White Flight & Structural Racism

There’s an interview with author Rich Benjamin over at In These Times by David Sirota about Benjamin’s new book, Searching for Whitopia: How the Whiter Half Lives (Hyperion, June).  The premise of the book is that Benjamin, a black man, visits the fastest-growing and whitest areas (e.g., “whitopias”) in the U.S. to explore how white America is “geographically separating itself from the rest of the country,” an awkward, passive voice construction of the problem.

Benjamin says that, as a black man, he finds the whitopias to be superficially welcoming and free of what he calls “interpersonal racism,” but that “structural racism” racism persists.

I have some personal knowledge of white flight and how that contributes to structural racism that, in part, illustrates Benjamin’s point (image from here).

When I was in first grade, my family moved from Houston (where I was born) to Corpus Christi, about four hours south and west along the Gulf Coast.   About the time we moved to Corpus, José Cisneros filed suit against the Corpus Christi Independent School District arguing racial discrimination against his children, and all Mexican-American children in the CCISD.

Cisneros, an auto mechanic and active union member, was appalled by the condition of the public schools compared to the parochial schools where he’d previously sent his children.  Cisneros approached the principal at the public school about repairing the crumbling toilet fixtures and broken windows at the school his children attended.  The principal refused. Cisneros, galvanized by his experience as a union member, turned the principal’s refusal into a cause.  He joined forces with a handful of other parents and filed a lawsuit asserting that the disrepair he witnessed was indicative of a pattern of widespread discrimination against Mexican-American children.  Cisneros won and Cisneros v. Corpus Christi ISD (1970) became the first case to extend the U.S. Supreme Court’s Brown v. the Board of Education of Topeka, Kansas decision (1954) to Mexican Americans.

For the next five years, from 1970 to 1975 while I was in grades 3 through 8 in Corpus Christi public schools, CCISD administrators tried everything they could to get in the way of the court’s decision.  We lived next door to Dr. Dana Williams, the man who was the Superintendent of the CCISD.  Although my father was not politically active or, what today we would call civicly engaged, he did check in regularly with Dr. Williams about the status of the implementation of the desegregation case.  After calmly talking with our next door neighbor in moderate terms about school desegregation, my father would come back across the driveway and, behind closed doors reenact these conversations with my mother, only in the retelling, they would include much less moderate, and more overtly racist, language.

At the beginning of the 1975-1976 school year, and my 8th grade year, the Corpus Christi ISD began to implement the first stage of desegregation, with full implementation planned for the following year.

This was just the motivation my father needed to begin rethinking my education.   Faced with the possibility of having to comply with court-ordered desegregation, he began to see the wisdom of sending me to a boarding school outside the reach of the Corpus Christi ISD.   Then, after strong objections from my mother about sending me away and some preliminary investigation into the actual cost of boarding school, he began to seriously consider a private tutor.  Long before “home schooling” was commonplace, this is essentially what he had in mind.  However, neither of my parents felt inclined or equipped to home school me, and when no other suitable private tutor emerged, my father landed on what he thought was the ideal solution: white flight.

In a rather dramatic version of this phenomenon, my father decided that we would leave the relative diversity of Corpus Christi and return to the bleak whiteness of a suburban, strip-mall, no-zoning, oil and gas exurb of Houston.  My father had several goals in mind with this one move: he could expand his business by being closer to the oil and gas movers-and-shakers in Houston, he would stay true to his commitment to pull me from a school under court-ordered desegregation, and I could go to a school that was more challenging than the CCISD schools.

Thus, in the fall of 1976, one year after school desegregation began in earnest in Corpus Christi, we moved to the all-white suburb of Ponderosa Forest, and I started school at the all-white Spring High School.

My personal narrative of my father’s decision to engage in white flight in the mid-1970s is part of the larger picture of “whitopias” that Benjamin refers to in his book.  The kind of decision that my father made about relocating our family to an apartheid-like, privileged suburb of Houston is one that, some thirty years later, continues to play itself out across the U.S., in the north, east, south and west.  As Benjamin notes in the interview with Sirota:

Interpersonal racism is declining. I met such lovely people across whitopia. In our tolerant, relentlessly friendly society, people rarely degrade others because of skin color. The majority of Americans accept politicians, co-workers and friendships from different races.

