White (British) Emigration from London

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.

Social equivalence? American Blacks and Irish immigrants, ca. 1850s (via darienps.org)

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.