In the months since Donald Trump’s surprise win of the U.S. presidency, two prevailing explanations for the electoral upset have emerged: either Trump voters were swayed by racism or by economic anxiety. Trump’s campaign embraced a series of racist stereotypes—Mexicans are criminals; blacks live in inner-city hellholes—but it also promised to bring back jobs to America’s declining manufacturing regions.
History suggests that the real story is probably a mix of these two explanations. Historical events that we have attributed to racism are often partially motivated by economic concerns. Looking back, we can see the reverse is also true; decisions perceived as strictly economic calculations can be tinged by racism.
One such example is white flight from central cities. In the mid-20th century, the share of white metropolitan households living in cities fell from 64 percent to 36 percent. White flight is typically attributed to racist attitudes of white residents who worried about a black family moving next door; Ta-Nehisi Coates refers to white suburbanization as a “triumph of racist social engineering.” But a closer reevaluation of this chapter in urban history reveals that white flight was motivated by both racism and economic anxiety.
In 1940, the majority of African Americans still lived in the rural South. At the time, even northern cities like Chicago and Detroit, which today have large black communities, were less than 10 percent black. Prompted in part by new factory positions opening during World War II, large waves of black migrants left the South.
Black migration definitely coincided with white relocation to the suburbs. But, many white suburban moves were unrelated to black arrivals, driven instead by rising incomes after the War, the baby boom, and new highway construction. Indeed, suburbanization was prevalent even in cities that received few black southerners, like Minneapolis-St. Paul. But there is a strong relationship between the number of black migrants to a northern city during this period and the number of whites who chose to relocate to the suburbs. For every black arrival, two whites left a typical city, a figure that puts a precise value on what contemporaries already knew: when black people move in, white people move out—à la the Younger family in A Raisin in the Sun.
Still, only a portion of white flight can be traced to the classic dynamic of racial turnover. Cities were simply too segregated by race for many urban whites to actually encounter black neighbors. In 1940, the average white urban household lived more than three miles away from a black enclave. Yet despite substantial distance from black neighborhoods within the city, many white families chose to relocate to the suburbs as black migrants arrived.
Why did white households flee black neighborhoods that were miles away? Changing city finances played a role. As southern black migrants settled in northern cities in large numbers, this lowered the average income of the urban population. Cities responded with a combination of higher property taxes and shifts in spending priorities. Indeed, some white households left cities to avoid this rising tax burden, an economically motivated choice for sure, but one that cannot be fully separated from race and racism.
We can learn a lot about the fiscal motivation behind white flight by focusing on the choices of white residents in neighborhoods on city-suburban borders. Peripheral urban neighborhoods shared the racial composition and housing stock of their suburban counterparts, and enjoyed the same local parks, bus lanes and shopping streets. Yet, by crossing to the suburban side of the border, families could buy into a different local electorate, one that was more racially homogenous and better-off, and thus able to afford quality public schools and lower property taxes. (As an aside, I personally lived in three of these border areas—Cambridge-Somerville, MA; Minneapolis-Edina, MN and Los Angeles-Beverly Hills, CA—and found crossing the border to be imperceptible on the ground.)
Houses on the suburban side of the border are always a little more expensive because they offer access to suburban schools and other public goods. Using data on 100 such neighborhoods, I found that this cross-border housing price gap grows by a few percentage points as black migrants flow into the city – even if new black arrivals live miles away. White households were willing to pay more for suburban houses not only to escape black neighbors but also to join a different tax base.
The debate about how Trump prevailed is currently a stalemate between those who point to real sources of economic anxiety and those who fall back on “it’s racism, stupid!” But casting blame on other racial groups during times of economic downturn is a tried-and-true political tool. Even if the major source of job loss in U.S. manufacturing has been automation, it is relatively easy to encourage voters to blame Chinese manipulation or greedy immigrants. Trying to separate racism from economic anxiety can obscure more than it reveals. History instead urges us to consider how economic concerns and racial animus intertwine.
Leah Platt Boustan is professor of economics at the University of California, Los Angeles, and a research associate at the National Bureau of Economic Research. She is the author of Competition in the Promised Land: Black Migrants in Northern Cities and Labor Markets.