White flight starting in the 1910s, not after World War II

Two economists look at white flight as it occurred decades before the post-World War II era:

Economists Allison Shertzer and Randall P. Walsh at the University of Pittsburgh analyzed data from 10 large U.S. cities in the Northeast and the Midwest from 1900 to 1930 to isolate the role of white flight that occurred in that period—before the Federal Housing Authority, which instituted many of the discriminatory housing policies, was born. They found that the exodus of white people from a particular neighborhood following the arrival of black residents led to a 34 percent increase in segregation during the 1910s; In the 1920s, it resulted in a striking 50 percent increase…

They isolated demographic data for 10 U.S. cities—New York, Philadelphia, Pittsburgh, Boston, and Baltimore in the Northeast, and Cincinnati, Detroit, Chicago, Cleveland, and St. Louis in the Midwest—all of which had seen large influxes in black residents as a result of the Great Migration. They then designed a strategy to quantify the contribution of white flight to racial segregation…

One important thing to note: when white people left their neighborhoods in response to black arrivals in this period, they didn’t go to the suburbs—because suburbs didn’t really exist until the second half of the 20th century. They went to neighborhoods pretty similar to the ones they left—at least in terms of tax bases and public spending. That means that the measurements of white flight here “may thus provide a better gauge of racial distaste than those using postwar data,” the authors write in the paper.

When I’m asked about suburbanization, I often note that is start in the early 1900s, was derailed by the Great Depression, and then really took off after World War II. Many of the processes of post-war suburbia – including mass consumption, the construction of major roads and highways, more mass produced homes, the dominance of the automobile for daily life and planning, and changing racial and ethnic demographics in numerous urban neighborhoods – were already underway decades before. Perhaps it is convenient to blame the post-war era – and there were specific policy changes that happened then like federal funding for highways and changes to the mortgage industry to make homes accessible for more Americans – but these disliked features of 1950s suburbia have deeper roots.

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