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White Flight: Not Just for Cities Anymore

It’s not just cities that are segregated. Introducing the “ethnoburb.”

White Flight: Not Just for Cities Anymore
[Photos: Flickr user Tom Caswell]

“White flight” is most often referred to as a past-tense phenomenon: the decades in which fearful mid-century whites in cities moved to the ‘burbs, trying to outrun integration and seeking more of a Leave it to Beaver kind of existence. For years, racist housing policies helped them do so, simultaneously working to disenfranchise black communities all over the country–communities like Ferguson, Missouri, where protesters have brought national focus to the shooting of unarmed black teen Michael Brown by a police officer.

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But new research suggests that white flight is far from over. According to Indiana University PhD candidate Samuel Kye, who just presented his work at the American Sociological Association’s annual meeting, white people are still fleeing–they are just fleeing from a different starting point. Census data show that between 1990 and 2010, white people have been moving away from certain suburbs, the kind in which middle-class “ethnoburbs” are on the rise.


Ethnoburbs, as Kye defines them, are a relatively new phenomenon–upwardly mobile suburbs with a non-white majority. In terms of income, education, and wealth, they’re indistinguishable from mostly-white suburbs. The only difference is race and ethnicity. “We’ve seen tremendous growth in these communities,” Kye says.

Over the past 20 years, he says that Hispanic ethnoburbs have grown some 500%; Asian ethnoburbs 1,000%. But both Asian and Hispanic ethnoburbs also show increasing integration with whites. The one kind of suburb that’s gone in the opposite direction? Black ethnoburbs.

By Kye’s calculations, a thousand whites have left every 5,000-person black ethnoburb (on average) over the last 20 years. That’s quite an accelerated rate of white flight. But better schools or different property tax values don’t justify the shift–after all, these are the opposite of neighborhoods in decline.

“The fact that they’re becoming more segregated over time is a bit alarming,” Kye says. “Even in their most affluent neighborhoods, black and white residents can’t find a way to live alongside one another.”

The reason could very well be racially motivated on behalf of the people who leave. Or maybe discriminatory housing principles are still alive and well. But another major question remains: Where are white people going?

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Kye hasn’t looked into that part yet, but he suspects that whites are simply moving to other, more homogenous suburbs. It’s less likely they’re moving to cities, he says; people probably want another suburban experience, price- and comfort-wise.

About the author

Sydney Brownstone is a Seattle-based former staff writer at Co.Exist. She lives in a Brooklyn apartment with windows that don’t quite open, and covers environment, health, and data.

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