Review- Kruse, “White Flight”

Kevin Kruse, “White Flight: Atlanta and the Making of Modern Conservatism” (2005) – This book is part of a wave of pretty solid social/cultural histories that used local studies to examine national historical trends, many of them published by Princeton University Press in the 2000s. Kevin Kruse looks at Atlanta in the mid-twentieth century and the ways it dealt with race, specifically as it pertained to desegregation and class. For decades, Atlanta had prided itself on being forward-thinking and racially moderate- the “town too busy to hate.” That all went out the window once it became clear that black people weren’t going to be content to be second-class citizens, disallowed from public services and spaces. “White Flight” traces the patterns and broad historical effects of the temper tantrum the white population of Atlanta threw in response.

Kruse goes through a number of the efforts white Atlantans tried to bolster and reinscribe formal racial separation in the period from the 1940s and the 1960s. Open racial terrorism, including bombings, came into play most often as black families attempted to buy homes in white neighborhoods. Neighborhood-based public resources such as schools, parks, pools, and busses were generally abandoned by whites — and therefore underfunded — rather than allowed use by integrated publics. Most of this affected working-class white Atlantans; even middle-class black families couldn’t afford (and certainly couldn’t secure loans) to buy in middle-class neighborhoods. Things finally reached the upper classes of white Atlanta when the sit-ins at restaurants and stores began to challenge the merchant elite of the city for control of their space, and when demands came to desegregate spaces where they congregated, like golf courses. Then they lost their sense of noblesse and began flipping out, too. And in Kruse’s telling, they all acted en bloc, only disagreeing on whether intransigence or flight was the proper response to desegregation- nobody thought about trying to make it work, nobody white anyway. Flight won out.

In the end, none of the formally, legally racialized bulwarks of the segregation order remained standing in the late 20th century. What we have instead is a racial order kept in place by control of capital, which in turn commands space (in the form of real estate) and force (governments, taxes, borders, cops). The new suburbs that whites fled into, not just in Atlanta but all over the US, grew into cut-off enclaves- at one point, Metropolitan Atlanta had 56 separate municipalities in it, each with its own taxes, zoning code, schools, etc. Using notionally color-blind language about “small government” and “local control,” these suburbs can replicate something like the experience of segregation for the white people who live in them.

There is a caveat there, though, two things that changed in substituting informal suburban segregation for the older formal, urban version. First, people were enjoined to avoid open expressions of vulgar race hate in public and in the legally binding rules. Second, and more consequentially, white Atlantans in the segregation era enjoyed well-funded public spaces and goods. Post-white flight, suburbanites came to abjure the idea of the public altogether. In some instances, the public schools, behind the walls of exclusive zip codes, continued to have some esteem (see also, suburban Massachusetts). But for the most part, public transit, public housing, public leisure- all of these were replaced by private equivalents. Many of the principles we associate with suburban design and governance were there before white flight, but white flight codified it, standardized it, and put a ton of money and political will behind it. This privatization eventually came to be a matter of principle, as expressed by politicians from these rapidly expanding suburbs, and none more openly than Newt Gingrich, who represented the Atlanta suburbs.

In Kruse’s telling, the real secession wasn’t the southern states from the northern- it was the white suburbs created out of the flight from desegregation seceding from the rest of society, despite being entirely dependent on urban cores and the federal government for their very existence. Consciously or not, their leaders succeeded where earlier reactionaries failed, and actually found a way to give a substantial portion of the population just enough property to feel like they’re in the master class- and just enough anxiety to be willing to fight to protect it, and to consider any other system not just wrong, but dangerous. Moreover, by helping destroy the cities in the mid-20th century, they also spiked the most viable alternative to that way of life. They even went so far as to rebuild some cities on a sort of privatopia-lite model and let their bored spawn go live in them!

In the end, soft segregationists called liberalism’s bluff. Liberals weren’t going to allow formal segregation anymore by the mid-20th century. This was in part due to values, but liberals had the political capital and the will to go along with it in large part due to the Cold War- segregation being a bad look when wooing developing world allies. But liberals also weren’t willing to challenge capitalism, and the smarter, later generations of segregationists knew it. Crying about the big mean gummint making you serve milkshakes to black customers was for small-timers. The real action, and the real money, was in remaking segregation with the tools — capital, and the way it can command institutions and populations — at hand. *****

Review- Kruse, “White Flight”

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