White Flight

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Kevin M. Kruse. White Flight: Atlanta and the Making of Modern Conservatism. Princeton University Press, 2005

Contents

Summary

In his book White Flight: Atlanta and the Making of Modern Conservatism, Kevin M. Kruse studies white Atlantans’ movement away from the center of the city to the suburbs. In Kruse’s terminology, this movement began as white flight and morphed into “suburban secession.” Kruse's central argument is that African-American Atlantans, pressed by a shortage of housing in traditional black neighborhoods and encouraged by the rising tide of the civil rights movement, sought domicile in traditionally white city neighborhoods. White residents at first resisted these incursions and then retrenched in suburbs that made it easier to maintain the racial environment they sought.

Kruse draws a portrait of an Atlanta that, throughout the decades after the First World War, was very much a town run by an old-boy network. Perennial mayor Hartsfield led a coalition that included affluent whites with ties to the Coca-Cola Corporation and every other major business and trade association in Atlanta. Nor did the connections stop there. Hartsfield's ties extended far into the established black community, where men with names like King, Herndon, and Perry presided over a black community that was rich in dollars and cultural expression. This network allowed for the quiet resolution of disputes--both racial and economic--to the benefit of all. The black community in Atlanta had a freer hand in economic discourse and greater social equality than black residents of most southern cities. All of this promoted economic growth and racial harmony.

But all was not well in Atlanta. Lower-middle-class and poor whites were not part of Hartsfield's coalition, and a post-WWII housing shortage had hit the black community hard. As black residents began moving out of traditional African-American neighborhoods and into lower-class white neighborhoods, tensions rose. To white residents of the neighborhoods into which blacks moved, resistance was rooted in two principles: Ideals about racial segregation, and real estate values.

The establishment of Jim Crowe segregation in the last decades of the 19th century meant white people lived in one locality and black people in another. Black movement across these lines challenged this white-instilled order and therefore challenged the idea of white preeminence in southern society. Conventional wisdom held that when a black population took root in a white area, the value of real estate within that locality would plummet. Thus, from a white perspective, having black neighbors was both a challenge and a threat.

At first, this resistance had a decidedly radical slant. Groups like the Columbians, the Ku Klux Klan, and a homeowners' group known as the West End Cooperative Corporation evoked white rights and the fittingness of violence to keep black families out of white neighborhoods. But the nation in general, and the Hartsfield coalition in particular, were not inclined to support fascist reactionary campaigns; a different type of resistance was required and speedily developed.

This new resistance played down the idea of segregation and focused instead on property values. In this way, white homeowners could be more sympathetically portrayed as honest working folk just trying to protect their meager assets from powers they could not control. In this new resistance, church congregations and homeowners’ associations played a central role and garnered a frightening amount of positive public support.

Similar battles were fought over the use of public facilities and public schools. Segregation had been a typical feature of southern parks, swimming pools, golf courses, and public schools. But as African Americans began to move into areas where these public services were available, they began to lay claim to their right to avail themselves of them. In these areas it was virtually impossible for whites to spin their resistance as anything other than support for segregation. By the early 1960s, a liberal national agenda and the civil rights movement had made any segregation-based action a lost cause. This did not mean there was no white resistance, but it did mean that resistance would only slow the advance of African Americans into new communities.

And this progress would be steady. Black families moved into white urban neighborhoods throughout the 1950s, 1960s, and 1970s. While housing resistance had gained some public support through image management, it required the unanimous support of all residents in a given community, for as soon as one white family sold to a black family, the remaining white residents would scramble to sell their houses before the anticipated collapse of real estate values could occur. But even as resistance in urban communities diminished, a new front was being opened: The suburbs.

For those who moved into them, the suburbs represented the last best hope for a managed lifestyle. In that environment, the residents’ experience with inner-city neighborhoods that had been co-opted by the black community, the suburbs’ lack of public transportation, their privately owned facilities for recreation and education, their carefully crafted local ordinances, and no small amount of social pressure all contrived to motivate and enable suburbanites to manage who lived in those communities and who didn't. At the same time, the national agenda’s shift toward conservativism diminished the likelihood that federal authority would provide ongoing support to blacks’ efforts to spread their residential footprint into outlying areas.

Thus, integration was not the outcome of residential struggles in the south. As black families moved in, white families moved out. Rather than learning to live together, the races simply redrew the lines that had separated them, and in so doing made those lines more subtle and more emphatic.

Commentary

Unlike other writers on this subject, Kruse makes a real effort to give the perspective of white homeowners in a southern city. His text attempts to remove personal passion from the narrative so that his readers might understand why white homeowners resisted shifts in black residential patterns. In so doing, Kruse illustrates the pro-segregation side of the housing struggle without the baggage of condemnation. Some might consider this to be dangerously close to political incorrectness, but it actually infuses his prose with the vitality of a fresh historical perspective.