But structural racism—or, the policies and behaviors of institutions that perpetuate racial segregation and inequality—is not on the decline. America’s schools and neighborhoods are as racially segregated today as they were in 1970. That’s a big problem. And during my research, I discovered that my native New York City has the same demonstrable level of black-white segregation that it did in 1910. Nothing has changed on that front in a century.

While I agree that public expressions of overt racism are declining, I think that Benjamin is naïve to minimize the individual racism of whites (e.g., Picca and Feagin, Two-Faced Racism, 2007).  He is right to emphasize the ongoing impact of structural racism.  The fact is that court-ordered school desegregation was intended to dismantle structural and institutional racism in education, yet white people – like my father – continue to resist such dismantling of the American system of apartheid by voting with their moving vans,  relocating to all-white suburbs and sending their children to all-white schools.


  1. Jessie Author

    Hi Robby ~ Thanks for your comment. There’s a lot in the ‘contrarian’ view by Heather McDonald that you posted, but not a lot that’s new.

    McDonald writes and works for the ultra-conservative Manhattan Institute, the same ‘think’ tank that provided much of the draconian (and racist) policies of the Guiliani administration here in NYC.

    McDonald makes her living writing this kind of stuff denying the reality of racism (this is a common schtick of hers), so her harangues about the putative “the race industry” strike me as both disingenuous, hypocritical, and inflected with her own self-interest.

    McDonald’s so-called argument in the piece you linked to doesn’t hang together logically. In it, she starts out making a “color-blind” argument. She writes that without the “incessant harangue on white racism” by educators (leaving aside for the moment the easily demonstrated lack of any factual basis for such a claim), that “most students are indifferent to race and just want to get along. (Again, leaving aside that this is demonstrably false.) She goes on, “If left to themselves, they would go about their business perfectly happily and color-blindly…” Here again, she’s not saying anything new, recycling the color-blind rhetoric once more.

    Then, at the end of her piece, she switches gears back to a more classic rhetorical strategy when it comes to race: skin color as an indicator of character and behavior. “When communities resist an influx of Section 8 housing-voucher holders from the inner city, say, they are reacting overwhelmingly to behavior. Skin color is a proxy for that behavior. If inner-city blacks behaved like Asians—cramming as much knowledge into their kids as they can possibly fit into their skulls—the lingering wariness towards lower-income blacks that many Americans unquestionably harbor would disappear.” (Once more, leaving aside the demonstrably false accusations that lower-income blacks don’t care about education and behave badly in Section 8 housing.)

    So, which is it? Color-blindness or skin color as a proxy for behavior? McDonald isn’t clear.

  2. siss

    JESSIE: Although you didn’t address this portion of the article, I’m interested to hear you thoughts about this quote:

    [ “In New York City, one of the nation’s safest large cities, 83 percent of all gun assailants were black during the first six months of 2008, according to victims and witnesses, though blacks make up only 24 percent of the city’s population. Add Hispanic perps, and you account for 98 percent of all shootings in New York City. The face of violent crime in cities is almost exclusively black or brown. That explains why someone might feel a sense of trepidation when approached by a group of black youths. That’s not racism; it’s the reality of crime. And it’s that reality that determines whom the police stop, frisk, and arrest.” ]

    In my mind that seems pretty plausible.

  3. Robby

    Ad ad hominem attack on the institute and Ms. Mac Donald couched in pseudo-science jargon, as opposed to an empirical attempt to debate the numbers she cites, was about what I expected. You didn’t disappoint.

  4. Jessie Author

    Hi Siss ~ what that quote that you pull out doesn’t address is that the majority of the victims of gun violence are black and brown as well. Sure, violence is one of those ‘social dislocations’ associated with extreme proverty, but despite the assertions of people like McDonald, skin color is not a reliable proxy for predicting bad behavior (in this case, violent behavior). Robby, dude, you have a seriously low threshold for ad hominen attacks. Seriously.

