Menus Subscribe Search

Burgh Diaspora

white-flight

(Photo: Txanbelin/Shutterstock)

The White Flight Myth

• January 29, 2014 • 10:46 PM

(Photo: Txanbelin/Shutterstock)

Blacks move in and whites move out. What else need be said? Nothing if you believe most urban storytellers. But we’re not here to perpetuate myths.

If you build it, they won’t leave. The grand narrative of any kind of community planning, urban or rural, is plugging the brain drain. A failure of place results in out-migration. “White Flight in England? White Attraction Rather Than Repulsion Seems to Be the Story“:

In particular, data showed that places with the largest increase in ethnic minority populations witnessed the greatest loss in white British population. London, for example, gained over a million people during 2001-11 but lost 620,000 white British at the same time. Moreover, across England and Wales, 38 Local Authorities simultaneously made the top 50 list for greatest decline in white British numbers and largest increase in ethnic minorities during 2001-11. White flight is the explanation favoured by some on the nationalist right, who see this as a sign of white distaste for diversity, as well as on the New Left – for whom white flight represents a prime example of the new ‘covert’ or aversive racism. The free market right and neo-Marxist Left prefer to speak of counterurbanisation, in which the hidden hand of economic forces or material self-interest is at work. …

… Indeed, in a study of aggregate patterns, Ron Johnston and his colleagues show that the main ethnic minority groups are dispersing from their areas of concentration. This is clearly evident in maps of the location of ethnic groups in London between 1991 and 2011 prepared by Gareth Harris. Yet obtaining a clearer picture of whether age, class, ethnicity or some other factor drives ethnic movement requires information on individuals, not just areas. And we need longitudinal data that tracks people over time. Accordingly we use two world-leading datasets, the ONS Longitudinal Survey (ONS LS) and British Household Panel Survey (BHPS)/Understanding Society (UKHLS). Both are under scrutiny and the ONS LS in particular needs to be defended from government proposals to shelve it in the name of short-termism. …

… Keen to explore determinants of movement with racial attitude questions, we commissioned a YouGov survey in August 2013 which asked people whether they moved ward in the past ten years, and if so, from a ward with more, less or similar diversity. We netted around 1700 white British respondents of whom about 200 said they had moved to a more or less diverse ward over the past decade. Whether the question asked about comfort with a boss of a different race or a Prime Minister of a different race, anti-immigration views or neighbourhood minority comfort thresholds, the result was the same. Namely, that racial and immigration attitudes had almost no effect on white mobility. Only at the conservative extremes did attitudes affect behaviour, but this was a marginal effect operating on 1 or 2 percent of the sample.

Emphasis added. People develop, not places. Whites flee places becoming more diverse. No one bothers to ask the migrants why they were relocating because places develop, not people. Aspiration never merits any consideration. Give the residents what they want and they won’t move.

This superficial understanding of migration trends dominates scholarship and policy. The Atlantic Cities perpetuates the myth of white flight (and brain drain) uncritically. Blacks move in and whites move out. What else need be said? Plenty.

The repeating of the white flight story hinders our ability to address issues such as urban poverty. We misunderstand migration as a place-based push. Michael A. Clemens and Timothy N. Ogden describe the move to improve:

We are used to thinking of human capital as synonymous with knowledge. But knowledge is only one form of human capital. Location, too, is a form of human capital. In common usage, “human capital” is a synonym for skill. But for economists, a costly change of location—migration—is in every way a form of human capital investment. Economists including Sjaastad (1962) and Schultz (1972) have recognized this for some time.

What is the human capital of a Russian professional ballerina? Her human capital is much more than the classes she has taken. It is true that her earning potential is lower if she has not studied formal techniques like the Vaganova Training Syllabus. But her earning potential is also lower if she has rarely performed publicly, if she knows no ballet directors, if she is obese, or if she lives in Krasnoyarsk, Siberia. That is, her income is directly affected by her knowledge, experience, connections, physical condition, and location—all traits of her person, and all changeable. She can improve all of these traits now, durably, and at a cost, to raise the value of her time and labor next year. Any traits like this are human capital. They include knowledge and formal training, but are not limited to it. One of the best investments she could make in her human capital would be to pay the cost of changing her location—to Novosibirsk or Moscow. In fact, without that investment in changing her location, her investments in other personal attributes might be nearly worthless.

Migrants bear large costs and risks up front for large gains tomorrow. The vast majority choose individually to pay this cost, without the direction of any state, in expectation of future benefits. This describes an entrepreneur and a stockholder just as it describes a migrant. In every sense, a costly change of location for future economic benefit is an investment.

Emphasis added. Without leaving, the professional ballerina’s other investments in herself (her human capital) “might be nearly worthless.” Oh, but we must figure out how to make her stay. Because if she moves away, there is something horribly wrong with our community. Save the place, kill the people.

Jim Russell
Jim Russell is a geographer studying the relationship between migration and economic development.

More From Jim Russell

A weekly roundup of the best of Pacific Standard and PSmag.com, delivered straight to your inbox.

Recent Posts


July 30 • 2:04 PM

The Rise of the Nuisance Flood

Minor floods are afflicting parts of Maryland nearly ten times more often than was the case in the 1960s.


