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50 Years Ago in Scientific American: "Metropolitan Segregation"

Appearing in the October, 1957 edition of Scientific American, this article is an early mention of a phenomenon that would come to be known as "white flight."


As Negroes move in from the South and whites move out to the suburbs, a new pattern of segregation emerges in the big cities of the U.S., bringing with it significant economic, social and political problems

The white and non-white citizens of the U. S. are being sorted out in a new pattern of segregation. In each of the major urban centers the story is the same: the better-off white families are moving out of the central cities into the suburbs; the ranks of the poor who remain are being swelled by Negroes from the South. This trend threatens to transform the cities into slums, largely inhabited by Negroes, ringed about with predominantly white suburbs. The ¿racial problem¿ of the U.S., still festering in the rural South, will become equally, perhaps most acutely, a problem of the urban North.

The trend is most pronounced in the 14 largest metropolitan areas, those with more than one million population, where nearly one third of all U. S. citizens reside. These cities have long attracted Negroes from the South. For several decades their Negro population has been increasing much faster than their white. The decade of war and full employment between 1940 and 1950 saw the most rapid growth. While the total white population within these 14 cities rose only 4 per cent, the Negro population of the same cities leaped upward 68 percent. Negro migration to the cities has since continued at a high, but probably less extreme, rate. A special inter-decennial census for Los Angeles shows that its non-white population increased 45 per cent between 1950 and 1956, as compared with a 10 per cent gain in the white population.

As late as 1950 non-whites constituted only a minor fraction of the total population in most of the central cities of the 14 largest metropolitan areas. But the Negro migration, the comparatively greater rate of natural increase among non-whites and the exodus of whites to the suburbs will dramatically raise the proportion of non-whites in central cities. In Los Angeles non-whites have moved up from 6.5 per cent of the population in 1940 to nearly 14 per cent in 1956. In Chicago, according to a careful estimate by Otis Dudley Duncan and Beverly Duncan of the University of Chicago, Negroes now comprise 19 per cent of the total, compared with 8 per cent in 1940. The city is expected to be one third Negro by 1970. New York City officials forecast that in 1970 Negroes and Puerto Ricans will constitute 45 per cent of the population of Manhattan and nearly one third that of the entire city. Washington, D.C., may already have an actual Negro majority.

Estimates of future population trends must take into account some reurbanization of white suburbanites, as the proportion of older people increases and the suburbs become less attractive to those whose children have grown up and left home. Even making allowance for shifts of this sort, all evidence makes it highly probable that within 30 years Negroes will constitute from 25 to 50 per cent of the total population in at least 10 of the 14 largest central cities.

The suburbs of the metropolitan areas exhibit quite different population trends. Negroes made up only 4 per cent of their populations in 1940 and no more than 5 per cent in 1950. The only notable recent Negro suburban population growth has taken place in industrial fringe cities such as Gary, Ind., and in segregated Negro dormitory communities such as Robbins, Ill.

The sheer cost of suburban housing excludes Negroes from many suburban areas. Furthermore, the social satisfactions of slum or near-slum existence for a homogeneous population have been insufficiently studied, and it may very well be true that many Negro urban dwellers would not easily exchange current big-city life for even reasonably priced suburban homes. The crucial fact, however, is that Negroes presently do not have any free choice in the matter. They are excluded from suburbia by a wide variety of devices.

Social antagonism alone has been highly effective. In addition, the suburban towns have employed restrictive zoning, subdivision and building regulations to keep Negroes out. Some, for example, have set a minimum of two or more acres for a house site, or required expensive street improvements, and have enforced these regulations against ¿undesirable¿ developments but waived them for ¿desirable¿ ones. A builder in a Philadelphia suburb recently told an interviewer that he would like to sell houses to Negroes, but the town officials would ruin him. He explained: ¿The building inspectors would have me moving pipes three eighths of an inch every afternoon in every one of the places I was building, and moving a pipe three eighths of an inch is mighty expensive if you have to do it in concrete!¿

When barriers of this sort fail, suburban whites have been known to resort to violence against Negro property and persons. As this is written, 350 residents of Levittown, Pa., are demonstrating in the street before a home acquired by a Negro family. Within the central cities, to which Negroes are thus consigned, they are further confined to virtual ghettos. Every city has its ¿black belt¿ or series of ¿black areas.¿

In Chicago 79 per cent of all Negroes in 1950 lived in areas in which at least 75 per cent of the residents were Negroes. On the other hand, 84 per cent of the non-Negroes resided in areas in which fewer than 1 per cent of the residents were Negro; the figure would be even more disparate if Negro servants ¿living in¿ were not counted. Chicago is an extreme case, but all cities follow this pattern.

