The strident screams of vulgarity, inner-laced with threats of abuse directed at children, albeit wayward, but no more than nine years in age. Shattered glass, slamming doors, and cries of pain so clear they seemed to come from my own home. An ever-worsening property, with a decaying sidewalk, decrepit front-lawn better suited for a mud-wrestling match than the growing of grass, and pieces of trash drifting onto my property on a daily basis. Brazen teenagers dribbling basketballs, often using their rental house to improve their passing game, and playing absurdly loud music at all times of day. Belligerently drunk adults lighting bonfires to sustain their binge to the wee hours of the morning.
These unfortunate experiences were what encompassed my daily life and functioned as the true bane of my existence for more than a year, for these people and their behaviors detailed above are not some hypothetical situation or individuals I read about in the paper. No. They were my neighbors, their rental home attached to mine, separated by a little less than two-feet of concrete, our walkway and stairs shared.
For more than a year I exhausted every avenue of civil response that I could: police, landlord, County Section 8 Housing, the school system, and basic human logic with my neighbors- nothing worked. And try as I may to rationalize this daily ritual of disrespect by my neighbors as simply an extension of their lower-income status, seemingly limited education, and most likely cycle of poor parenting, eventually I just couldn’t endure the barrage of vile actions on constant display to me and others.
However, more than the fear of financial depreciation of my home and the constant worry of physical altercations with these neighbors, was the incessant mental fatigue I suffered, feeling sick to my stomach every time I drove home, wondering what new indignity this troubled family would expect me to tolerate. Eventually, it became too much, and so I did what many have done before me- I fled. I packed my bags, told my roommates, and sold my home. I fled. I fled because they were ignorant. I fled because they were different. I fled because I could.
The idea of flight from ignorance and poverty is hardly new to anyone who has grown up in or around a large city. The term “white flight” usually carries with it a context of prejudice and racism. This idea was recently the centerpiece of an Inquirer article, Pennsauken Works to Discourage White Flight, which depicted one town’s efforts to stem the tide of a white exodus, apparently motivated by the changing color of the community. As more African American, Hispanic, and Asian families moved in, more white families moved out. And while the writer should be applauded for tackling what is often considered a taboo subject, the article itself still failed to address the contentious, unspoken debate at the heart of the matter: Is it wrong for white families, or any family with the capacity to do so, to move due to a changing community?
The town in question, Pennsauken, a New Jersey town close to both Camden and Philadelphia, is no different than many other communities that lie on the borders of large urban centers, and its changing demographics are a reflection of this reality. Over a forty percent decline in the white population since 1980 seemingly conveys the fact that many of the once white public opted to flee for paler pastures as a result of the change in the community’s racial makeup. According to Nathaniel Norment Jr., chairman of African American Studies at Temple University, this response is, “…something that's created based on white people's fear of being close to black people. There's this myth we have that blacks' moving in will change the social environment." Norment’s astute perception aside, from a strictly statistical standpoint, isn’t this “white fear” a legitimate one? According to the article, yes.
Anyone with a basic understanding of education and poverty knows that these two factors influence property value more than anything else- perceived or real. They also know that African Americans and Hispanics are disproportionately more likely to be victims of a failed educational system, thus creating greater poverty. Therefore, if a white family, through statistical certainties, sees an increase in these minority groups, they can rightfully determine that their schools will worsen, their taxes, due to greater services to the impoverished, will increase, and their home’s property values will decline. This is to say nothing of the other regrettable reality- crime- another disproportionate statistical certainty often revolving around higher levels of poverty, poorer options of education, and greater amounts of minorities.
These unfortunate truths are validated within the article. According to Eric Dobson, a planning consultant and member of the school board, “When you see low property values, you can see people of color are living there. It’s troubling when you have an overwhelming number of one race buying in a place.” Ironically, most of the influx of minorities overflowing the suburban areas of large and small cities are attempting to escape the same thing white flighters presumably fear: debilitating poverty, dysfunctional schools, and rampant crime. The only difference is that most of these transplants have actually experienced these unfortunate circumstances whereas the fleers can only assume their seemingly inevitable advent.
For the one year of my life that I dealt with the effects of absurdly ignorant (intellectually, socially, and morally) individuals I regrettably called my neighbors, I wished everyday that I didn’t have to. And while I can say that my motivation to move was primarily influenced through my experiences with this family of loathsome human beings and their ignorance, I am happy to say that race played no part in my decision because the family was white. But, I often wonder if I would be a statistic of “white flight” if they had been black or Hispanic, and what this would say about me. (Actually, a friendly black family, who I got along with quite well, lived directly across the street from me). And although I can’t answer this question, I do know that if I could have been aware of the flood of anger, stress, and discontent that would saturate my life for an entire year, I would have certainly sold sooner.