  5. siss

    I don’t believe that skin color is a proxy for bad behavior. What I was looking for was your explanation in why that statement is not necessarily false. If McDonalds %’s are accurate of NYC, it’s only natural to have perceived trepidation. Past behavior is a predicator of future behavior, structural racism aside. This image has harmed the minority community and with these staggering numbers, still continues to do so. The only way to change this view is from the inside out. Stop carrying guns and illegal substances or participating in gang-related activities. Taking these or similar measures would reduce the number of minorities in prisons (by default), therefore transforming their image from “I should really watch out for that black guy…. He’s smiling at me because he plans to steal my purse” to…. “What a nice gentlemen for smiling at me, I should smile back to return the gesture.”
    I know that whites engage in the same activities and don’t receive as much press, or jail time for that matter. So to battle this disproportional attention, they [communities that feel targeted] should avoid the appearance of impropriety all together. To further illustrate this point, lets take the recently tragedy involving Mr. Grant into account. This event would never have occurred if he was at home with his family. He wasn’t doing anything wrong by going out with his friends to celebrate. It’s the fact that with a small daughter and girlfriend (wife, possibly? I cannot remember) at home, he should have been in bed asleep in the wee hours that morning. This brings up another image issue within the black community, in particular, about the lack of positive male role models. A positive role model wouldn’t do such a thing with a family at home.
    >>Sorry to stray off topic<< All Im trying to point out is that these days, the appearance of impropriety is all it really takes to generate an incorrect perception. Sad, but true.

  6. Seattle in Texas

    I was trying to take a break from this blog and sit back and read for a bit, but damn. siss–I’d gladly burn your sheet for you if you’d like. You’re getting on my nerves–and probably pretty much everybody else’s. Give it up and go back to the hate site you came from. Please.

  7. Robby

    And this is what happens when one tries to launch an “honest” discussion on race. Toe the party line or be accused of wearing a hood, right Seattle? Or be derisively dismissed because of a typo, right Jessie? Someone recommended this blog as a home of reasonable discourse. Someone was apparently mistaken: same ol’ agit prop BS couched in impenetrable race jargon. Bye RR.

  8. Joe

    Robby, if you want to engage in honest discussions on racial matters, you need to cite substantial research evidence for what is a classical white-framed take you are offering on these matters. Please do Cite hard evidence from field research that whites are not racist, that there is no significant housing discrimination, etc. You cannot do it, I wager.

    In contrast, I can provide more than a dozen recent research books full of data showing how, when, where, and why whites today act in many racist, racially discriminatory ways. And many research articles. The Manhattan Institute is the established white version, not at all contrarian, and thus gets millions of dollars from the right wing of the ruling elite to parrot the old white-framed lies about US racial matters, and those on this site have never gotten much to do research on how racism actually operates. People who do racism research get death threats, like some of us, just for raising these questions and doing field research on white racism.

    If you were honestly interested in real debate, you would provide some research evidence, and not wimp out on the discussion after a couple of mild responses to the rather stereotyped assertions made the non-contrarian MI thing you cited.

  9. adia

    Siss, you seem to be engaging in a pretty classic case of blaming the victim. Is your argument really that Oscar Grant is responsible for his own shooting, because he was out late at night when he had a family? That seems to me a callous and horribly insensitive thing to suggest. Being out late at night doesn’t justify being shot in the back, regardless of your marital status or how many kids you do or don’t have at home. That’s a disgusting thing to say, and I doubt you would attempt to excuse something like this in that way if–God forbid–it happened to one of your loved ones.

    Why is the only way to change white fears of blacks from the “inside out?” Why shouldn’t whites take responsibility for unlearning racist, stereotyped behavior? Given that most whites who experience violent crime will encounter it at the hands of other whites (see Wise 2008), their fears of attacks by black men are largely grounded in racist stereotypes rather than past behavior. So, white (women) who see a black man smiling at them and fear he will steal their purses are, statistically, likely not responding to their own past experiences, or those of anyone they know, or even things that are likely to happen to them in the future. They are responding to racist stereotypes that associate black men with criminality, so THEY should take responsibility for this and *should* be the ones to change their erroneous, racist way of thinking.

