‘Our White Flight Is Not Their White Flight’ (more thoughts on “The Case for Reparations” and the Shaping of Modern Unitarian Universalism)

I grew up in the most integrated area of St. Louis. Part of the reason my parents ended up buying in that area is because they couldn’t get into the area that they really wanted to be in [I knew part of the story before TNC's article, and have been finding out the rest since]—and this was in the 1970s, some years before I was born. I’m really glad that my parents ended up in their not-first-choice area because if they hadn’t, I wouldn’t be who I am today. And that’s all because the school district was great. That is only part of the story however.

When kids start kindergarten in this district, the elementary school they go to is truly racially mixed (and socioeconomically mixed too); 45% white (mostly Jewish), 45% black, 10% Asian and other [the St. Louis region does not have a significant Latino population]. Yet this really interesting thing happens between 5th and 6th grade. When a kid starts middle school in this same district, the percentages have changed; it is now 25% white, 65% black, 10% Asian and other. And it gets even more interesting between 8th and 9th grade; it becomes 10% white, 80% black, 10% Asian and other.

I do not understand why. The district produces more National Merit scholars than the pricey private schools in the area most years. It does produce the most National Achievement scholars in the area every year. There are an array of AP and other advanced level classes. And yet most of the white kids are gone by the time their cohort is supposed to enter high school.

White flight takes many different forms. And frankly, I’m tired of hearing the ‘our white flight is not their white flight’ explanation/defense (liberals don’t say it exactly like that, but that’s what it is).

I know that not every congregation that formed in the period of time that we call the “Fellowship Movement” formed because of white flight. I know that some of those congregations were the only ones in an area that were a refuge for those who were involved in the social movements of the times. But that wasn’t most.

I stand by my assertion that federal housing policy benefited the growth of Unitarianism (and later Unitarian Universalism) in both good and not-so-good ways. This is not an indictment (ok, maybe it is). But I think to ignore/dismiss this when talking about how and why Unitarian Universalism is the way it is and WHERE Unitarian Universalism is where it is does us all a disservice.

And now I am going to go back and finish my paper on interracial sex and the tv show Scandal. Maybe that will cause less consternation.

6 thoughts on “‘Our White Flight Is Not Their White Flight’ (more thoughts on “The Case for Reparations” and the Shaping of Modern Unitarian Universalism)

  1. Yeah, I remember that problem and that era. How appropriate that you’re moving into a paper on interracial dating, because that’s what my family (which was already racially mixed) saw as the explanation: when kids are old enough to start dating, that’s when parents were getting serious about segregation. Which comports with the statistics that throughout the worst years of segregation, multiracial kids continued to appear amongst families who were too poor to stay in school and too poor to move into protected neighborhoods. Which explains why the Lovings were a shower-after-work couple, not crusading upper-class interlopers.

    (BTW, one of the things that most outrages me against the idea of an always of a fair and benevolent God is that Richard Loving, after fighting so hard for the right to live openly and proudly with his wife, died young, I think in an automobile accident. They should have had more anniversaries… )

  2. BTW, would it be asking too much to request some kind of format support for your blog? This tiny white print is hard on our aging eyes… I totally love the white on black, but could it be larger and bold-face? Some folks might be missing out on your wisdom simply because of this style situation.

  3. Kim — the two examples of “white flight” that I know about in my region are my local UU congregation (All Souls in Shreveport LA) and First Unitarian in Dallas TX.

    In the late 1980′s, the Shreveport congregation left a neighborhood that was working-class and served by public transit to build a new building in the southern end of town where affluent suburb subdivisions were springing up. All Souls Shreveport was founded in the 1950 and their first building wasn’t built until 1959. The move to a more segregated area without bus service happened nearly 30 years later after our transition from a lay-led fellowship to a clergy-led congregation.

    First Unitarian Dallas moved from downtown Dallas to the racially segregated “sundown town” communities near SMU in the mid 1940′s (University Park and Highland Park TX).

    Neither of these white flight shifts were due to the Fellowship Movement but rather due to congregational leaders fleeing more integrated neighborhoods for more segregated neighborhoods.

  4. I suspect I may have triggered this post and I want to be sure I’m understood.

    What I’m coming to understand under the broad label of “white flight” had, at least here where I live, at least three different phases. Around the turn of the previous century, our city was not quite so segregated as it is today. White and black people mostly lived in relative proximity to each other and shared (under the discriminatory conditions of Jim Crow) more of their daily lives.

    After World War II, racist housing policies at every level, from federal to municipal, with the aid of some business elites, began deliberately creating segregated housing for blacks and whites which was more geographically separated. White developments were placed to the north and west; black developments were placed to the south and east. Public facilities–schools and parks–followed.

    I figure that was enabled by the post-WWII housing crisis and also by the quick beginnings of the modern civil rights movement immediately after the war.

    As the civil rights movement got traction via success, starting in Montgomery and moving throughout the south, we got the second phase, which was rapid, classic “white flight”. Unlike that first phase, which was largely elite-driven, this was also a populist phenomenon. (Populism’s evil twin is fascism.) Economic elites enabled it and profited by it, but homeowners participated in it knowingly.

    This is also the era of urban renewal, popularly and accurately known at the time by blacks as “Negro removal”. This was the stick that coerced black homeowners out of their property in return for the moldy carrot of even more segregated neighborhoods. The elite-driven segregation of the first phase wasn’t separate but equal in the first place, and by this time, the inequality had become much worse.

    I think there was explicit racism among the homeowners I’m not convinced was there during that first phase. I figure that was driven by the successes of the civil rights movement.

    The third phase came after white flight and urban renewal had done their damage. We are still living in this phase today. Racial segregation is no longer the law. It is simply a fact on the ground. People moving to town are simply going with the flow. Sufficiently motivated and economically able people can violate segregation in small enough numbers that it doesn’t change a thing, at least yet.

    We could (were there the political will to do so, which doesn’t yet exist) trace out the elites who profited by the actions of the first two phases. Like camp commandants and slave owners, they were confident enough of their prospects to document their actions and their motivations. Many of them remain fat as ticks today. I’d be pleased to see a reparations effort squash them before composting their remains.

    The white homeowners who profited from all three phases aren’t all that different from each other. Their varying motivations aren’t really the point. Bringing them to some understanding of what they’ve profited from and what must be done to remediate it is very different, especially since so many of them today are the descendants of those from the first two phases, and are not who their ancestors were.

    Like Coates, I’m not sure what form reparations can and will take. (In the very long run, they’ll come, in some manner.) Like Coates, I’d like to see HR 40 implemented as a start.

    It’s very different for a white person speaking to other white people about why we are required to restore (to the extent we can) that destruction by which we profited than it is for a black person to speak about these issues. When I talk about these things to most of my white friends, they usually look at me (as local boy Bill Hicks used to say) like a dog that had just been shown a card trick.

    So when I advance a more nuanced view than a black person may find useful, please understand that I am hopeful I speak truthfully, with attention to the facts, and that I am trying (and sometimes failing) to explain to a different audience. When black people call me out on places where I fail to do justice to the reality they live, which I can’t do without speaking to them as well, I am grateful and I am listening.

    I still have to tell my people what they need to hear in a way that they can, maybe, hear it. On this point, I am not particularly hopeful. My prospects aren’t so good. But it’s something I’m called to do.

    • John,
      You’ve written enough comments on here that if you had triggered something in me, I would have written you privately and asked you clarifying questions. Trust me when I say that it was NOT you.

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