Whites who say they’d flee: Who are they, and why would they leave?

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  • Whites Who Say Theyd Flee 675

    Demography, Volume 39-Number 4, November 2002: 675696 675





    Questions have been raised about whether white flightone factor contributing to U.S. resi-

    dential segregationis driven by racial, race-associated, or neutral ethnocentric concerns. I useclosed- and open-ended survey data from the Multi-City Study of Urban Inequality to explore whosays they would leave and their reasons for doing so. Thirty-eight percent of white respondents said

    they would leave one of the integrated neighborhoods, with Detroiters and those endorsing negativeracial stereotypes especially likely to do so. When asked why they might leave, whites focused on thenegative features of integrated neighborhoods. Expressions of racial prejudice were also common,

    but neutral ethnocentrism rare. The results of an experiment asking about integration with Asiansand Latinos are also discussed.

    For a neighborhood, it is not a problem how many blacks come into it. The problem ishow many whites go out.

    respondent in the Detroit Area Study

    ne of todays central debates about the residential segregation process centers on themotivation behind whites opposition to integrated neighborhoods. The traditional inter-pretation is that opposition is motivated by racial prejudice (e.g., Charles 2000; Farley etal. 1994; Zubrinsky and Bobo 1996). But recently, researchers have raised questions aboutwhether whites objections are driven instead by (1) the desire to avoid neighborhoodswith certain characteristics that whites associate with African American neighborhoods(e.g., Harris 1999, 2001; Taub, Taylor, and Dunham 1984) or (2) the desire to live nearones own kind, out of a sense of neutral ethnocentrism (Clark 1992). Which of theseforces underlies attitudes toward white flightand whites residential preferences moregenerallyhas relevance to our understanding of contemporary racial attitudes and resi-dential preferences, as well as significant policy implications. Although demographicanalyses of neighborhood change and residential segregation have routinely made assump-tions about the motives underlying the white-flight process, relatively little empirical evi-dence has been brought to bear on this issue. That is, little is known about what whitesthink of integrating neighborhoodswhat these neighborhoods are like, what they willbecome, and why whites may leave them. This article reports on individual-level attitudi-nal data related to white flight as one way to answer these questions.

    White flight, as described by the Detroit-area resident quoted at the beginning of thearticle, occurs when the arrival of African Americans in a neighborhood promptsthe rapid departure of whites, thus turning a community from all white to all African

    *Maria Krysan, Department of Sociology (m/c 312), University of Illinois at Chicago, 1007 W. HarrisonStreet, Chicago, Illinois, 60607; E-mail: krysan@uic.edu. This research was supported by grants from the RussellSage Foundation, the National Science Foundation (SES 96-18700 and SES 00-95658), and the Ford Founda-tion. The author gratefully acknowledges the Russell Sage Foundation because much of the work for this articlewas completed while she was a visiting scholar at the foundation. Nakesha Faison and Kelly Harr Shomo pro-vided invaluable research assistance, and Kyle Crowder, William P. Bridges, and Howard Schuman gave manyinsightful comments and suggestions on earlier drafts of this article.

  • 676 Demography, Volume 39-Number 4, November 2002

    American. To be sure, this process is not the only cause of racial residential segregation.Indeed, its contributions have been hotly contested, with some maintaining its impor-tance (Galster 1990; Goering 1978; Mayer 1960; Quillian 1999; Schelling 1971; Wolf1963; Wurdock 1981) and others downplaying its significance (Frey 1979; Marshall1979; Marshall and OFlaherty 1987; Molotch 1969). More recently, researchers haveoffered more nuanced conclusions that specify the conditions under which white flightdoes and does not occur and have demonstrated that it cannot be ignored as one of themany contributing causes of persistent segregation (e.g., Crowder 2000; Galster 1990;Lee and Wood 1991).

    While neither an analysis of neighborhood change nor a complete explication of theconditions under which white flight occurs, this article presents results that have impor-tant implications for the interpretation of these demographic processes. Specifically, Iexamine the often-assumedbut seldom empirically examinedsocial psychological fea-tures of them. By examining both who said they might leave an integrating neighborhoodand the reasons they gave for this decision, this analysis focuses on individual-level atti-tudinal expressions of white flight, although the insights may also apply to the questionof what shapes whites residential preferences more generally.


