White flight: Property values, neighborhood quality most often cited

November 21, 2002

More than one in three whites interviewed in Detroit, Boston, and Atlanta said they would move if their neighborhoods reached varying levels of racial integration, according to a study published in the November issue of the journal Demography.

Declining property values and concerns about quality-of-life issues such as crime topped the list of reasons they gave, reported Maria Krysan, a University of Illinois at Chicago sociologist, who examined the responses of 1,600 randomly selected white residents in the three cities to interviews conducted in the mid-1990s.

"Overt expressions of racial prejudice were not uncommon," she said. "But most often, whites painted a negative picture of integrated neighborhoods, pointing to crime, graffiti, drug use, and declining property values to explain their desire to leave."

However, she said, "expecting property values to decline and crime rates to go up if African Americans move into a neighborhood is fundamentally a negative stereotype." She added that stable black middle-class neighborhoods and vibrant integrated communities do exist, and blaming African Americans for the problems in poor urban neighborhoods "ignores the discriminatory practices in the mortgage, real estate, and insurance industries, and government policies that helped create the situations."

In the survey, interviewers showed white residents four cards representing 15-house neighborhoods with 7 percent, 20 percent, 33 percent, and 53 percent black residents. Interviewers asked how comfortable respondents would be living in each of the integrated neighborhoods. Those who reported discomfort were asked if they would try to move.

Three percent of whites said they would move out of a neighborhood with a single black household out of 15 (7 percent black). An additional 10 percent said they would leave a neighborhood that was 20 percent black. Another 6 percent said they would leave a neighborhood that was 33 percent black. A further 19 percent said they'd leave a neighborhood that had a slight black majority (53 percent black). All together, 38 percent of whites said they would leave one of the integrated neighborhoods, while the remainder--62 percent of whites--told interviewers that they would stay.

White residents of the Detroit metropolitan area were particularly likely to say they would leave one of the integrating neighborhoods. White Atlantans were slightly less likely than white Bostonians to say they would leave a majority-black neighborhood.

The most highly educated respondents cited property values as the reason for wanting to move, she said. Respondents who said they would stay in a neighborhood with a single black household tended to be more educated and more likely female than those who said they would leave. But she did not find that education level played a role in whether they would stay or leave neighborhoods with a larger share of black households.

"Education only made whites more tolerant of token levels of integration," she said.

Krysan emphasized that her study examined attitudes not behavior, and that not everyone who tells an interviewer they would stay in or leave a neighborhood would actually do so.

But attitudes are important: Other surveys have found that whites tend to overestimate the amount of crime in neighborhoods with African American residents, she said. "These subjective perceptions can contribute to neighborhood choices and, unfortunately, help perpetuate residential segregation."

Krysan analyzed the reasons respondents gave for wanting to leave, identifying several distinct categories. The questions were open-ended, and respondents were free to give as many reasons as they wanted. The main categories included:

  • Racial prejudice: Of the 38 percent of respondents who said they would leave, about 6 percent answered with explicit expressions of hostility, distrust, and dislike of African Americans. An additional 10 percent of those who would move cited what they believed were negative characteristics of blacks as a group: violence, noise, or other behavior. About one in five whites who would move gave as a reason the relative proportion of blacks to whites. They expressed the sense that African Americans would "take over the neighborhood," and raised concerns that the races wouldn't get along or that blacks would discriminate against them.

  • Qualities of integrated neighborhoods: Nearly four out of 10 whites who said they would move anticipated threats to the quality of life, naming crime, graffiti, drug problems, and poor property upkeep--all stereotypes about integrated neighborhoods.

  • Property values: Concerns about a potential drop in property values were mentioned by one-third of whites who said they would move.

  • Neutral ethnocentrism: Small percentages of whites stated they would move because they "wanted to be with their own kind" (6 percent of those who would move) or would have little in common with their neighbors (4 percent of those who would move).
    The New York-based Russell Sage Foundation funded Krysan's analysis, which drew upon interviews conducted as part of the Multi City Study of Urban Inequality, involving 40 researchers from 15 universities around the country.

    (Full text of the article is available on www.prb.org/cpipr. Username: cpipr; password: demography. Or call the Center for Public Information on Population Research, 202-939-5414.)

    Contact: Maria Krysan
    University of Illinois, Chicago
    Phone: 312-996-5575
    E-mail: krysan@uic.edu

    Population Reference Bureau

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