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On White Flight and “Whataboutism”

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On White Flight and “Whataboutism”

10 Blocks podcast January 20, 2021
The Social Order
Politics and law

William Voegeli joins Brian Anderson to discuss the subjects of his two recent stories for City Journal the history of the mid-century exodus of whites out of cities, known as “white flight,” and political reactions to the January 6 Capitol riot.

Audio Transcript

Brian Anderson: Welcome back to the 10 Blocks podcast. This is Brian Anderson, the editor of City Journal. Joining me on today's show is William Voegeli. Bill is a senior editor of the Claremont Review of Books and the author of two books himself; Never Enough: America's Limitless Welfare State, and The Pity Party: A Mean-Spirited Diatribe Against Liberal Compassion. He's contributed essays to City Journal for over a decade now, and we're glad he can join us on the podcast. His latest piece for the magazine, which appears in our autumn 2020 issue is called "The Truth About White Flight". Bill also wrote a piece for us in the aftermath of the events of last week in Capitol Hill, a couple of weeks ago now actually, called "About Whataboutism". It's a brilliant piece. I encourage you to check it out and we'll be sure to talk about it here a bit on the podcast.

Bill, thanks very much for joining us and always good to talk with you.

William Voegeli: Good to be with you, Brian.

Brian Anderson: You're piece from the magazine, "The Truth About White Flight" essay begins with former first lady, Michelle Obama, who had published a best-selling memoir a couple of years ago. Mrs. Obama, who was born Michelle Robinson, grew up on the South Shore of Chicago in a neighborhood that came to typify the urban white flight experience. In 1950, the South Shore was basically 90, 95, 96% white. Over just a few decades the demographics completely flipped and the neighborhood was 96% black by the time the early eighties rolled around. Now according to the former first lady, and this is a common charge by progressive as well, the motivation behind this demographic shift, this white flight from cities was clear or is clear and obvious: that racism was behind the relocation, leaving behind devastated black communities and taking a lot of the funding and money that circulated in these neighborhoods to the suburbs. Your piece says that that doesn't really reflect the entire story and it's too simple an argument. Could you elaborate a bit on what about this white flight narrative you disagree with?

William Voegeli: Yes, I think it's over simplified, too prosecutorial, doesn't do justice to the underlying realities and facts. I think people who have looked at the phenomenon more closely have argued persuasively, that there were pull factors and push factors that were not closely tied to race. The pull factors were the desire for lower density living, to move out of apartments and maybe get a single family dwelling. The push factors above all was the rise of crime, which was a problem in South Shore, a problem in other Chicago neighborhoods that went through the same overwhelmingly white to overwhelmingly black transition over the course of a couple of decades and a problem in such neighborhoods and towns, all around the country,

Brian Anderson: By the eighties, serious felonies were in Michelle Robinson's, Michelle Obama's old neighborhood being committed at rates, something like three times the Chicago average, right? So this became one of the city's most dangerous neighborhoods. In your essay you have some extremely vivid stories from residents and former residents, which really underscore your argument, that this wasn't just about race, really. It was more about fear and some of the push factors, as well as the pull factors. Could you explain a little bit more about some of those dynamics? And indeed now there's this phenomenon of black flight from some of these same neighborhoods, correct?

William Voegeli: Yes, that's right. A liberal journalist professor, Carlo Rotella provided a great deal of the material that I've relied on for my essay. He wrote a book that came out in 2019 about growing up in South Shore. He is Spanish and Italian by ancestry. He was born the same year as Michelle Obama, Michelle Robinson, 1964. He had the experience then of growing up in the neighborhood as it was going from predominantly white to, as you say, sort of vestigially white after 20 years. He's sympathetic I think to Mrs. Obama's political argument or at least orientation, but he makes what I think a lawyer would call, admissions against interest.

He says that people really were terrified and disgusted by the violence going on there. That various people that he knew growing up, were families that had a sort of this is enough moment. Being held up, having their home broken into, being assaulted on the street. He says for many families, there was the fatal shooting of the owner of a toy store who had been a beloved figure in the neighborhood for many, many years, after which a good number of people said, "We just can't live here anymore. This tears it for us."

So I think it was, these considerations wind up being completely removed from the field of discussion by the analysis that Michelle Obama and other people who emphasize the theory that white flight is simply, solely and entirely a function of white racism.

Brian Anderson: Well now you've got a different argument being made that when wealthy, or not even necessarily wealthy, when just white, younger people are moving back into some of these former neighborhoods that their grandparents might've lived in, they're being viewed as interlopers. And that this becomes a kind of racism as well, because it, at least as far as the theory goes, it drives gentrification.

