Jonathan Tilove

My Life As A Race Writer

White flight, writ large, from breaking waves of immigration transforms the American landscape

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August 8, 1993.

c. Newhouse News Service

Unprecedented white flight from the breaking waves of immigration is transforming the American landscape in sweeping ways.

A first-of-its-kind analysis of the 1990 census by the Newhouse News Service reveals that most immigrants have been flooding into just a handful of states, and that non-Hispanic whites in those states are fleeing to places largely untouched by immigration.

It is a new pattern that is dividing America into two very different nations one changing, churning, intensely diverse; the other, staider, simpler, whiter each dangerously out of synch, politically, economically and culturally, with the other.

The new study conducted for Newhouse by demographer William Frey of the Population Studies Center at the University of Michigan found that more than two-thirds of all new immigrants poured into just seven states New York, Texas, New Jersey, Illinois, Massachusetts, Florida and California. Of those, only Florida attracted a broad cross-section of whites.

Between 1985 and 1990, New York lost more than a half-million whites in its exchanges with other states; Texas and Illinois more than a quarter-million; New Jersey nearly 200,000, and Massachusetts 114,000.

California, which gained far and away the most immigrants of any state, also gained a net of 109,000 whites. But it experienced an exodus of struggling middle- and working-class whites, nearly 100,000 households.

The whites leaving were those earning less than the median income and without a college degree. In other words, it was those most likely to be competing with immigrants for jobs, for homes and for cultural primacy, and those most vulnerable to California’s hemorrhage of high-paying manufacturing jobs. The exodus also includes many retirees.

Most of the whites leaving California are settling in the much whiter nearby states of Nevada, Arizona, Washington and Oregon.

It is a movement that recreates on a grand scale the classic pattern of white suburbs ringing minority cities, with distinctly different, even hostile, interests.

“In the past, we had whites leaving neighborhoods and cities,” says Frey, an expert on race and migration. “In the current situation, we have whites leaving entire states and regions in response not only to the new racial and ethnic diversity, but also the urban and economic problems that accompany turbulent demographic change.”

The stage for this new white flight of unprecedented sweep was set by a decade of unsurpassed immigration.

The Urban Institute, an independent research organization based in Washington, D.C., estimates that nearly 10 million immigrants entered the United States, legally and illegally, in the 1980s, more than any decade in history.

That accounts for 37 percent of the nation’s population growth in the ’80s. And importantly, unlike past epochs of white immigration from Europe, this new wave of immigrants is more than 80 percent Latin American and Asian.

What the new data make clear is just how thoroughly America’s growing minority population is a consequence of this immigration, and how unevenly the nation is sharing in this developing drama of diversity.

“A broad swath of America is largely untouched by the new infusion of immigrants and minorities,” says Frey, noting that for some whites, “that lack of diversity is a plus.”

Especially among older whites, Frey says, there appears to be a “yearning for stability” and a desire to escape the upheaval of rapid racial and social change.

The data, in fact, confirm that whites are moving to states on the southern Atlantic Coast and in the West that have fewer immigrants.

In the meantime, much of America’s white heartland remains largely undisturbed by new arrivals either from other states or abroad.

“What is really developing here is two very separate societies, two separate Americas,” Frey warns.

The peril is that these two Americas will have increasingly little in common and little understanding or identity with one another. One America will be immersed in the tumult and scramble of a cultural whirlpool while the other remains high and multiculturally dry. One will be the changing America you are always reading about in the news magazines. The other will be more akin to the Wonder Bread America you remember from 1950s TV.

It is not a prescription for national unity or political harmony.

And it is a growing apart that appears, if anything, to have gained steam since 1990. Immigration has continued unabated even as the big-immigration states of Massachusetts, New Jersey, New York, California and Illinois were either losing or creating very few jobs. And the obvious destinations for discontented whites have been whiter states like Nevada, Idaho, Utah, Montana, Washington and Oregon that have had among the highest rates of job growth.

The significance of the new numbers, extracted by Frey from recently released census data, is that they provide the first vivid portrait of those moving to America between 1985 and 1990, and those Americans moving from state to state during those years.

According to the data, only Florida, among the seven states receiving the most immigrants, defied the trend toward white flight. In fact, Florida received more than twice as many whites from other states as it did newcomers from abroad. However, they appear to be choosing different parts of the state to call home, dividing Florida itself in ways consistent with the national pattern.

As usual, though, it is California that provides the most breathtaking vistas of this historic interplay of immigration and migration, and it doesn’t look much like the melting pot.

