Racial Sorting and the Emergence of Segregation in American Cities
Residential segregation by race grew sharply in the United States as black migrants from the South arrived in northern cities during the early twentieth century. The existing literature emphasizes discriminatory institutions as the driving force behind this rapid rise in segregation. Using newly assembled neighborhood-level data, we instead focus on the role of “flight” by whites, providing the first systematic evidence of the role that prewar population dynamics played in the emergence of the American ghetto. Leveraging exogenous changes in neighborhood racial composition, we show that white departures in response to black arrivals were quantitatively large and accelerated between 1900 and 1930. Our preferred estimates suggest that white flight was responsible for 34 percent of the increase in segregation over the 1910s and 50 percent over the 1920s. Our analysis suggests that segregation would likely have arisen in American cities even without the presence of discriminatory institutions as a direct consequence of the widespread and decentralized relocation decisions of white urban residents.
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Document Object Identifier (DOI): 10.3386/w22077