    Finally, your claim that the black community lacks positive black male role models is simply inaccurate and evidence of your lack of familiarity with black communities. The black community is not monolithic, it is not pathological, and it is disingenuous to make this blanket claim that strong male role models are absent or unavailable–a premise that, assuming it were accurate, assumes that the insertion of which would then eliminate lack of access to quality, affordable health care (Wise 2008), fix underfunded public schools (Kozol), ensure that poor black women no longer forced sterilization (Nelson 2000), and other problems disproportionately facing black Americans. Corresponding to patriarchal values doesn’t fix structural inequalities.

    I appreciate your attempt to engage people in dialogue, but find the things that you are saying very disappointing attempts to explain away and legitimize racism.

  10. adia

    p.s. Robby, it seems a bit hypocritical for you to complain about the lack of “reasonable discourse” here after Jessie thanked you for your comment, took the time to respond to your question, and you responded by dismissing her answer as “pseudo-science” jargon and essentially accused her of dodging the issue.

  11. Kristen L

    Jessie, thank you for this post. There are so many white people who’ve witnessed such blatant acts of racism in their own families and communities who won’t speak about it. (Or, I would wager who have forgotten incidents such as this due to a lack of concern.) Your childhood example is powerful in that it shows how racism has been done on our behalf when we were children (by adults who believed it was in our best interest of all things). And as the years pass and those adults of our childhoods pass on, our only responsible choice is to acknowledge these acts, tell the stories, and get to work trying to dismantle white racism.

  12. siss

    ADIA: My point wasn’t intended to point the blame, especially in Mr. Grant’s case. It was used as an example illustrating my previous point. What happened to him was in no way his fault and the officer that shot him should be prosecuted to the fullest extent. What I was trying to derive from it was basically he was in the wrong place at the wrong time. That the whole situation could have been prevented if he had been else where that night, whether at home or another location.
    As for changing from the inside out, I live in a very diverse city in which I base my opinions on my own experiences. It’s only natural for others to associate black men that way if those are the only faces they see coming out of prison. A person’s perception is their reality. Now it’s a whole different discussion about how they got there (our screwed up CJ system that disproportionably sends minorities to prison).
    The black role model suggestion was a side note. And I guess familiarly with the black community is relative according to ones personal experiences. In no way am I attempting to “explain away or legitimize racism”. Statistically, that’s impossible to do. What I am doing is getting feedback from my opinions. Isn’t that the purpose of this site? To change the white racial frame and breakdown racial barriers through frank discussion?
    SIT: Wow. Your tasteless comments exhibit your lack of class. It’s such a pity that you have fallen into the trap of using anger, jealousy, resentment and/or emotions to get your point across. Supposing you are a proponent anti-racism, what is your basis for these personal (and quite racist, might I add) attacks? That is the whole reason why I’m participating in these discussions, in order to become more aware of the issues that were previously unnoticed.

  13. Seattle in Texas

    siss–I’ve got no class and no shame in general–but more so with folks who are racist. Do know I was showing courtesy here–and not because of the gender you suggest here. I know the difference between somebody is really trying to learn/understand/grow, versus being antogonistic and/or playing headgames.

    You pissed me off with your very rude and ignorant commment about a black man on the bus–as well as other things you said. You don’t show stupidity and disrespect on here, and you won’t get what you percieve to be rude comments that offend a poor old little delicate white woman who is otherwise bestowed white female privilege in this society that feeds into and reinforces this white supremacist society, in return. *heyalp! heyalp!* Naaaw. Not here. And you can be rest assured I am more respectful here on this blog than the racists who come on here are, as well as in person.

    And you’re asking for a “frank discussion”–that’s what you’re getting on my end. *set a flame to the sheet* (I call bullshit on most of what you say).

    As for Robby above–now now, here’s a tissue….and one for you too siss…. Though, if the both of you do set onto a path to work towards antiracism–then heh, I wish you the best–and I would hope you stick around. Perhaps read some of the books on the suggested reading list; such as, Systemic Racism, White Racism, and Racist America. Be well.