In fact, a close look at the movement in and out of California shows just how migration, far from dispersing people, is sorting and clumping them by race.

If whites leaving California head for whiter states, many blacks instead head South, to states with thriving black communities and family ties. Very few black Californians move to Oregon, while nearly a third of the movement from California to Georgia is black.

Dwayne Redmon, a 28-year-old black accountant with a Big Six firm, left San Francisco three years ago because he could not afford a home there. He chose to move to Atlanta because his father retired there and because of its vast and vital black middle class.

“There’s a perception that blacks live well in Atlanta,” says Redmon.

Conversely, Asians from all over America are converging on California, which is now home to more than a third of all America’s Asians. Many are refugees and other immigrants who, after first settling somewhere else in America, decide that California is where they really want to be.

By far the biggest factor changing California, though, is immigration.

California, according to state demographer Linda Gage, now attracts a third of all legal immigrants and half of all illegal immigrants entering the country. She projects the state, which is now 56 percent non-Hispanic white, will be less than half white within a decade.

But even these state figures dilute just how concentrated the immigration really is and the extent to which it is drenching Los Angeles, where nearly 40 percent of the population is foreign born, and nearly a third don’t speak English well.

All by itself, the Los Angeles metro area is home to 12 percent of the nation’s minority population and a fifth of all minority population growth in the 1980s.

“In the whole history of the world, no society has ever experienced such dramatic ethnic change over such a short period of time,” says Alan Heslop, director of the Rose Institute at Claremont McKenna College, which charts Southern California’s hurtling population changes.

This is high-impact demography and it has its casualties in cultural whiplash and economic dislocation.

It appears that together, immigration, high home prices, a changing economy, and a deteriorating quality of life were squeezing whites out of the lower half of California’s economy even before the recession and Los Angeles riots kicked the California exodus into high gear.

It is a historic turn of events for a state that, ever since the Gold Rush of 1849, had been the golden land of opportunity not just for those from abroad but for seekers and strivers from all the rest of America.

For a long time, the academic consensus, though never the street sense, was that immigration did not hurt the existing workforce.

But, according to two recently published national studies, the street was right immigrants are displacing less well-educated workers.

One of those studies, by geographers Richard Barff of Dartmouth and Mark Ellis and Robert Walker of Florida State University, found that for every seven immigrants that moved into an area, one local blue collar worker left.

Tightening the vice, California is bleeding the well-paid manufacturing jobs which had enabled a blue collar worker to buy a home in a state where prices, even after a collapse in property values, remain half again higher than the national average.

For those with less than a college degree, it all adds up to moving down or moving out.

Consider Stan Godek.

For generations of folks like Godek, California was to the rest of America what America was to the world a place of Edenic bounty and limitless opportunity. It was the land of milk and honey.

But this spring, the 34-year-old carpenter gave up on California. He packed a U-Haul, hit the freeway and set off across the desert for Las Vegas. Within days he had a job working construction on the Luxor, a new hotel-casino being built in the shape of a pyramid. He is earning $26 an hour, three times what he was making by the time he left Los Angeles, reduced to only part-time work.

“All the illegal aliens in L.A. drive the wages for construction way down. I mean way down,” says Godek in the gritty twang of his native Texas.

Stan Godek is descended from Polish immigrants. His wife, Shelley is an Israeli immigrant. (He converted to Judaisim to marry her, which makes him feel a little funny about finding his economic salvation building a pyramid.)

The Godeks are hardly know-nothings or nativists, but they worry about California, about crime and carjackings, about crowding and congestion, about living paranoid and having to “watch your back,” about drowning in a floodtide of poor immigrants. They are glad they left.

“L.A. was just dying for me,” says Stan.

“L.A. is dying,” says Shelley.

“I’m all for the melting pot,” says Stan, “But I’m afraid we’re going to end up like Mexico, with just the very rich and the very poor.”

In fact, what the Godeks and other California emigres leave behind is a state that is becoming more rich and poor, with less in between. It is a “Blade Runner” California in which whites are ever-more concentrated and insulated at the top, and minorities and immigrants increasingly compete with each other at the bottom.

Altogether, three quarters of those leaving California, but only half of those arriving from other states and abroad, were white. While California was still on the whole gaining whites from other states between 1985 and 1990, it was losing white households earning less than the state median of $35,000. In five years, nearly 100,000 more of those households left California than moved in from other states.

The net result: California in the late 1980s was gaining the poorest and least educated through immigration and the most affluent and best educated from other states (as well as a significant slice of its Asian immigration), and losing the stressed-and-strained middle.