The initial Negro settlements are almost invariably near the center of the city. As the Negro population grows, the black belt tends to expand from the center block by block and neighborhood by neighborhood, sometimes radially and sometimes in concentric circles. Once a neighborhood begins to swing from white to colored occupancy, the change is rarely arrested or reversed. The Duncans found in Chicago not a single instance between 1940 and 1950 of a neighborhood ¿with mixed population (25 to 75 per cent non-white) in which succession from white to Negro occupancy was arrested.¿

This process of ¿tipping¿ proceeds more rapidly in some neighborhoods than in others. White residents who will tolerate a few Negroes as neighbors, either willingly or unwillingly, begin to move out when the proportion of Negroes in the neighborhood or apartment building passes a certain critical point. This ¿tip point¿ varies from city to city and from neighborhood to neighbor-hood. But for the vast majority of white Americans a tip point exists. Once it is exceeded, they will no longer stay among Negro neighbors.

The process is not the simple one of ¿flight¿ that is a part of the real estate agent¿s mythology of changing neighborhoods. Negroes do not necessarily ¿downgrade¿ a neighborhood, or ¿push¿ whites out. `When vacancies in a white neighborhood become available, the first Negroes to take advantage of them are usually similar to their white neighbors in income, employment, educational attainment, habits and manners. Yet whatever the social qualifications of the new Negro neighbors, when their numbers increase, whites leave. The ¿piling up¿ process¿gross overcrowding of dwellings and areas¿occurs only after the transition from complete white to complete Negro occupancy has taken place.

Many people for many purposes have explored how the tip point operates. Real estate operators, seeking the higher revenues that come with Negro overcrowding, talk freely among themselves about ¿tipping a building¿ or ¿tipping a neighborhood.¿ Quakers in the Philadelphia suburbs of Concord Park and Greenbelt Knoll have given heed to the tip point in their efforts to build interracial communities. They have concluded that this goal can be achieved only if the proportion of Negroes is controlled: ¿Early in our sales program we found that ¿white buyers would not buy without assurance that Negroes would be in a minority.¿ The only interracial communities in the U. S., with the exception of a few abject slums, are those where limits exist upon the influx of non-whites.

Education and community organization can raise the tip point, but they have not yet prevented tipping in the end. Sooner or later, as the increasing Negro population of the big cities makes its demand for additional housing effective, the apartment house, the block and the neighborhood are tipped and incorporated in the black belt. If Negroes were permitted to distribute themselves throughout the city on the basis of income, fewer areas would be tipped, but the restriction process confines them to particular areas.

The general picture for the future is thus clear enough: large segregated minorities, even majorities, of Negroes in the central cities; large majorities of whites, with scattered Negro enclaves, in their suburbs.

Some of the social consequences of the urban-suburban racial and class schism are already apparent; others can be predicted. Within the central cities the first result is the spreading of the slums. The Negro population always in-creases faster than the living space available to it. The new areas that open up to Negro residence become grossly overcrowded by conversion of one-family houses to multiple dwellings and the squeezing of two or more Negro families into apartments previously occupied by a single white one. Though complete statistical evidence is lacking, it is likely that Negroes pay substantially more rent for given accommodations than whites, and the higher rent itself makes for higher density. Housing occupied by Negroes is always more crowded, more dilapidated and more lacking in amenities such as private baths than housing occupied by whites with equivalent incomes.

Income factors alone account in significant part for the slum conditions in which urban Negroes live. Negroes are heavily over-represented in low-income jobs, in menial service, in unskilled and semiskilled factory labor and in ¿dirty work¿ generally. In this respect they are not unlike some earlier immigrants to our cities: the Irish and the Poles, for example, also settled mainly in slums. Aside from low income, movement into the unaccustomed city environment tends to break down whatever stability of attitude and habit the Negro brings with him from the rural South. Family disorganization among Negro city dwellers is high, as measured by such indices as broken marriages, families headed by females, and unrelated individuals living in the same household. How does a mother keep her teen-aged son off the streets if an entire family must eat, sleep and live in a single room? What opportunity for quiet or security is there in a tightly packed, restless neighborhood? The slum encourages rowdiness, casual and competitive sexuality, a readiness for combat; disease and crime rates soar.

The boundaries of the black belt are often sharply defined by the racial antagonisms of its surrounding neighborhoods. These are usually inhabited by low-income groups whose condition borders on that of the Negroes themselves. Some of these neighbors are also recent immigrants to the city: Southern ¿poor whites¿ in Chicago, Puerto Ricans in New York. Others are old residents at the lower end of the income scale, people who, like the Negroes themselves, do not find success in life or life itself easy. Between these groups and the Negroes tensions run high. Studies have shown that the greatest animosity is found on the edge of the expanding Negro district, where whites live in fear of ¿invasion.¿ A young white resident of one of those neighborhoods recently beat a Negro to death with a hammer. ¿I just wanted to get one of them,¿ he explained. ¿Which one didn¿t matter.¿ With the exodus of middle and upper classes to the suburbs, the white population of the city is made up in larger part of low-income groups, who generally exhibit more racial prejudice. In consequence, racial passions are on the rise and find less community restraint.

Within the black belts hundreds of thousands of Negroes live, eat, shop, work, play and die in a completely Negro world with little or no contact with other people. For large numbers of them, segregation is more complete than it ever was for Negro rural residents in the South. This is true even in the city school systems. If segregation is measured by the standard of the number of students who attend all-Negro schools, then it is undoubtedly true that more Negro students are segregated in the schools of New York City and Chicago than in some Southern states.

