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(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.

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