  14. siss

    SIT: It such a shame no one taught you any better because in the end, no matter how intelligent you are, it makes you look incompetent. Also, if you are implying that I’m a “poor old little delicate white woman”, you’re foolish to assume that from my previous comments. This will be my last post wasted on your hateful rhetoric. And don’t worry, no matter how “annoying” you find me to be…suck it up, because I’m here to stay. BE WELL 🙂

  15. Seattle in Texas

    There’s no shame siss, no shame at all. You insult many people when you insult me–folks that are not even within your perepheral cognitive vision and framework–if they are, then stereotypically. But I take your comment to be a compliment, as if I said the things you did or act the way you probably do in real life, I would bring great insult to those I care about most–both alive and passed.

    I don’t claim to be intelligent or competent. Maybe I’m educated and maybe I’m not. If I claimed being educated anywhere on this blog, well, I could be lying? Either way, the majority of my time is not spent with those of higher SES and I’m not dazzled or flattered by those who sit in the higher ranks.

    And I could care less how I “look” to anybody. But I do care about my deeds…. Keep going please, and try harder.

    On your comments–you do understand the many men of color have been wrongfully accussed of harming white women historically, do you not? Are you aware of the many consaquences that has caused not only them firsthand, but their families and their future lineal generations? And might I add, because of the irrational fears of white women with relation to Black men such as yours, shall we go back to segregated transit systems? How often, even today, do white women commit crimes of some sort and then cry out it was a Black man who did it? Or make false accusations of some sort, then say some non-existent Black man did it? Shall I go on?

    And likewise, I shall waste no more of my time on your comments….

  16. adia

    Siss–thanks for clarifying your points. However, you do say in your earlier post re: Mr. Grant that “with a small daughter and girlfriend (wife, possibly? I cannot remember) at home, he should have been in bed asleep in the wee hours that morning. This brings up another image issue within the black community, in particular, about the lack of positive male role models. A positive role model wouldn’t do such a thing with a family at home.” While I appreciate you clarifying that the situation could have been averted by him changing his behavior, my point is that this wording still places the onus for change on Mr. Grant, which in my opinion is not where it belongs. This situation could also have been avoided had the officer chosen not to shoot Mr. Grant. I won’t say it could necessarily have been avoided if officers who have previously shot unarmed black men like Amadou Diallo, Tommy Thompson, or Sean Bell, lived in a society where they faced some penalty for their actions, but had these officers been duly disciplined/punished, it would at least have offered a different context. So I question why the onus should have been on Mr. Grant–or other black men–to observe a self-imposed curfew to avoid getting shot in the back. And is that necessarily even foolproof? Remember, Amadou Diallo was on his way home from work when the 41 bullets hit him. Should he not have had a job? Gotten a lighter colored wallet? When you advise citizens to put themselves under near-martial law to avoid police brutality, it seems that you implicitly sanction the brutality itself rather than identifying it as a problem.

    You said also that “the black role model suggestion was a side note.” But in your initial post, you originally contended that his choice to be out late rendered Mr. Grant a poor role model, as “a positive role model wouldn’t do such a thing with a family at home.” Even if Mr. Grant wasn’t a great role model (and no evidence exists to support this, as being out late at night doesn’t automatically preclude you from being a role model), why was that a logical side note from saying that the man wouldn’t have been shot in the back (while he was handcuffed) if he had been elsewhere? Doesn’t this imply that had he been being home with his family and meeting (your) standards of being a good role model, rather than where he was, he wouldn’t have found himself in this predicament? Being a good role model doesn’t keep you from being shot in the back, and it shouldn’t even be a prerequisite. No matter how good or bad of a person you are, you shouldn’t get shot in the back unless you are posing a lethal, direct, and imminent threat to the lives of others. PERIOD.

    Finally, the idea that the black community lacks black male role models may well be your perception based on your experiences, but it’s still a sweeping and inaccurate generalization. For some academic sources, check out Mitch Duneier’s (may have misspelled his last name) “Slim’s Table,” or the classic “Talley’s Corner.” These studies deconstruct and debunk the popular stereotype of black communities as lacking black male role models, but I would reiterate that conforming to patriarchal standards won’t eliminate the structural issues facing black communities.