This picture of segregated Negro slums needs some qualification. Here and there churches have successfully established interracial congregations. On a few blocks in urban America Negroes and whites have demonstrated that they can live together as neighbors. Labor unions, though traditionally anti-Negro, have in some places accepted Negroes as full partners in leadership as well as membership. There have also been advances within the Negro community itself. Although a casual observer of the black belt sees only slums, the fact is that there are oases, usually areas of newest acquisition, inhabited by better off Negroes. As the Negro community grows in size, satisfactory career lines, economic security and the home and community life that accompany these developments become possible.

Segregation bestows some advantages on part of the Negro community, providing protected markets for professionals and businessmen and protected constituencies for political and church leaders. But those who profit from segregation also suffer from it. Like other well-off Negroes they feel the pinpricks along with the sledges of discrimination.

The larger evidence is not that of integration nor intracommunity social gains. Rather it is in the direction of more uncompromising segregation and larger Negro slums. These population shifts bring with them profound economic consequences. Of first importance is a decline of parts of the central cities¿ business activity and associated property values. In almost every city the big downtown department stores are losing trade to the suburban shopping centers. Retail sales in the central business district of Chicago fell 5 per cent between 1948 and 1954 while sales in the suburbs increased 53 per cent. The downtown stores, with non-white and low-income customers more and more predominant in their clientele, `tend to concentrate on cheap merchandise. ¿`Borax¿ for downtown, Herman Miller for the suburbs¿ is a slogan of the furniture business. The decline of the central-city department store is accompanied by a general deterioration of the downtown area. There are some striking exceptions, most notably in mid-town Manhattan. But in most cities¿Chicago, Boston, Los Angeles are good examples¿the main streets become infested with ¿sucker joints¿ for tourists: all-night jewelry auctions, bargain linens and cheap neckties, hamburger stands and bars with jazz bands. The slums, in other words, are spreading to the central business districts.

A further, though more problematic development, is the movement to the suburbs of banks, corporation offices, law firms and the businesses that service them. The need for close contact and communication that caused them to cluster in the city may be relieved by the teletype machine, facsimile and closed circuit television. Even the downtown hotel is likely to give way to the suburban motel, except for the convention trade, an incidental further boost to the honky-tonk transformation of the downtown business areas. On the other hand, the cities have maintained their preponderance in manufacturing. The relative immobility of heavy industry has the result of fixing the laboring and semiskilled groups, including large numbers of Negroes, within the central cities. To rebuild the loss of tax revenues resulting from decline of their downtown and residential areas, some cities are engaged in campaigns to attract new manufacturing enterprises. The success of such efforts will, of course, accentuate the evolution of the central cities into lower-class ethnic islands.

Whatever the melancholy resemblance between the older segregation patterns of the rural South and the newer ones of the urban North, there is one important difference: the Negroes of the North can vote. What will happen when the councils of some cities, and their representations in state legislatures, become predominantly Negro? The most likely political development is the organization of Negroes for ends conceived narrowly to the advantage of the Negro community. Such political effort might aim to destroy zoning and building restrictions for the immediate purpose of enlarging opportunities for desperately needed Negro housing against stubborn social pressures. If successful, the outcome might merely extend the Negro ghetto and cause a further departure of white populations to the suburbs. Yet the short-run political appeal of this action cannot be denied. What the Negroes seek for themselves in Chicago in 1975 or 1985 might not be any more selfishly conceived than what Irish-dominated city councils in Boston and New York have sought in the past.

At the very least, these cities that become politically dominated by Negroes will find it more difficult to bring about the urban-suburban cooperation so badly needed in so many fields. They will find greatly exacerbated what is already keenly felt in a majority of states: the conflict between the great urban center and the rural ¿downstate¿ or ¿upstate¿ areas. Similar effects will follow in the national Congress, once a number of large cities are largely represented by Negro congressmen. The pitting of whites against Negroes, of white policies against Negro policies, does not await actual Negro urban domination. The cry has already been raised in state legislatures. The conflict can only grow more acute as race and class become increasingly coterminous with local government boundaries.

In the long run it is highly unlikely that the white population will, without resistance, allow Negroes to become dominant in the cities. The cultural and economic stakes are too high. One countermeasure will surely present itself to the suburbanites: to annex the suburbs, with their predominantly white populations, to the cities. This will be a historic reversal of the traditional suburban antipathy to annexation. But from the point of view of the suburbanite he will be annexing the city to the suburbs.

The use of annexation to curb Negro political power is already under way. It was an explicit argument used in the large-scale suburban annexation to Nashville in 1951. And other recent annexations, largely confined to the South, have been designed for the same end. The more familiar practice of gerrymandering is also already widely employed to reduce Negro representation in legislative bodies of city, state and nation.

The political forecast is a new round of repression aimed at Negroes. For this one, they will be better armed¿in effective numbers, economic strength, political sophistication, and with allies in the white population.

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