Geographers, like Historians, sometimes have the unenviable task of informing the general public that their field of study is beyond the question of “What?” Upon learning we’re Geographers, a common question posed is “How interesting! What’s the capital of ______?” Often, we smile, nod, and either a.) answer the question b.) politely inform our questioner that there is more to the social science than where things are located or c.) roll our eyes and walk away. Historians, undoubtedly, are probably asked all manners of questions – “Hey! Do you know about the French Revolution?” or “Hey! What year did America declare its independence?!”
To be sure, the question of “WHERE?!” is central to geo-graphy (writing about the world). But that’s only the first step. “Real” Geography, if I may be so bold, involves deriving knowledge and information from this raw data. Why is it data? And who cares that it’s there anyway? In other words, what does it mean – why does it matter? Below is a graphic illustrating these ideas, via Z Geography’s world map!
A bit of boring background on the genesis of this post. I’ve been wanting to write it for some time, not only is it Z Geography’s first foray into field research (!!!) but it’s also a wonderful topic to illustrate these geographic knowledge and education arguments.
National myth making, short-hand for the process in which the imagined community (hat tip to Anderson) is created, is also a geographic process. The objective, of course, is to create and solidify “the nation”. That community of individuals, whom you will never meet everyone, but with whom you share an identity, perhaps you’ll join the military and protect them, or you’ll head over to the pub in the expatriate district of Minsk for a quick drink in familiar surroundings. The “nation” is not only socially defined by geographically, there are places, boundaries, and areas more “sacred” than others. In the United States, we have our own.
A few weeks ago Z Geography popped on south to visit the Yorktown battlefield near Yorktown, VA, site of a British surrender to an allied American-French army in 1781. General Cornwallis’ surrender eventually led to the Treaty of Paris and the attainment of the colonies’ independence (huzzah!).
As we can see from the above the battlefield is well maintained. The siege lines, which the Americans and French used to creep closer to the British defensive positions at Yorktown come complete with cannon and mortars. The formerly British redoubts are also maintained though the timber “stakes” have a steel rebar center. The more interesting noteworthy item is the location of the visitor’s center. Smack in the middle of the British defensive lines. Take that lobsterbacks! Not only did you surrender but our tourists can now saunter through your lines!
In effect, the public preservation of the battlefield at Yorktown protects and bolsters the national story – and the myth. The place of Yorktown is commemorated and preserved so that all Americans (and other tourists) can see the place where our independence was won. That Cornwallis surrendered here is well known, less well known is the second garrison, across the York River at Gloucester Point.
The British position at Gloucester Point was commanded by none other than Banastre Tarleton. Depending on your depth of knowledge (and your location) you may have had one of three reactions, 1.) Tarle-who? 2.) ah ok, I know him or 3.) that bastard! Tarleton is a controversial historical figure (as noted in his Wikipedia page). For Z Geography’s purposes, it is sufficient to know that he was an effective commander, accused of atrocities at the Battle of Waxhaws, and absolutely despised by a number of Colonial Americans (particularly Virginians). These accusations persist to the present. What is most interesting is that Tarleton’s command was not at risk of falling to the Americans and French, who were mostly across the river at Yorktown, besieging the main British army under Cornwallis. As pointed out in 1781: The decisive year of the Revolutionary War, Cornwallis had earlier intended on sneaking across to Gloucester Point and attempting a breakout and that most of the remaining British naval assets were on the Gloucester side of the river.
Regardless, Cornwallis included the Gloucester Point garrison within the terms of surrender. Noting that the garrison wasn’t about to fall, Tarleton’s troops were permitted to march out with drawn sabers before being disarmed.
With Clinton sailing from New York to Yorktown a week before Cornwallis surrendered, Tarleton’s continued garrison of Gloucester Point is an interesting “what-if” scenario. Thus, while the victory at Yorktown was complete in the sense that Cornwallis surrendered both positions, Gloucester Point is somewhat, hollow. The surrender terms acknowledge this, Tarleton was permitted to march with saber drawn. In this way, Tarleton maintained his status as the British equivalent to Francis Marion, a perpetual thorn in the side of the colonials.
From a geographic perspective, the national myth is seen in comparing the pristine condition of the Yorktown Historical Battlefield with the town across the river. In contrast, Gloucester Point offers no acknowledgement that Banastre Tarleton bested the rebels one final time, save one:
Incidentally, Z Geography is fairly certain that O Hara road is named for Charles O’Hara, Cornwallis’ second-in-command. O’Hara officially surrendered the British Army at Yorktown to Benjamin Lincoln (Washington’s second-in-command).
I’ve written a few times about demographics, most specifically population decline (see here, here, here, here, and here). Some time ago I volunteered to make a map showing those countries currently experiencing (i.e. in 2013) population decline. The results of this effort is below. The map uses data from the U.S. Census Bureau’s International Data Base. In addition to current population decline, I also highlighted those countries estimated to experience population decline in a decade (2023).
In one of the earlier posts I discussed the eastern European concentration of declining populations. Currently, this belt of decline stretches from Russia to Germany and the Adriatic Sea (specifically to the former Yugoslavian republics of Croatia, Slovenia, and others). By 2023, Slovakia and Austria are also experiencing population decline. Reviewing the U.S. Census data, Austria is already experiencing a natural population decrease. However, immigration numbers are high enough to ensure a growing population. By 2023, immigration inflow isn’t enough to replace elderly Austrian citizens, who are dying of natural causes. The decline belt also spreads further west (to Belgium, Finland, and Portugal) and south (to Greece).