By way of compensation, Kruse’s narrative repeatedly drifts into the history of the civil rights movement, without explicitly linking the detour back to the original argument.

By far the greatest weakness of the work is Kruse’s assertion that white flight in the south was driven by race. This over-simplification of the movement to the suburbs ignores the significant, nonracial economic and emotional imperatives that stoked the desire to leave the city.

Scott Abeel, Spring 2011

Kevin M. Kruse has created a very fine study of the origins, process, and outcome of white flight from the inner city to suburbia. However, using Atlanta as a case study of white flight limits the argument to an unusual city with an atypical power structure. Subsequently, the regionalism of the study limits its application to Atlanta as opposed to the national experience of white flight from the major cities. Also one can see the connection with some of the elements of modern conservatism, e.g. "the 'right' to remain free from...dangerous encroachments by the federal government" (9), but this description seems to define a very diverse movement into a narrow category. Unfortunately, these are two significant draw backs to an otherwise excellent work.

Richard Hardesty, Fall 2011

Post-war Atlanta earned a reputation for racial progressivism through its desegregation of airports, libraries, buses, and other public accommodations, becoming known as “the City Too Busy to Hate.” However, Atlanta’s racial progressivism stopped at the boundaries that separated black communities and white communities, facilitating the spatial separation that characterized post-war Detroit in The Origins of the Urban Crisis. Community desegregation had the legal support of the courts, but whites responded by fleeing Atlanta for the suburbs. As a result, Atlanta also became known as “the City Too Busy Moving to Hate” (3, 5, 8). Kevin M. Kruse sought to fill a historiographical hole by providing an in-depth examination of white flight from a grass-roots perspective. At the same time, Kruse sought to build off of works like Canarsie by examining the course of modern conservatism in the South. He argued that white flight not only represented a fluid phenomenon that whites adjusted to meet the moral demands of the civil rights movement, but white flight also facilitated a political revolution that forced southern white conservatives to craft a new political ideology that abandoned its traditional populist message in favor of rights, freedoms, and individualism (6, 7-8).

Post-war Atlanta’s black and white power structures formed a political coalition that paced the city’s racial progress. As Kruse maintained, “these two elites, white and black, had worked together to create something in the city that stood apart from the more familiar politics of white supremacy surrounding Atlanta: a political system that saw racial progressivism and economic progress as inseparable” (20, 37). African Americans endured the politics of rural racism during the early twentieth century, as Eugene Talmadge’s emphasis on white supremacy cemented black disenfranchisement. However, by the mid-1940s, African Americans found open political avenues. The Georgia legislature removed the poll tax when rewriting the state constitution, and the United States Supreme Court ruled the white primary unconstitutional. By the summer of 1946, over 100,000 African Americans registered to vote (20-3). Moreover, black political leaders like John Wesley Dobbs and Austin Walden gained a level of political power in Atlanta that they could not find elsewhere in the Deep South, and, through their establishment of the Atlanta Negro Voters League in 1949, white elites had to listen to black demands for better services (29-30, 32-4). White leaders like Mayor William Hartsfield and Coco-Cola executive Robert Woodruff put aside their private racial feelings to form a symbiotic coalition with black elites to provide civil rights in exchange for votes. By 1953, Atlanta became “an urban oasis in the Sahara of segregation” (36-8, 40-1).

The coalition between black and white elites laid the foundation for Atlanta’s growing white resistance and community segregation. As Kruse noted, “[t]hroughout the 1950s and 1960s, during the peak of the moderate coalition’s apparent power and prestige, Atlanta’s segregationists slowly gathered steam. As city leaders pressed ahead with the politics of progress, these disaffected working-class and middle-class whites gathered together in a politics of retrenchment” (41). Groups like the West Side Mutual Development Committee (WSMDC) and the Southwest Citizens Association developed a subtle, rights-based argument in order to protect the integrity of the homogeneous, white community. For instance, they promoted property rights and the right of self-government. Both groups worked with white residents, black real estate agents, and government officials, seeking to establish boundary lines or alternate sites for black homes (77, 78-9, 83-5). However, their efforts failed to stop the black advance into white neighborhoods. African Americans also gained access to city busses, pools, parks, and golf courses. Ultimately, whites responded by physically withdrawing to the “still-segregated” suburbs, taking with them their economic, social, and political support (103-4, 107).

