The Evolving Logic of White Flight in Contemporary School Desegregation Reform

Fithawee Tzeggai, University of Kansas

Policy initiatives designed to achieve racial and socio-economic integration in schools or neighborhoods often operate under the premise that sustaining integration requires maintaining a specific ratio of racial or social class groupings below an estimated “tipping point.” The tipping point describes the maximum percentage of the non-dominant group that members of the dominant group will tolerate before exiting the community and, thus undermining the integration project. The logic of integration tipping points has a long history in sociological literature on race and segregation, but it was contested through the 1960s by scholars and activists who put forward competing, processual accounts of the social and organizational “destabilization” of integrated communities to explain white flight and resegregation. This study investigates the ascendance of what I call the behavioral analysis of white flight, based on white middle-class preferences and posited tipping points, and the decline of processual accounts in debates about school integration after the 1960s. I track political and expert discourse on white flight by surveying research literature and by examining, through archival sources, the public deliberations and official evaluations surrounding urban school desegregation proposals in both the 1960s and 1970s. This paper considers the hypothesis that the spread of school integration court orders in the 1970s and the corresponding institutional basis for enacting desegregation policy provided both political demand and empirical test cases for the behavioral analysis of white flight, thus steering expert and public opinion away from processual accounts. This historical inquiry contributes to broader political critiques of still influential expert arguments for integration and the de-concentration of poverty, and it has implications for theoretical critiques of the heteronomous relationship between social science and public policy.

No extended abstract or paper available

 Presented in Session 35. STS Lessons for Policy Impact