Home > Uncategorized > Are Racism and Economics the Cause of White Flight… or is it Greed and Politics

Are Racism and Economics the Cause of White Flight… or is it Greed and Politics

This weekend the NYTimes published an op ed article by Leah Bouston, a professor of economics at Princeton, titled “The Culprits Behind White Flight”.  In the article Ms. Boustan posed this question: “Did whites leave cities for racial reasons or for economic ones?” Her unsatisfying answer, which she elaborates in detail, is that both played a role…. and while her answer is somewhat glib given the space provided in an op ed article, it is, alas, accurate.

The article might be seen by some as being too dismissive of racism. Those who leave the city because “those poor people” moved in could just as easily be leaving because “those BLACK people” or “those HISPANIC people” moved in… It is difficult to disentangle the economic issues from the race issues but it is clear that when businesses abandoned cities and towns their tax base erodes… the erosion that takes place when neighborhoods flip is more subtle but equally consequential.

In my lifetime I watched entire neighborhoods in Philadelphia “flip” from white ethnic enclaves to black and/or Hispanic neighborhoods as a result of “good ideas” like urban redevelopment, interstate highways, and “public goods” like new stadiums for professional sports teams. In some cases politicians, banks, and real estate agents and magnates worked collaboratively or in a mutually beneficial fashion to determine which neighborhoods would benefit from government and private investments and which neighborhoods would, consequently, be marginalized. In all cases of this “redevelopment”, those with money benefitted in the end. Gentrification is the latest anodyne term for this practice of “transforming” the city to make it “more livable” and, thus, more attractive to the middle class be they black or white. But gentrification has arguably contributed to the economic and racial stratification of neighborhoods within cities, creating racial and economic enclaves that isolate poor and racial minorities in the same way that city boundaries did in the middle and end of the 1900s.

Sadly, I think that our country has a notorious history for failing to accept or assimilate immigrants no matter their race or religion. It took the Irish several generations to be accepted as equal even though their skin color was the same as those who identified themselves as “American”… and the self-evident difference between blacks and whites compounds the problem of assimilation. And hate groups, like the Klan, opposed Catholics as well as Jews and blacks and Mormons… Despite these organizations inspired by hate and the racism that seemed impermeable, our country banded together in the early 1960s to enact legislation to remedy racial and economic inequality and groups seeking racial and economic justice brought cases to court that overturned laws and previous cases that were based on racial prejudice. Those legislators and jurists changed the laws… but the hearts of some have not been transformed as yet and we are now at a point where our darkest instincts are being reinforced.

So what is the answer? I think that idealistic urban dwellers MIGHT be able to facilitate integration by advocating higher taxes that would be directed strengthening neighborhood K-12 schools. If every neighborhood that was gentrified had strong neighborhood schools the whole choice apparatus would be unnecessary and the whole arcane application process that goes along with it would be unnecessary. For example, gentrification in Brooklyn has added appreciably to that borough’s tax base making it possible to provide the services needed to support the transformation of neighborhoods, setting up a virtuous circle for those who can now afford to live in the better neighborhoods. But does the borough or city do enough to help those who have been forced to reside in marginal neighborhoods or less affluent boroughs because of their race or lack of economic wherewithal? Has the borough or city thought of the upgrade of public education in the same way they’ve thought of the upgrade of public spaces and/or public transportation? Would borough or city residents be willing to pay a surtax to help upgrade neighborhood schools?

I know this: businesses and/or commuters from the suburbs who benefit from the businesses located in urban centers are VERY reluctant to pay surtaxes despite a strong moral argument that can be raised to do so. Moreover, it’s likely that requiring businesses located in an urban center to pay a surtax would result in those businesses leaving the city altogether. This has happened to many small cities up and down the east coast as businesses fled the Northeast for regions that offered tax incentives and workforces willing to accept lower wages…. before fleeing the country altogether. 

Last but not least, politicians hove failed to advocate for more government spending. I contend that their unwillingness to make a case to raise taxes to provide assistance to those who need it most contributes to the dis-integration of our public schools and the consequent disintegration of the unity that we presumably value as a country. It fuels our basest instinct— selfishness– and undercuts the moral imperative to help those who cannot help themselves. Consequently, we’ve created a system that perpetuates racial and economic segregation. 

This is not an optimistic outlook given where we are now— especially given the news of President Trump’s budget that promises to shred an already tenuous safety net.  But I remain optimistic because most of the people I know want to see a change in direction and are working locally to make change happen. A small band of Sierra Club members got our town to vote to become free of fossil fuels by 2050 and a small band of people stand on the corner of the town common on many evenings waving signs that read “Black Lives Matter”. They might be voices in the wilderness but I see them as harbingers of what will come next. 

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