William Voegeli: So the question becomes, "All right, tell me the non-racist way and place to live, if these criticisms taken together, define the alternatives." If it's racist to move out of the city or a neighborhood because black families are moving there and it's racist to move back into the city, into a neighborhood where blacks are the majority, what do we want white people to do when they're making a choice about location that completely absolves them of any susceptibility to the accusation that they're racist?

Brian Anderson: Yeah, it really is a double bind. We've published quite a bit on this theme about gentrification and how it too is a far more complex phenomenon than people, these progressives tend to describe it as being. And in fact, that gentrification doesn't tend to create all that much displacement, that many of the residents who are there, who own property already, benefit from the rise of property values. That it results in an injection of more job opportunities into some of these neighborhoods. So it's, again I guess the point would be that these shifts in demography and in the success of neighborhoods tend to be far more complex than the usual public narratives about these changes capture.

William Voegeli: I think that's right. And I think also there've been some interesting studies on suggesting that tensions over gentrification are much more sociological than economic. In Washington DC, for example, extensive zoning and various other programs have tried very hard to make sure that the ongoing gentrification does not displace or price out people who have lived in neighborhoods for a long time. And that has been, in terms of its immediate objectives, that has been successful. But in terms of the broader goal of getting people of different races to live together, amiably and comfortably, that's proven to be a much harder thing. One sociologist who studied the district of Columbia said, "What you have is like micro segregation. You have a white community and a black community that occupy the same neighborhood, but otherwise have very limited and very wary apprehensive interactions with one another."

Brian Anderson: It's fascinating. Well the piece was, again, quite terrific. I encourage our listeners to go back and read it. It's in our autumn issue and it's called, "The Truth About White Flight". It's a very nuanced and quite impressive essay. At the top of the show I mentioned this piece you've just done for us called, "About Whataboutism"? This was on the mob assault on The Capitol, on Capitol Hill recently, and which, it was very upsetting for many Americans, if not most Americans. And it's something we've had editorialized several times on. Your piece really focuses on this phenomenon of whataboutism. And I wonder if you could just talk about that a little bit and emphasize the main point of your piece, which is to show there has been an extraordinary hypocrisy on the part of some Democrats and their allies in the press and media about different kinds of riots.

William Voegeli: Yes. I would say that if six months ago, after the George Floyd death in Minneapolis, if you were a politician or a commentator who was very sympathetic to the political views and objectives of Black Lives Matter, but nevertheless you said, "Categorically, rioting, looting, arson, the things that people can see happening on their television screens every night, over the summer of 2020, categorically, these things are wrong." Then you are in a very strong position to look at what happened on Capitol Hill, now just a little over a week ago and say, "This is equally and fully wrong." If however, you spent the summer of 2020 apologizing for, or providing context or saying there were extenuating circumstances and we shouldn't really be too harsh to judge the people who set police stations and courthouses ablaze, or that kind of thing, then it's a much dicier proposition to suddenly say now, "Ah, what happened on Capitol Hill is an outrage."

If you keep the standards clear and simple, then these judgments get easier. If you are situational, as a commentator, as an evaluator of what's going on in the world, when it suits you, then it becomes more difficult. And what my recent website piece said is that critics of conservatives who accused them of whataboutism to try to resolve this tension, are not really carrying the argument forward very well. These things are in fact comparable, in the sense that they both violate the very basic idea that we should uphold law and order, democracy, respect for other peoples, persons and property. And trying to memory hole all of these crazy things that people said and did a mere six months ago, just isn't going to wash.

Brian Anderson: Yes, it's encouraging to see folks like Nancy Pelosi rediscovering the importance of rule of law, but one wonders if she will apply that concern and other progressives and figures in the media, apply that concern equally, those principles equally across rioting of all kinds, which we've long opposed at City Journal, as truly one of the worst things that can happen, this breakdown in civil order. Thanks very much, Bill. Don't forget to check out William Voegeli's work. It's on our website, www.city-journal.org. We'll link to his author page and his recent work in the podcast description. As I had mentioned earlier, he's been writing for the magazine for a decade now and has many terrific pieces. You can follow City Journal on Twitter@CityJournal and on Instagram@CityJournal _mi. And if you do like what you've heard on the podcast, please leave us a ratings on iTunes. Thanks for listening. And thanks very much Bill for joining us.

William Voegeli: Thank you, Brian.

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Photos: passigatti/iStock (left) and Samuel Corum/Getty Images (right)

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