That hollowing of the white middle out of California is exaggerated in Los Angeles, according to an analysis by Nancy Bolton, a consultant with UCLA’s Business Forecasting Project. She found the same pattern of middle- and working-class white flight out of L.A. to quieter parts of the state. It is, she says, the “balkanization” of California.

“It’s more of a layer cake than a melting pot,” says Scott Faber, 23, a New Hampshireite who, fresh out of Yale University, landed a job in Burbank writing for Discover, the science magazine owned by Disney.

The figures indicate that California remained attractive to the young, single and college-educated like Faber. But he acknowledges his love affair with California is doomed.

“I would never raise my kids here,” says Faber. “It’s not a healthy place for kids.”

There are those, of course, who can still afford a very nice life in Southern California, like the Zellers Mike and Jan and their three towhead children.

Mike Zellers, 37, an attorney with one of Cleveland’s premier law firms, moved from the quiet Cleveland suburb of Westlake, which he loved, to California’s Palos Verdes Peninsula, south of L.A., after his firm merged with an L.A. firm.

Palos Verdes Estates, where the median household income exceeds $100,000, is not fenced in and gated, like its even more elegant neighbor, Rolling Hills. But it’s balmy with the safe gentility of some summer island resort community. It is a place without streetlights because they would obscure the stars and danger does not lurk in the dark.

“You walk outside and it’s pitch black,” says Zellers. “You’re not in Los Angeles.”

Zellers has a theory about California’s current malaise in the face of recession. These Californians lack Ohio ballast, a Cleveland perspective. They’ve known no winters.

“Things here were so good for so long for so many people, they never experienced what some other parts of the country experienced for 10 years, so they’re having a harder time dealing with it,” he says.


Of course, it is the better-off, better educated who were still moving into California between 1985 and 1990 who are more likely to benefit from immigrants who labor for less, tend their children, clean their homes and cut their grass, and whose education, health care and social service needs plump the professional classes.

Nonetheless, as times have toughened since 1990, state figures show many more people leaving than coming in from other states. California remains the Golden State for immigrants, but not for other Americans.

First there was the recession, and then there were the riots.

“The riots just had a devastating impact psychologically,” says sociologist Frederick Lynch, who teaches government at Claremont McKenna College. “They revealed a lot of people’s fears of Armageddon.”

And not just white fears.

“Everybody feels like they’re sitting on a powder keg,” says Deloy Edwards, who sells homes in the elite black neighborhoods overlooking where the L.A. riots raged. “They’re scared to death.”

All this has happened before: Immigration. Riots. Reaction.

To John Higham, one of the nation’s leading historians of immigration, America’s past foretold the present. The feverish political reaction, like that swelling today against immigration. The riots, like those experienced in Miami in the ’80s and in Los Angeles last year. These are predictable outcomes of massive, concentrated immigration.

“The brute fact of tension, of conflict, of susceptibility to riots and so on, has to be regarded as a really serious problem,” says Higham, the author of the classic, “Strangers in the Land: Patterns of American Nativism 1860-1925.”

Higham believes that today’s immigrant concentrations are more dangerous and less likely to disperse than in the past. Never before, he says, have so many immigrants arrived at a time when values of Americanization, citizenship, and assimilation “a readily available pride in being an American, a kind of national consciousness” were at such low ebb.

Lynch, who writes on diversity and white reaction, says it is the combination of surging demographic change, and the politics of multiculturalism, which apportions rewards by race and ethnicity, that is leading more and more whites to ask themselves, “Do we want to be strangers in a strange land?”

Already, Lynch and other observers say, the post-1990 white flight out of California spans the classes.

“It’s not just U-Hauls, it’s Mayflower elite vans,” says Lynch, who predicts, “The minute real estate prices even start to come back, the strong stream of whites leaving California is going to turn into a flood.”


The data used in this story were compiled through a computer analysis of the Public Use Microdata Samples (PUMS) released by the Census Bureau earlier this year. The PUMS files represent a sample of 5 percent of the population who completed a more detailed 1990 census form that asked place of residence in 1985. Those answers enable researchers to track the movement of Americans from state to state, and from abroad into states, between the years 1985 and 1990. The analysis by the Population Studies Center at the University of Michigan, under the direction of demographer William Frey, tracked that movement and broke it down by race, age, education, household income, poverty status, household type, occupation and English proficiency. The numbers were then weighted to estimate 100 percent of the migration.


Written by jonathantilove

September 8, 2012 at 6:29 pm

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