“But unbeknownst to us, we grew up in the period — as I write — called ‘white flight.’ That as families like ours, upstanding families like ours … As we moved in, white folks moved out because they were afraid of what our families represented,” Obama said.
“And I always stop there when I talk about this out in the world because, you know, I want to remind white folks that y’all were running from us — this family with all the values that you’ve read about. You were running from us. And you’re still running, because we’re no different than the immigrant families that are moving in … the families that are coming from other places to try to do better.”
I have no doubt that this was her experience growing up and that Obama is sharing her story in good faith. It’s not a particularly political observation either. You will read similar stories from, say, Condoleezza Rice in the book she wrote about her parents, Extraordinary Ordinary People or Supreme Court Justice Clarence Thomas, My Grandfather’s Son. Rice grew up in Birmingham, Alabama, and Thomas grew up in Savannah, Georgia, during the Civil Rights era. Both offer candid accounts of the racism they experienced in ordinary life that echo Obama’s. All of these people have succeeded against the odds through a lifetime of good values and hard work. Anyone who suggests otherwise is just embarrassing themselves.
Particularly working in education policy, I saw the ways that neighborhoods tend to segregate themselves by race and wealth. You have never met a more passionate group of people than folks fighting to keep their small, inefficient independent school district during a regionalization push in government. It’s not a fantasy or talking point. This is why we have charter schools in this country now. Pretty much the only way disadvantaged neighborhoods can get an edge in education is by bringing in the capitalists. It’s one of the best arguments for school choice there is.
The fact of the matter, though, is that we are not watching some epic white flight in American cities now. We are watching the wholesale destruction of great American cities due to objectively bad public policy. It’s not integration that people fear most, but inconceivable levels of government dysfunction and seeing most of their wealth melt away in taxes to pay for that dysfunction. That’s what is making people vote with their feet.
People leaving New York City, Chicago, and Los Angeles are not generally moving to whiter suburbs. They are moving to the South – mostly to Texas, Tennessee, and Florida. These are aggressively libertarian tax havens, places where your kids will not be out of school for two weeks because of a teacher’s strike and your house won’t burn down because the utility has been plowing money into green projects at the expense of maintaining existing infrastructure. Where you are not paying higher and higher taxes because policymakers promised public workers lavish retirement benefits but set aside no money for them. And so on and so on.
Both Texas and Florida have massive minority and immigrant populations. I would submit to you that a white family fleeing Chicago over bad politics has a lot more in common culturally and ideologically with immigrants from the Caribbean and Latin America in Florida than their progressive white neighbors in Chicago. To suggest that the realignment that is happening in the US right now is about race seems very wrong.
It may seem like history rhymes to Obama, however, because the people who are the most reliant on government services are the ones least likely to be able to afford to move out of dysfunctional urban areas. The decreased economic opportunities in these urban areas as the people who can leave do leave will also magnify the personal impact on those families. It probably does feel like their neighborhoods are in a downward spiral now. This will affect poor people of all races, but minorities especially. She’s not wrong that this is a tragic phenomenon.