In the 1960s and '70s, "There goes the neighborhood" was both a popular punch line and a reflection of real-life unease. Many white homeowners felt fearful when the first minority family moved in down the block, convinced that it meant the area—and the value of their property—would quickly deteriorate.
Today, plenty of minorities are in the middle class (or beyond); such a demographic shift no longer signifies socioeconomic decline. So, aside from pure prejudice, there's no clear reason why "white flight" should persist.
And yet, a new study that examines residential segregation in America's suburbs concludes that it very much does.
"Residential economic integration may be slowly decoupling from residential racial integration with white residents," writes Indiana University sociologist Samuel Kye. "Stereotypes and prejudice may persist, even despite the socioeconomic attainments of minority groups."
In the journal Social Science Research, Kye used Census Bureau data from 1990 to 2010 to examine white flight in suburban neighborhoods in the country's 150 largest metropolitan areas. "This sample," he writes, "reflects the recent migration of immigrants to 'new destinations' that have continued to expand the distribution of non-whites beyond their traditionally heavy concentrations in the few largest metropolitan areas."
Of the 27,891 Census tracts he looked at, 3,252 experienced "white flight," which he defines as a neighborhood losing at least 25 percent of its white population between 2000 and 2010. These tracts experienced "an average magnitude loss of 40 percent of the original white population."
"Whites continue to leave neighborhoods with significant levels of non-white residential growth," he reports.
Strikingly, Kye found that, "relative to poorer neighborhoods, white flight becomes systematically more likely in middle-class neighborhoods at higher thresholds of black, Hispanic, and Asian population presence.
"Race not only remains salient in middle-class neighborhoods," he writes, "but motivates white flight to an even greater degree relative to those same effects in poorer neighborhoods."
A few specifics: "White flight eventually becomes more likely in middle-class neighborhoods when the presence of Hispanics and Asians exceeds 25 percent and 21 percent, respectively," he writes. "Middle-class neighborhoods appear to be less reliable routes for the residential integration of Hispanics and Asians."
This continuing trend has a number of consequences for an increasingly multicultural America, none of them positive. Kye notes that, traditionally, racial segregation has been "a key predictor of reduced life chances, across health, academic, and economic outcomes."
What's more, he adds, "racially integrated neighborhoods represent key sites where sustained exposure and contact may continue to erode longstanding divisions, and improve levels of intergroup cooperation and trust." But it's hard sustaining such environments when so many whites choose to move out.
A Raisin in the Sun will celebrate its 60th anniversary next year, but it remains as relevant as ever. At least in the suburbs, a lot of white residents still prefer living around other whites—and they're willing to uproot their families to make that happen.