    Finally, one more thing. You stated that “it’s only natural for others to associate black men that way if those are the only faces they see coming out of prison. “But once again, whites are more likely to be victims of crime perpetrated *by other whites*. So if you want to talk about what’s natural, whites should fear other whites since those are the ones more likely to cause them harm. But you and I know that that’s usually not the case, right?

    I agree with you that the point of this site is definitely to get feedback on opinions and to exchange in dialogue, and that’s what I was (and am) offering with my comments. I appreciate your contributions here and your attempts to discuss concepts that are often very touchy and sensitive (bravo to you for refusing to be part of the “nation of cowards”!). However, even in re-reading your comments it does seem that you’re making a case that rests on black men having to go to some pretty extreme measures to avoid being shot. If that’s your argument, then I think the emphasis is misplaced, and onus should be on cops not to shoot unarmed black men.

  17. siss

    Adia – Thank you for your thorough response. I agree adamantly with your point “This situation could also have been avoided had the officer chosen not to shoot Mr. Grant […] No matter how good or bad of a person you are, you shouldn’t get shot in the back unless you are posing a lethal, direct, and imminent threat to the lives of others. PERIOD.” My citation of this case was used to illustrate an example of targeted communities helping to clean up their image. I now see in hindsight that it was a terrible example. I have read the comments from the articles on Grant and it has sparked a ton of controversy. I noted in my post that I strayed off the topic; and I have since been unable to get back to my original point. (which is funny because what we are discussing is not from Jessie’s article, but a referenced one lol)
    Thank you for the suggested reading, I will certainly look into them.
    Question from your post: [“But once again, whites are more likely to be victims of crime perpetrated *by other whites*. So if you want to talk about what’s natural, whites should fear other whites since those are the ones more likely to cause them harm.”] Why should whites have a fear of other whites when white-on-white violence doesn’t make the evening news? They could, and should, do the research themselves instead of relying on the “white racially framed” television/internet/radio media, but very few do. Therefore, when the white masses only see minority faces coming from prison (via mass media), it’s only natural (and naïvely I suppose) for them to feel hesitant among these communities.
    If both whites and non-whites do their part to correct these damning images, it will further the effort to end racism in its numerous forms. Naïvely

  18. E.Essex

    Disturbing. I wonder if other ‘races’ put forth so much effort demonizing themselves. I wonder what would happen if white people found things to celebrate about their culture, their heritage, accomplishments, etc. Take a cue from black people not the blaming white people part, but by allowing yourself to look for things to celebrate and improve in your “people,” not nitpick and pathologize what are essentially human tendencies that we all work on evolving. Are there blogs about how other cultures tend to live among themselves and how wrong that is? Well, it’s not neccessarily wrong, just when white people do it. [fyi, I realize the book referenced is written by a black man, but the mob clubbing themselves in response is white.) People, not every white person is rich and/or responsible for society’s problems! Good job self-hating. White guilt. Gotta love it.

  19. Seattle in Texas

    Every white person, regardless of social class, has a responsibility to help correct the historical and contemporary wrongs and ills this nation of white supremacy has greatly afforded groups of color at no fault of their own, and certainly not by request. Can it even come forth in a nation that relishes in capitalism and all of the values that it embraces (indivdiualism, comptetition, obsession with the material world, lust for wealth, etc.)–I might ask? Why can’t whites take responsibility? Well, a number of reasons…ranging from being chicken shits to pure greed. White supremacy. Gotta love it.

  20. SMcKnight

    Brown v. Board transcripts demonstrate “racially color-blind” children do not exist when students are segregated and academically impoverished. The Supreme Court has recognized the importance of the doll test. Two identical dolls, one black and one white, were given to children. By a majority, even the black children believed that the white doll, which were identical in every detail except for skin pigmentation to the darker hued doll, were “better” and “preferred.” The effects of segregation are detrimential to minorities. Children can perceive environmental influences just as adults can. Research proves these points.


  1. Is White the New Black? :: racismreview.com

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