The Second White Flight

In 1968, President Lyndon B. Johnson appointed the Kerner Commission to identify the causes behind 1967’s violent social unrest, including riots that killed dozens of Americans in Detroit, Newark, and other communities. Only two years before, a separate commission dubbed the McCone Commission (after former Kennedy-era CIA director and commission chairman John McCone) had investigated the 1965 Watts riots and concluded that while inner-city conditions may have contributed to the violence, the primary responsibility for the violence lay with “agitators” and “riffraff.” The Kerner Commission could have stayed on a similar theme, but instead it issued one of the strongest critiques of American society–and its government–ever issued from an official source. Officially titled “A Report of the National Advisory Commission on Civil Disorders” but colloquially called the “Kerner Report,” the Kerner Commission flipped the script entirely. Concluding that America was “moving toward two societies, one black, one white–separate and unequal,” the Kerner Commission called for fundamental change. Among its findings:

  • “Discrimination and segregation have long permeated much of America life; they now threaten the future of every American.”
  • “Social and economic conditions in the riot cities constituted a clear pattern of severe disadvantage for Negroes compared with whites, whether the Negroes lived in the area where the riot took place or outside it.”
  • “White racism is essentially responsible for the explosive mixture which has been accumulating in our cities since the end of World War II.”

Regarding that last point, the Kerner Commission specifically identified “white exodus,” which had “produced the massive and growing concentrations of impoverished Negroes in our major cities, creating a growing crisis of deteriorating facilities and serves and unmet human need.” In fleeing for low-density suburban life, white Americans left behind “black ghettos where segregation and poverty converge on the young to destroy opportunity and enforce failure.” According to the Kerner Report, the result was “crime, drug addiction, dependency on welfare, and bitterness and resentment against society in general.” Out of such conditions arose unrest and, ultimately, violence.

The “white exodus” the Kerner Report identified has long been a feature of American sociology. Apologists have argued that white flight was less a consideration of race than driven by socio-economic factors, but recent findings suggest that race does play a central role in neo-segregation. For one thing, racial seclusion no longer appears to be relegated to the cities–even as the suburbs “diversify,” they have done so by racially dividing themselves.

As Indiana University sociologist Samuel Kye put it in one recent study, “White flight is actually more likely to occur in middle-class neighborhoods. Once a community has a large enough percentage of African-American, Hispanic, or Asian residents, white flight is more likely.” Finding that white flight accelerates once a neighborhood’s nonwhite population reaches 20-25% of the population, the research concluded that “whites are willing to tolerate a certain level of diversity, but once it crosses a threshold, white flight becomes likelier to occur.” Whites who find themselves in an unacceptably diverse suburb simply find another, whiter suburb.

Anecdotal evidence bears this out, particularly Donald Trump’s adoption of white identity politics. Trump’s successful 2016 campaign focused less on domestic racism than on othering immigrants and other outsiders, but his failed 2020 campaign spoke directly to long implied but unspoken white fears about suburban invasion. Consider for example, Trump’s 2020 pitch that under Joe Biden, “our suburbs would be gone,” stripping white suburban housewives of their “suburban lifestyle dreams.” Indeed, Trump’s message reached a fever pitch in one late Pennsylvania rally, when he begged “suburban women” to “please like me” because “he saved your damn neighborhood, ok?” And if that was too subtle, Trump began identifying New Jersey Senator Cory Booker, an African-American, as the supposed Democratic leader of efforts to build “low-income housing projects” right in the middle of “your neighborhood.”

Of course, whites can relocate only so far and have it mean something. Sure, whites with money–the college-educated Ayn Rand acolytes that have farmed themselves out among America’s hedge funds–can live in elite, gated communities and send their children to private schools. But many whites have nowhere to go to escape the constant refrain of grievance, disinformation, and conspiracy washing over them from the conservative media bubble and social media. Indeed, the Trump campaign directly issued its message of racial invasion to the country’s most distant exurbs, reinforcing to already self-segregating white voters that they supposedly have nowhere to hide.

The result was to make the 2020 culture war a version of Gettysburg–a winner-take-all battle requiring the outmanned, outgunned insurgency to undertake a desperate invasion in order to maintain its momentum.

But Trump did not win, leaving white voters in retreat–much like the Confederates crossing the Potomac River after being rebuffed more than a century and a half ago. But Trump’s white voters are not physically retreating–there is nowhere new for them to go. For instance, consider Ohio, where Trump carried all but seven counties, most of them its largest.

Or take Mitch McConnell’s home state of Kentucky, where Joe Biden carried two counties, those home to Louisville and Lexington.

White voters can no longer flee because they have already captured massive swaths of political geography. Whether one lives one county outside of Louisville, Kentucky or Columbus, Ohio or five now makes little difference as a matter of culture. And yet white voters are retreating all the same. So where are they going?

Well, they appear to be going crazy. Faced with the prospect of losing their dress rehearsal for Armageddon, white Republican voters have simply checked out of this world. Already primed by torrents of sensationalist propaganda spewing from conservative media and Q-centered social media, Trump’s loss has triggered a panic retreat from reality itself. The result is a hive-mind palace filled not with the brilliance of deductive logic combined with a lifetime of learning as in, say, Sherlock Holmes’s case, but instead with the dissociation and trauma of collective mental collapse.

Every day brings some new intellectual injury–mail-in ballots, Dominion voting machines, krakens, Rudy Giuliani’s hair dye–all driving white Republican voters further toward psychological secession. The Confederacy at least armed itself, adopted a uniform, and announced its intentions, making it easier to identify and oppose. But in 2020, we don’t know where Republican voters are going, how to get there ourselves, what they are doing wherever they are, or whether they ever intend to rejoin the rest of us.

It goes without saying that when half the country is currently engaged in a psychotic reality break, the hard questions the Kerner Commission asked more than fifty years ago will be no easier to answer. But few can doubt that the Kerner Report was prophetic about virtually everything that matters. Indeed, it even warned in 1968 that “to pursue our present course will involve the continuing polarization of the American community and, ultimately, the destruction of basic democratic values.” And here we are.

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