    What Is the Evidence on White Flight?

    White flight is a pithy phrase that conjures up images of an inevitable and inexorableprocess of neighborhood change. As a description of one of the facts of urban life, it hasproved to be as controversial and complex as it is catchy. Over the past four decades,researchers have disagreed about the validity of the white-flight hypothesis, with earlywork tending to come down on one side or the other. More recently, recognizing thatwhite flight is neither universal nor inevitable, the emphasis has shifted toward specify-ing the conditions under which it does and does not occur. For example, Lee and Wood(1991) studied integrated neighborhoods in U.S. metropolitan areas and found that pat-terns consistent with white flight varied considerably across region and city: between1970 and 1980, 90% of integrated census tracts in Atlanta and Detroit but just one-thirdin Boston and Los Angeles experienced racial succession. Galster (1990) also highlightedthe contingent nature of white flight in his study of Cleveland, where he found that cen-sus tracts in which segregationist sentiment was the highest (as measured by aggregatepublic opinion) were most likely to undergo neighborhood racial transition.

    Studies such as these, which have used the neighborhood as the unit of analysis andhave found, under certain conditions, patterns of neighborhood change that are consistentwith white flight, have come up short as tests of the white-flight hypothesis because theyhave failed to take into account individual-level factors. Put simply, we need to knowwhy people move, not simply that they do so. In his classic work on this topic, Rossi(1955) emphasized that individual characteristics are important predictors of general resi-dential mobility. People move because they get married, get divorced, have children, orbecome empty nesters. They move because they are renters and want to own. Theymove because of their age, gender, or income. To understand white flight, in particular,both the neighborhood context (in this case, its racial composition) and individual charac-teristics must be considered. Neglecting the latter risks overstating the effects of whiteflight because mobility (apart from racially motivated mobility) may eventually result inneighborhood transition (e.g., Frey 1979).

    In a study of Nashville, Lee, Oropesa, and Kanan (1994) included both individualfactors and neighborhood context and found that both predicted mobility. They developeda comprehensive conceptualization of neighborhood context that included objective andsubjective perceptions of neighborhood features, as well as static and dynamic

  • Whites Who Say Theyd Flee 677

    dimensions. Their results showed that neighborhood characteristicsparticularly subjec-tive perceptions of theminfluenced mobility behavior indirectly through their influenceon thoughts about mobility. Temporality was important as well: expected changes in thefeatures of the neighborhood were one of the strongest predictors of mobility.

    Although Lee et al. (1994) found that objective racial composition did not predictmobility, Crowders (2000) explicit test of the white-flight hypothesis showed that it didmatterbeyond individual characteristics and in the face of other changes in the socialand economic character of the neighborhood. Using individual-level national data,Crowder demonstrated that recent changes in the proportion of African Americans in atract were a significant predictor of white mobility from a tract. In addition, he pointedout that although the substantive impact of neighborhood racial composition is relativelymodest on an annual basis, when compounded across several years, the modest effect cancontribute to significant neighborhood change because of its constant downward pres-sure on white representation.

    Research has begun to identify important caveats and nuances with respect to whenand under what conditions neighborhood change and white flight operate, but little isknown about what motivates whites to leave integrating neighborhoods. As Lee et al.(1994) noted, studies of contextual effects fail to answer the question, Why does aparticular context have an influence on a particular behavior? Lee et al. speculated thatthe answer pertains to the degree of threat that the attributes are felt to pose to ahouseholds investment in the residential setting . . . [and] . . . probing this calculusshould rank high among the tasks to be undertaken in future mobility research (p. 265).In my research, I took on this task and asked, What is the calculus at work when whitesexpress a desire to leave an integrating neighborhood? What are the threats and risks thatwhites perceive in an integrating neighborhood? In short, what are the mechanismsthrough which racial context operates on thoughts of mobility? Although the optimalapproach for answering questions about motivations would be to use longitudinal datathat measure both attitudes and behavior at the individual level, these data do not exist.Nevertheless, much remains to be learned from a close examination of the existing atti-tudinal data to shed light on whites expectations about integrated neighborhoods and thereasons they give when they say they would move from them. In this article, I firstexamine what distinguishes whites who are more likely and less likely to state theirintention to leave integrated neighborhoods. Second, and more important, I examinewhat underlies the expressions of white flight by analyzing whites explanations of whythey say they would try to leave.