In addition to Europe, the East Asian region of decline also begins to emerge with South Korea joining Japan in experiencing negative population growth. By 2030, the People’s Republic of China joins South Korea and Japan with a declining population.
Finally, the United States is expected to continue grow about 0.8% per year in both time periods (2013 and 2023) due to a combination of natural increase (i.e. births being more numerous than deaths) and immigration (i.e. more immigrants than emigrants). Likewise, the United Kingdom and Canada also remain in positive growth due to the same factors.
Though nationalists would undoubtedly take issue with immigration as a policy tool to reverse demographic decline, it makes economic and demographic sense. After all, one of the problems associated with demographic decline is the greater burden that the elderly place on working adults. In less developed economies that burden is comprised of an overabundance of youth, where children are often a form of social security. In the advanced economies, there is far less pressure to have children. There is (typically) a social security program for the elderly as well as retirement and pension plans. Similarly, the cost for having children is also greater. Attempting to spur citizens into having more children would (probably) take decades of consistent policy, which is unlikely to happen (at least in a democracy). Such a policy would not only have to take into account the costs of children, but citizens’ (particularly the female citizens’) preferences.
In light of these challenges, why not encourage immigration?
A BBC article from a month ago has been sitting on my tab for almost a month now, time to discuss! First, let me caveat by saying that the perspective I’m taking here, white British departing London is dictated by the article, not the data. Were I to do a more thorough look I would also like to know who is moving into these areas. So keep in mind this is only half the story. Overall I like this article and slick use of graphics, but I find its message a bit propagandistic – its not a story of “white flight”, “its a story of aspiration. A story of success.” Give me a break. I agree that we might not be dealing with “white flight” in the textbook definitional sense. According to dictionary.com, white flight (coined sometime between 1965 and 1970) referred to the movement of whites, especially middle-class whites, from neighborhoods undergoing racial integration. A more general definition is the movement of whites from areas where non-whites are settling. The second definition has the added quality that we can use it outside the context of a civil rights movement, since “racial integration” is obvious allusion to that. However, the article itself doesn’t really discuss the concurrent settlement of non-whites in those boroughs of London from where whites are departing so I think its difficult to call this not white flight by only providing half the data.
At any rate, there are additional points the article mentions that are worth repeating. First, and this isn’t really discussed much in the article, is the finding that while the British white population group is mostly declining in the “poorer” suburbs surrounding the central city, the proportion of whites is increasing in Inner London (coded blue in the map). This should sound familiar to my American readers, commonly called “gentrification”, the increase in urban whites has been noted since the late 1990s I would suppose. In Washington D.C., “immigrants” (who arrived in the city decades ago) are the ones moving to the suburbs as economics and family life permits. Taking their place in the city are richer, younger, white families. I would imagine that a similar process is ongoing in British cities. The article hints at this with a qualitative study of one surburban London neighborhood (Barking and Dagenham) noting that whites have left and replaced by black African migrants.
Another point worth highlighting is the depth of understanding the Barking and Dagenham borough. The article provides a political, economic, and social history of the neighborhood, which provides a sense of where and when it came from. This is a great example of the Kantian view of geography and history being intricately linked. Of course, the article does take the analytic leap with this history. It points out that the borough had a natural economic engine and lifeline, a Ford Motor Company plant, that subsequently closed. Now that whites are leaving and the main economic engine gone… well, what do you think will happen? More people will have commutes and for larger immigrant families with children finding care will become difficult among single families homes, though many may have relatives also living at home. There’s also the little variable of the poor economic environment, as a city well-integrated into the global economy (if not the most integrated city) its population is most susceptible during the global recession. Of course, not all population groups are created equal and the poorest classes in London are the ones most at-risk of un- or under-employment. Sadly, the article doesn’t take any of this into consideration.
The article gives the impression that these white Britishers moving away are primarily older families. Most bought their “council estates” (in the United Kingdom and Ireland this is a form of “public housing”) as they were entitled to do at 30% of its market value. They’re now flipping (to borrow the American term) these three-bedroom houses (selling at market value, presumably) and using the proceeds to buy much larger estates in the countryside. Again, what is left unclear is if these council estates are still, in fact, public housing and thus being sold to the new “owners” who pay 30% of the market rate while the government picks up the rest of the tab. Or if they are now private houses (the article suggests the latter) being sold to immigrant families. If its the latter that’s a pretty bad break for the immigrants who now enjoy the “privilege” of paying substantially larger mortgages without government assistance, and earning the ire of lower class British whites for “taking jobs” and living off “government money.”
A final point isn’t unique for the European context but interesting for the U.S. This white flight in the United Kingdom isn’t really a “white flight” its a British white flight, while the example used was a borough witnessing black African migration, a large part of the overall story are “other white” immigrants, mostly from Eastern Europe. In a sense this is a repeat of the early/mid-1800s Irish and German migration to the United States. While these immigrants were “white”, and even acknowledged as such, they weren’t exactly welcomed. The picture below, a great candidate for a geopolitical cartoon post (but alas!), drives this point home perfectly for the American context. It compares the experiences of blacks enslaved in the American South (labels above the scale) with Irish immigrants in the American North. Of course, I can’t read the caption on the bottom so I don’t know what the cartoon is really saying is equivalent. Irish immigrants could own property, were free to move about, seek different employment, and earn wages. They even fought in the Civil War. American Blacks, not so much.
So I wonder about this BBC article, the message is too rosy for reality. Sometimes its worth remembering what’s not said in an article and disregarding what’s said. Yes, this is partially a story of economic advancement and the attainment of the Anglo-American dream, but the article did not convince me that wasn’t also white British flight.