The Forgotten History of White Flight in America: Part 3

Story Transcript

Jaisal noor: You have spoken and written about the issue of white flight. Was it inevitable, was it preventable? And you’ve also written about how, at the time these events were unfolding, the history that we’re talking about now wasn’t history. It was debated, even conservatives, you talk about HUD Secretary George Romney and Spiro Agnew trying to put a measure on some of these policies that explicitly hurt African Americans and that could have even prevented white flight. It was not inevitable. Can you talk about this episode and what the impact was? That efforts to stop explicit policies that were discriminatory were eventually blocked by President Nixon?

Richard R.: Yes, well, as I mentioned a minute ago, white flight was subsidized by the federal government. There would have been no white flight had there not been federal government subsidies for whites to move to all-white suburbs and to keep African Americans out. That’s what white flight was, it was a subsidized policy. It was well known, as I said. This is a forgotten history. In 1968, as you mentioned, Richard Nixon was elected President. He appointed George Romney, who had been Governor of Michigan, as his Secretary of Housing and Urban Development and Romney, reciting the entire history that I’ve just described to you, said that the federal government has created a white noose around African American neighborhoods and central cities and it’s the federal government’s obligation to untie that noose.

He embarked on a program which he called Open Communities designed to force suburbs to desegregate, to accept African Americans. This program required suburbs, for example, to repeal zoning ordinances that prevented the construction of single family homes on small lot sizes or prevented townhouses or other forms of construction that working class and lower middle class families could afford. He required suburbs to accept subsidized housing from the federal government and to accept their fair share of public housing.

He was backed in this, and there were many people in the Nixon Administration who opposed this because they understood that it would cause a white backlash of white voters and it would hurt Nixon politically, but he was supported by a few people in the administration, chiefly Vice President Spiro Agnew who had been Baltimore County Executive and had fought, as Baltimore County Executive, with suburbs that were practicing segregation policies because the segregation that these suburbs were practicing was forcing the kinds of problems that you described before to be concentrated in the city of Baltimore. What Spiro Agnew said was that we can’t solve the problems of African Americans, of poverty, in the inner city because the problems can only be solved in the suburbs.

Well, Agnew and Romney didn’t win that fight. Political advisors to President Nixon persuaded him to rein Romney in. Romney’s program, which he had called Open Communities, was canceled. Romney was forced out as Secretary of Housing and Urban Development. We’ve had nothing so aggressive since to desegregate metropolitan areas.