July 30 • 2:00 PM

The (Mostly Awful) Things You Learn After Investigating Unpaid Internships for a Year

Though the intern economy remains opaque, dialogue about the role of interns in the labor force—and protections they deserve—is beginning to take shape.


July 30 • 12:00 PM

Why Coffee Shortages Won’t Change the Price of Your Frappuccino

You’re so loyal to Starbucks—and the company knows it—that your daily serving of caffeine is already marked up beyond the reach of any fluctuations in supply.



July 30 • 10:00 AM

Having Difficult Conversations With Your Children

Why it’s necessary, and how to do it.


July 30 • 8:00 AM

How to Make a Convincing Sci-Fi Movie on a Tight Budget

Coherence is a good movie, and its initial shoot cost about the same amount of money as a used Prius.


July 30 • 6:00 AM

Are You Really as Happy as You Say You Are?

Researchers find a universal positivity bias in the way we talk, tweet, and write.


July 30 • 4:00 AM

The Declining Wage Gap for Gay Men

New research finds gay men in America are rapidly catching up with straight married men in terms of wages.


July 30 • 2:00 AM

LeBron James Migration: Big Chef Seeking Small Pond

The King’s return to Cleveland is a symbol for the dramatic shift in domestic as well as international migration.


July 29 • 4:00 PM

Are Children Seeking Refuge Turning More Americans Against Undocumented Immigrants?

A look at Pew Research Center survey data collected in February and July of this year.


July 29 • 2:00 PM

Under Water: The EPA’s Ongoing Struggle to Combat Pollution

Frustration and inaction color efforts to enforce the Clean Water Act.


July 29 • 12:40 PM

America’s Streams Are Awash With Pesticides Banned in Europe

You may have never heard of clothianidin, but it’s probably in your local river.


July 29 • 12:00 PM

Mining Your Genetic Data for Profit: The Dark Side of Biobanking

One woman’s personal story raises deep questions about the stark limits of current controls in a nascent industry at the very edge of the frontier of humans and technology.


July 29 • 11:23 AM

Where Should You Go to College?


July 29 • 10:29 AM

How Textbooks Have Changed the Face of War

War is more personal, less glorious, and more hellish in modern textbooks than in the past. But there’s still room for improvement.


July 29 • 10:00 AM

The Monolingual American: Why Are Those Outside of the U.S. Encouraging It?

If you are an American trying to learn German in a large German town or city, you will mostly hear English in return, even when you give sprechen your best shot.


July 29 • 8:00 AM

The Elusive Link Between Casinos and Crime

With a study of the impact of Philadelphia’s SugarHouse Casino, a heated debate gets fresh ammunition.


July 29 • 6:00 AM

What Are the Benefits of Locking Yourself in a Tank and Floating in Room-Temperature Saltwater?

After three sessions in an isolation tank, the answer’s still not quite clear.


July 29 • 4:00 AM

Harry Potter and the Battle Against Bigotry

Kids who identify with the hero of J.K. Rowling’s popular fantasy novels hold more open-minded attitudes toward immigrants and gays.


July 29 • 2:00 AM

Geographic Scale and Talent Migration: Washington, D.C.’s New Silver Line

Around the country, suburbs are fighting with the urban core over jobs and employees.


July 28 • 4:00 PM

Border Fences Make Unequal Neighbors and Enforce Social Inequality

What would it look like if you combined Israel, the West Bank, and Gaza, demographically speaking? What about the United States and Guatemala?


July 28 • 2:00 PM

Are Patient Privacy Laws Being Misused to Protect Medical Centers?

A 1996 law known as HIPAA has been cited to scold a mom taking a picture of her son in a hospital, to keep information away from police investigating a possible rape at a nursing home, and to threaten VA whistleblowers.


July 28 • 12:00 PM

Does Internet Addiction Excuse the Death of an Infant?

In Love Child, documentary filmmaker Valerie Veatch explores how virtual worlds encourage us to erase the boundary between digital and real, no matter the consequences.


July 28 • 11:11 AM

NASA Could Build Entire Spacecrafts in Space Using 3-D Printers

This year NASA will experiment with 3-D printing small objects in space. That could mark the beginning of a gravity-free manufacturing revolution.


Follow us


Subscribe Now

The Rise of the Nuisance Flood

Minor floods are afflicting parts of Maryland nearly ten times more often than was the case in the 1960s.

America’s Streams Are Awash With Pesticides Banned in Europe

You may have never heard of clothianidin, but it's probably in your local river.

How Textbooks Have Changed the Face of War

War is more personal, less glorious, and more hellish in modern textbooks than in the past. But there’s still room for improvement.

NASA Could Build Entire Spacecrafts in Space Using 3-D Printers

This year NASA will experiment with 3-D printing small objects in space. That could mark the beginning of a gravity-free manufacturing revolution.

The Most Popular Ways to Share Good and Bad Personal News

Researchers rank the popularity of all of the different methods we have for telling people about our lives, from Facebook to face-to-face.

The Big One

One in two full-time American fast-food workers' families are enrolled in public assistance programs, at a cost of $7 billion per year. July/August 2014

Copyright © 2014 by Pacific Standard and The Miller-McCune Center for Research, Media, and Public Policy. All Rights Reserved.