was a little kid.
Back then all white liberals—my parents included—were in agreement about white flight: It was a bad thing, and white people who fled the cities because they didn’t want to live in racially mixed neighborhoods were bigots. (My family stayed put in our Chicago neighborhood as it went from predominantly Irish to mostly Mexican.) Liberals screamed and yelled at white folks who fled cities for the ‘burbs. Those white folks were were assholes—and they contributed mightily to the decline of US cities in the 60s, 70s, and early 80s. Then something strange started happening in the 1980s. White folks started moving back into the cities—some moved into racially mixed neighborhoods; some moved into predominantly minority neighborhoods. This trend has only picked up steam over the last twenty years.
And many of the same white liberals who condemned white flight are just as angry at the white folks who are moving back into the cities. When white people moved away in the 50s, 60s, and 70s, they were guilty of white flight. And when white people came back, they were guilty of gentrification.
Danny Westneat has a column in the Seattle Times today about gentrification—although he doesn’t use the word. He makes some good points about the cluelessness of white people who get angry at African Americans who express any reservations at all about white folks moving in to traditionally black neighborhoods.
“People should be welcome to live where they want to without regard to their skin color, without being regarded as ‘invaders,’ ” wrote Mark Hovila of Lake Forest Park.
Asked Ben Dobbs: “Could you imagine an article such as yours with roles reversed?” …
OK, I’ll play along. Let’s reverse the roles. Not just the skin color — the roles.
Suppose whites had been shunted via redlining into one of the most run-down parts of Seattle. Then, 40 years later, suppose some wealthy and connected African Americans began buying up the land, putting up megahouses, running the community councils and dominating the PTAs.
It’s a great point—the anger in the African American community as the Central District integrates is completely understandable. But African Americans are no longer shunted into just one neighborhood in the city—Westneat cites a UW study that shows that the city is less racially segregated now than it was 30 years ago—so the anger, while understandable, can’t really be regarded as legit. Or as something that can be accommodated. (More affordable housing—yes, yes, yes. But can anything be done to ensure that the Central District remains majority black? And do we once again think we’re talking about race when what we’re really talking—or should be talking about—is class?)
But even if he didn’t use the word, without a doubt many white liberals who read Westneat’s column today—including some of my co-workers, I suspect—shook their heads and thought, “Oh, gentrification is terrible! Terrible!â€ť So I’d like to get this on record: White people can’t be assholes when they flee the cities and assholes when they return. Pick one and stick to it, but you can’t argue both points. I get annoyed when I hear the same people/same types of people who complained about white flight back in the 60s and 70s complaining about gentrification today.