White flight, furthermore, served to establish modern, southern conservatism. As Kruse showed, “[t]raditional conservative elements, such as hostility to the federal government and faith in free enterprise, underwent fundamental transformations. At the same time, segregationist resistance inspired the creation of new conservative causes, such as tuition vouchers, the tax revolt, and the privitazation of public services” (10). Republicans, meanwhile, articulated the attitudes of white suburbanites. As suburbanites resisted municipal attempts to extend public housing into the suburbs, Republicans like Congressman Ben Blackburn argued that “[s]uburbanites have invested their lives in their houses and they don’t want to see them ruined” by “the welfare mother with her numerous kids.” National politicians like Richard Nixon also appealed to suburban sensibilities, especially in naming Spiro Agnew as his running mate in 1968 given his suburban experience (252-3). The political ramifications of white flight continued to shape the modern political environment. As African American movement into the suburbs prompted white flight into the exurbs, Republican politicians continued to advocate the politics of white flight. President George W. Bush, for instance, represented a strong advocate of the exurban Sun Belt, extending tuition vouchers and proposing the partial privatization of Social Security. As a result, Kruse concluded that the politics of white flight remain a predominant force in modern American politics (265-6).

Kruse’s analysis overemphasized race as an issue that prompted white flight and the development of modern conservatism, overlooking other important contributing factors. For example, Robert M. Fogelson’s Downtown showed how improvements in transportation and communication led to the movement of businesses and people from downtown to the periphery and ultimately the suburbs. Yet, issues like crime further fueled white flight and became an issue that helped spur the conservative ascendency in the Republican Party. Michael W. Flamm’s Law and Order showed the importance of crime in the political shift that took place during the late 1960s. With liberals responding too late to rising crime rates, Flamm noted that “[b]y 1968 law and order was the most important domestic issue in the presidential election and arguably the decisive factor in Richard Nixon’s narrow triumph over Hubert Humphrey” (Flamm 2). Kruse failed to explore many of the non-racial issues and political transformations that shaped white flight, but it is a small drawback to an expertly researched and communicated study.

Kruse thrived by presenting his work from a bottom-up perspective, skillfully examining and understanding how segregationists viewed themselves. In doing so, Kruse persuasively connected white flight to issues that defined modern conservatism. Segregationists did not see themselves “fighting against the rights of others. But, in their own minds, segregationists were instead fighting for rights of their own…” (9). Kruse’s argument clearly explained the racial mindset that shaped the segregationists’ political views, not only in Atlanta but in cities across the country. In Baltimore, as the white backlash against additional black civil rights gained momentum during the mid-1960s, George P. Mahoney based his gubernatorial run on his opposition to open housing, using individual property rights as a means to cater to white fears of neighborhood desegregation. Mahoney’s run for governor lent credence to Kruse’s argument, but, more importantly, his campaign highlighted the significance of Kruse’s work. At a time when studies like Suburban Warriors chronicled the suburban origins of modern conservatism, Kruse showed how the political shift developed in the midst of urban decay.

Lindsey Bestebreurtje, Fall 2012

A strength of this book was in showing the evolution in white resistance to the Civil Rights Movement. This evolution of resistance from lower class whites to middle and upper class whites fit nicely with McGirr’s narrative in Suburban Warriors. As Civil Rights goals changed from public accommodations to private accommodations whites stopped seeing black rights as in their own best interest. At the same time young black activists became increasingly more assertive, causing the moderate coalition of an older generation of black leadership and white elite business leaders to lose control. Middle and upper class whites became increasingly unwilling to support racial moderation while traditional white supremacists continued to attack black rights, leading to an abandonment of Atlanta by whites after a brief and at times violent struggle against integration.

While successful in detailing the ways in which Atlanta’s political structure changed from the 1940’s to the 1970’s this book fell short in its understanding of Atlanta as a “moderate” city of the South. Too frequently Kruse took this supposed moderation at face value. When describing the sit-in movement at Rich’s department store, for example, owner Dick Rich is described as one of “Atlanta’s moderate business leaders” who had a strong “track record in amicable race relations.” (pp 185-6) But then Kruse goes on to describe the stores’ policy of not allowing black patrons to try on clothes, eat at the lunch counter, or use integrated restrooms, instead being forced to use colored facilities which were “notoriously filthy.” (pp 185) This does not seem like a bastion of moderate race relations.

This same attitude led Kruse to seem to blame the student movement and the more radical leaders of the Civil Rights Movement for weakening the moderate coalition. Hurting moderates from within allowed more radical white supremacists to become influential. This set in motion a series of events where the moderate coalition fell apart, white supremacists gained power, whites fled the city, civil rights legislation was never fully realized, and a new moderate coalition was recreated in the 1990’s with little improvements overall. It is unclear to me if Kruse believes that the moderate coalition would have eventually given African Americans full rights in Atlanta in a way which would have avoided white flight backlash, but the blame for this backlash lands far too close to the Civil Rights Movement for my comfort .

There was one final weakness which deserves mentioning. That is Kruse’s mis-identification of S.S. symbolism in the discussion of Atlanta’s neo-Nazi group the Columbians. Calling their logo a “lightening bolt” and not seeing its clear connections to Hitler’s elite bodyguard unit did not impact the narrative of the work, but was such a glaring oversight that it deserved mentioning.

For these reasons this book is not ultimately recommended addition to the scholarship on white flight in my opinion.

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