    It is important to recognize that the connection between attitudes and behaviors iscomplex (Schuman and Johnson 1976). By focusing on white-flight attitudes, I do notmean to imply a one-to-one correspondence between, for example, those who tell an in-terviewer they would leave a neighborhood and those who would actually do so. Indeed,some have argued that this connection may be loose with respect to whites intentions toflee (Molotch 1969). Equally inappropriate, however, would be the assumption that atti-tudes and subjective perceptions play no part in decisions about housing and mobilitybehavior. Galsters (1990) study in Cleveland that showed the importance of segrega-tionist sentiment is one such piece of evidence, and Lee et al.s (1994) findings thatsubjective perceptions are important is another.

    Finally, white flight is clearly not the onlyor even the mainengine behind racialresidential segregation. It is not simply the individual actions of individual whites withparticular racist attitudes that cause the stubborn patterns of racial residential segregation.As Massey and Denton (1993), among others, persuasively argued, there are considerableinstitutional and structural barriers to racial integration. African Americans are and havebeen routinely and systematically barred from living and purchasing homes in predomi-nantly or overwhelmingly white neighborhoods by practices, such as block busting,

  • 678 Demography, Volume 39-Number 4, November 2002

    redlining, racial steering, discrimination in obtaining financing and insurance, and count-less other subtle and not-so-subtle policies and practices (e.g., Massey and Denton 1993;Turner and Wienk 1993; Yinger 1995). At the same time, one such manifestation of thesevarious practices has been the movement of whites out of areas into which African Ameri-cans move and whites decisions not to move into areas that already have more than atoken number of African Americans. In short, white flight is neither the only nor the maincause of residential segregation. And while the evidence points to it as having a contrib-uting roleunder certain circumstancesour understanding of the attitudes underlyingthese behaviors remains incomplete.

    Who Says Theyd Flee?

    Numerous analyses (e.g., Schuman et al. 1997) have demonstrated the importance of age,education, and gender in shaping whites racial attitudes, especially related to social dis-tance. Thus, white-flight attitudes should also be related to these characteristics. Indeed,analyses of general racial residential preferences have been consistent with this expecta-tion (Bobo and Zubrinsky 1996; Farley, Fielding, and Krysan 1997; Farley et al. 1994).Put simply, women, the young, and the well educated should be less likely to say theywould leave a neighborhood upon the arrival of African Americans than should their lesswell-educated, older, and male counterparts.

    The more specific focus of this research suggests four additional factors from theliterature on residential mobility. First, because home owners are more investedat leastfinanciallyin their neighborhoods, they may be more concerned about possible declinesin the quality of their neighborhoods and the potential loss of their investment and there-fore more likely than renters to say they would move in the face of change (Lee et al.1994; Wolf 1963). Second, parents with children under age 18 in their households may bemore concerned about their childrens safety and the quality of their schools and so bemore likely to say they would leave (Harris 1999). Third, those with higher incomes maybe best able to afford to flee integrating neighborhoods (Berry 1979; Crowder 2000)and thus may be more likely than those with lower incomes to indicate they would do so.Fourth, analyses of the same data set used in the present analysis (but that have examineddifferent measures of residential preferences) have shown that whites who hold stereo-typical beliefs about African Americans are less comfortable with the prospect of livingin integrated neighborhoods (Charles 2000, 2001; Farley et al. 1994). Related to this find-ing, however, Bobo and Zubrinsky (1996) and Charles (2001) found that perceived so-cial-class differences do not predict residential preferences.1

    Why Do They Say Theyd Leave?

    Previous research provided descriptions of the patterns and social and demographic cor-relates of residential preferences (Charles 2000, 2001; Farley et al. 1978, 1994; Zubrins...


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