Black Quotidian: Everyday History in African-American Newspapers

November 21, 1974

Guest post by Alexander Cooper, History MA Student at Arizona State University.

“White Flight to Suburbs Turns Back the Clock,” published in the November 21, 1974, edition of the Los Angeles Sentinel, conveys a U.S. federal appeals court judge’s concerns about the implications of geographic segregation and the judiciary’s inaction toward it.

The article is a report of U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals judge J. Skelly Wright’s speech to the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission. In the speech Wright indicates that efforts to integrate blacks and minorities in the educational and economic spheres are being undermined by the existence of suburbs that are municipalities independent from the cities they surround.

Wright makes the dire prognosis that whites have taken the “city limits as their protective shield against integration,” leading to geographic divisions that create “politically and economically distinct civilizations.” Casualties of such division are inner-city schools (which suffer in quality) and minority employment (jobs being inaccessible in being moved far outside the city). For minorities themselves leaving the inner-city is a nonstarter; this is due to suburbs’ laws that prevent low-income housing and preserve open space, Wright notes.

The judicial branch, according to Wright, must address such segregation. In this context, Wright regrets what he sees as the U.S. Supreme Court “retreating” from the defense of minority rights. He asserts that the judiciary “must assure that the political process (to include the development of suburbs) does not tread on the rights of minorities.”

By the time Judge Wright makes his published statements in 1974, “white flight” had long become a strong undercurrent of the American landscape. The judicial branch (and the government more broadly) having done little to stop this tide, the segregation feared by Wright is in 2016 an even firmer reality.

While much of the reality feared by Wright is indeed realized today, Wright may not have envisioned certain changing social trends. One of these trends includes the movement of suburban whites back into the city. While this “gentrification” has helped revitalize some cities (such as Washington D.C.), infusing tax dollars to fund low-performing schools, this phenomenon has not cured the ills of the inner city. This is in part because a number of whites who start families either send their children to private schools—thus maintaining school segregation—or leave for the suburbs when they wish to have children.

Wright is to be admired for his recognition of geographic segregation’s impact on creating what are effectively “two civilizations.” His call for a judicial solution, however, was a tough sell in 1974 and would arguably be an even tougher one now. At this point in its history, to close the economic and educational racial gaps, the U.S. prefers to work around the edges (through charter schools, scholarships, and private sector job programs) rather than to use strong legislation. 

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