Kevin Kruse has become a ‘twitter famous’ historian. He has become known for his long detailed threads, with lots of documentation, rebutting Dinesh D’Souza. If you are on twitter and do not follow him, he is a worthy twitter follow. Earlier this year I read his most recent book, Fault Lines: A History of the United States Since 1974.
Although I live just outside of Atlanta, and my wife’s family has lived in the Atlanta area for generations, I do not know well the history of Atlanta. Local accounts like this are essential to gain an understanding of modern realities. For instance, even this year, there has been much discussion about public transportation and Gwinnett County narrowly voted against extending public transportation from Atlanta into the suburbs. Historical context is necessary to understand the current events fully. (Blood at the Root is another local history about an earlier era that also still has modern implications.)
White Flight is a detailed local history from the early 1940s through the mid-1960s with briefer excursions into the 1990s. Part of the thesis of the book is that the modern conservative movement, especially the libertarian wing of that movement was influenced by the individualism that arose in white flight. My oversimplification of Kruse’s argument is that before desegregation White southerners were not necessarily pro-tax, but were more supportive of public spaces, parks and common good types of activities when those spaces were exclusively White. But as desegregation became required for all public areas, Whites largely abandoned public spaces as those spaces became integrated. White flight created a kind of individualism and self-sufficiency because the home of the individual could not be required to be integrated. And at the same time, support for public good spending decreased because Whites had a decreasing interest in shared common good spending and space (including schools).
Because I do not know the local history well, I literally gasped when I heard about KKK counter-protests to the protests against Rich’s Department stores. As documented earlier in the book, Atlanta had a history of integration of public spaces being the result of behind the scenes negotiations and not public protests. Part of the behind the scenes talks was the coalition of political and business leaders that wanted to avoid financial disruption. Black religious and political leaders of Martin Luther King Sr’s era were willing to allow for slower and partial victories. After Martin Luther King Jr returned to Atlanta after the Montgomery Bus Boycott, the boycotts against Rich’s Department store started. Rich and other business leaders had been supportive of the integration of public schools and public transportation but were opposed to requiring integration in their stores.
One of the consistent themes of the book is that wealthy White Atlantans were in general no less prejudiced than middle and working-class White Atlantans, but the wealthy were more likely to support integration because of the financial and public relations problems of segregation. Early integration fights were about public spaces that the wealthy were not expected to use or areas that the wealthy could pay to avoid, such as public golf courses, public transportation, and public schools. Both wealthy and middle or working-class Whites were not interested in integration, but middle and working-class Whites did not have financial resources to support private schooling, private cars, and private country clubs. Middle and working-class Whites then viewed integration as ‘stealing’ or giving away space to Black Atlantans. The concept that the areas were not being given to Black Atlantans but integrated for use by both White and Black Atlantans was just not considered by White Atlantans.
White Flight is an excellent local history that makes use of concepts that can be applied more broadly. I want to read something from Kruse about how this may or may not reflect White Flight in other areas of the country and how that impacted the rise of conservative politics in other regions. And I would be interested in a sociological exploration of how racism has and has not given rise to social isolation more broadly, and how the rise in housing size may be influenced here as well.
White Flight has not ended. My home county, Cobb, which is just Northwest of Atlanta has become increasingly diverse and is likely to become a majority-minority community in the next 4 to 5 years if the trends continue (the school system is already majority-minority system.) Over the past year or so, the school system and county politics have increasingly had racial conflict as an undercurrent of many issues. East Cobb, which is still predominately White, has a movement to incorporate and form a separate city as the county is likely to swing to a Democratic majority in the next couple of elections. The county voted narrowly for Clinton in the 2016 election and in 2018 US 6th District, Newt Gingrich’s old district was won by Lucy McBath, a Black woman and Democrat. That district does not follow county lines but is a sign of the switch. Politics and race are related, and Kruse highlights the complications of that relationship and how that relationship has changed over the decades.
Similar to Jemar Tisby’s point in The Color of Compromise, methods of racism and racial isolation change over time, but they are not necessarily going away. Part of the benefit of White Flight is that it is a good reminder that the calls for explicit segregation that was common before the 1960s have largely faded. But there is a difference between legal segregation and relational integration; most White people still are relationally segregated. Most people that are calling for a new East Cobb city are not calling for it as an explicit segregationist ideology. But it is hard to think that racial attitudes are not playing some role. And while the explicit segregationist attitudes and rhetoric have faded, many of the arguments that were used to support those calls are remarkably similar. The concepts of ‘outside agitators’, ‘ideological bias’ (now cultural marxism instead of communism), and freedom of choice and many more are relatively unchanged.
History matters. We cannot merely treat contemporary issues that involve race in isolation from the origins — current rise in school segregation matters. The loss of Black homeownership in the post-2007 economy is related to earlier legal segregation. The concern over ‘good schools’ is similar to earlier segregated schools. That is not to say they are exact parallels, but as is a common phrase among historians, history does not repeat, but it often rhymes.