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White Flight Returns, This Time <i>From</i> the Suburbs

White residents are either moving back downtown -- or to farther-out exurbs.

Remember white flight? A few generations ago, millions of white Americans left major cities for the suburbs. Their departures were aided, in part, by the growth of the highway system. But they were also motivated by race, as schools and neighborhoods started to desegregate. Now that more minorities are moving into the suburbs themselves -- a majority of minority residents of major metropolitan areas now live in suburbs, according to the Brookings Institution -- white flight is happening all over again.

That’s the conclusion of a new study by Samuel Kye, an Indiana University sociologist. As more minorities have entered the middle class and established themselves in healthy suburban neighborhoods, Kye has noticed an exodus of white residents. Examining 28,000 suburban Census tracts in the nation’s 150 largest metro areas, he found that more than 3,000 of them experienced white flight, losing at least 20 percent of their white populations between 2000 and 2010. In fact, the average loss of white residents was actually twice that high.

Kye discovered that white flight was particularly pronounced in areas with fewer high school dropouts, strong home values, median income levels and large numbers of professionals. He suggests this is because low-income whites don’t have the means to leave neighborhoods seeing influxes of minority residents; affluent whites, on the other hand, have the resources to vote with their feet. 

Kye’s study, published in Social Science Research, is in keeping with other recent academic findings. Maria Krysan, who studies racial residential segregation at the University of Illinois at Chicago, finds that most people she interviews say they want to live in integrated neighborhoods. But while members of minority groups often act on that desire, whites end up limiting their real estate searches and purchases to neighborhoods that are predominantly white. 

In earlier generations, the pattern of segregation was white suburbs surrounding black center cities. Today, more whites are living downtown, while others are moving to suburbs beyond the ones being populated by minorities. A team of researchers at Cornell and Mississippi State universities found that segregation is not just persisting within cities, but among them. That is, neighboring cities are likely to have very different racial profiles, largely because many whites are moving out to the exurbs.

There’s even a tipping point for when whites typically pack up and move: “White flight eventually becomes more likely in middle-class neighborhoods,” Kye writes, “when the presence of Hispanics and Asians exceeds 25 percent and 21 percent, respectively.” 

Alan Greenblatt is a senior staff writer for Governing. He can be found on Twitter at @AlanGreenblatt.
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