White Flight: Definition, History & Effects

Instructor: Sharon Linde

Sharon has a Masters of Science in Mathematics

This lesson gives you the history and effects of white flight, or the movement of white citizens from inner cities to outlying suburbs. Although the term is most closely linked with the 1970s, it was happening both before and after that period.

Definition and History of White Flight

Between 1970 and 1980, the city of St. Louis, Mo., lost more than a quarter of its population. The racial makeup of the city also changed dramatically during this time, with the percentage of the white population falling from 59% to 54%. At the same time, the African-American population in the city rose from 41% to 46%. What was going on?

There's no one right answer, but at least two things drove this dramatic population shift: black and white residents were moving out of the city, and white residents were moving out at a much faster rate. This exodus of white people, especially during the 1970s, was called white flight. The term describes white people leaving the inner city as well as the movement of white people away from suburbs and neighborhoods when black people from the inner city started to move in. White flight is most commonly associated with the 1970s, an era of high racial tension. The 70s were a while ago, so let's take a look at some statistics to refresh our memories.

Not an Isolated Incident

This complex movement of people affected many other Midwest cities. The city of Detroit lost more than one-quarter of its white population between 1970 and 1980. During that same period, whites left Cook County (Chicago) at a rate of 15.5% and Cuyahoga County (Cleveland) at 20%. But Midwest cities were not alone--white flight was happening in almost all large metropolitan areas across the country. The white and black populations of these areas were decreasing across the board, but the white population was decreasing at a much faster rate.

During the 1970s, some white communities made unwritten agreements that none of them would sell homes to black families. They could see from surrounding communities that even one black family moving in would cause property values to plummet. Punishments for selling a home to a black owner were unwritten but ranged from being ostracized (or excluded from a social group) to loss of jobs to physical violence and even death.

Effects on Communities

What impact does this movement have on the existing communities? As you can imagine, the effects of white flight on the remaining community were long lasting and often devastating. In areas where white flight happened, the property values dropped because the only people who wanted to move in had less money than those that left. With a downward market, neighborhoods rapidly shifted from middle- to lower-income families.

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