White America is touchy about minority “racism” these days. Leading national figures such as First Lady Michelle Obama and Judge Sonia Sotomayor have been hammered in the media for past expressions of ethnic pride. In fact, minorities in America have reasons for pride, and plenty of room for skepticism.
Buried in the shallow parsing of past statements is that an everyday history of white behavior contributes to minority attitudes about race in America. Racial profiling by the police is again in the news with the arrest of Professor Henry Louis Gates Jr., but white flight into racially homogenous suburbs has had a far more dramatic impact on the daily lives, and life chances, of minorities.
It is notable that both the First Lady and Judge Sotomayor experienced white flight in their respective neighborhoods. While both benefited from strong families and ethnic communities that shielded them from the disinvestment and isolation that followed white flight, their attitudes about ethnicity may be connected to the decades of racial change they have experienced.
Supreme Court Justice Sonia Sotomayor has been criticized for past comments that have been misconstrued as racist, and for belonging to La Raza, a Hispanic civil rights and advocacy organization. Yet Sotomayor grew up in the Bronx, a place where ethnic pride became a vital force in community preservation.
The uplifting story of her rise from New York’s public housing–she lived in the Bronxdale Houses project from 1957-1970–to Princeton has been told repeatedly, but the sobering fact that her family experienced white flight twice has generated no serious attention.
New York, like many cities, once had a significant white presence in public housing. In 1955 the Bronxdale Houses was fifty-three percent white, twenty-eight percent black, and nineteen percent Puerto Rican. By the time her family moved out in 1970, however, Bronxdale was thirty-two percent white, forty-one percent black and twenty-seven percent Puerto Rican. If Sotomayor happened to visit Bronxdale in 1977 she would have found that whites composed only twelve percent of the population.
The Sotomayor family’s experience after 1970 in their new complex, Co-op City, repeated their experience in public housing. Co-op City, a massive tower-in-the-park complex for fifteen thousand families in the Bronx, was built by a consortium of New York’s labor unions for the city’s working class.
Co-op City was integrated from the beginning, eighty-five percent white and about fifteen percent minority, but white flight again ensued. By the 1980s whites had already become a minority of the population. By 2005 whites had slipped to just seventeen percent of the population, whereas blacks made up fifty-six percent and Hispanics another twenty-four percent.
Racial flight on such a scale could easily be interpreted as a collective statement by whites that minorities made bad neighbors. Experiencing white flight in two neighborhoods, even if eventually accepted into elite colleges and legal circles, would be enough to make Sotomayor reflexively defensive about her ethnic identity and an advocate for full civil and social rights.
Sotomayor could also point with pride to the resilience of her community even after the whites left. Co-op City has had its share of problems related to construction, management, and finances, but this working/middle-class minority community has left behind problems of the past, renovated its buildings, and runs America’s largest and most successful low-cost housing cooperative. Even Bronxdale Houses remains a comparatively stable minority public housing project with less than fifteen percent of its tenants on welfare.
The Bronx as a whole has become famous for the minority-run community development corporations that have turned a slum back into a vibrant urban region. The Bronx has finally recovered from disinvestment and white flight, but just barely. Vast sections of cities such as Baltimore, Detroit, or Cleveland have not been so lucky.
First Lady Michelle Obama also had a traditional introduction to white flight that may have contributed to her more candid assessments of American race relations. Much has been made of the racial insensitivity she experienced at Princeton, but her experience growing up in Chicago, one of America’s most segregated cities, has received comparatively little notice.
The First Lady grew up in a modest home in Chicago’s South Shore neighborhood, where, according to journalist Liza Mundy, “one of her first experiences as a young girl would have been watching white people move away as her own family advanced.” South Shore, in fact, went from eighty-nine percent white in 1960 to two percent white and ninety-seven percent black in 1990.
South Shore did not, like many neighborhoods on Chicago’s South Side, descend into chaos as a result of disinvestment that follows white flight. The new, middle-class black majority in South Shore succeeded in retaining good housing and black middle-class residents through community action. Minority activists took a leading role in making the famous South Shore Bank a catalyst for neighborhood preservation and improvement both in South Shore and across Chicago.
It should not come as a surprise, that neither an elite education, nor professional success in white circles, would undermine the First Lady’s strong sense of racial identity, or blind her to the disparities, magnified by white flight, that exist between most minority and white communities.
The First Lady and Sotomayor’s families and communities maintained their dignity, ambition and strength during difficult times. That these women retained their ethnic pride, as did most people in the communities, should not come as a surprise. That they supported activists in those communities, and occasionally expressed skepticism about white intentions, makes sense, too. Minority activists, after all, spoke out boldly against an unfair system and took action to preserve their communities.
Nicholas Dagen Bloom
Mr. Bloom is the author of Public Housing that Worked: New York in the Twentieth Century (University of Pennsylvania Press, 2008) and an Associate Professor at the New York Institute of Technology.
Reprinted with permission from the History News Network.