Desire and Fear in Suburbia: The Lasting Legacy of White Flight on Suburban Attitudes Toward Race

This post excerpts portions of an NEH proposal written as a project for this class.

Nature of the request

This proposal requests an NEH Digital Projects for the Public Discovery Grant of $30,000 for planning, research, and initial design of Desire and Fear in Suburbia: The Lasting Legacy of White Flight on Suburban Attitudes Toward Race. The impact of population shifts on urban centers in the mid-twentieth century have been well documented and studied from an urban historical perspective, studies that increasingly have found their place in the digital sphere. Studies that examine that history from the suburban perspective, while significant in print, have yet to make their mark within the digital realm. This project addresses that gap with an interest in understanding how cultural shifts fifty or more years ago contributed to whiteness as an identity and continue to impact racial attitudes today.

This project will focus specifically on white residents’ departure from Plainfield, New Jersey, a mid-size city that suffered significant public trauma in the 1960s. The project will trace the movements of those white residents who left Plainfield in that decade though three dimensions—place, time, and memory—making use of methods and tools that are unique to the digital realm. The goals of the project are to help the public as well as scholars better understand the motivations and consequences of the decision to leave, and to add another chapter to the growing national narrative of local de-urbanization in the twentieth century.

The result of this discovery grant will be an actionable research and design plan that identifies archives and other sources of primary information; a detailed plan on how to identify, contact, and conduct subjects for oral histories; a site map and preliminary wireframe for the creation of a project website; identification of software platforms and development needs to create the site as an unique interactive experience; and preliminary media and outreach plan to attract an audiences to the site, well as real-world and online forums for public discussion on the project’s findings. This is a story that can be best researched, told, and disseminated through digital tools, methods, and media.

Humanities Content

“The problem of the Twentieth Century is the problem of the color-line.” W.E.B. Du Bois

This is a project of lines. Culturally and politically it is about the color-line presciently observed by W. E. B. Du Bois in 1903. Structurally, the project also is based on lines: the lines of movement of relocation of white residents from urban neighborhoods to new homes in the surrounding suburbs; the reshaping and solidifying of lines of demarcation between black and white populations; and the generational lines among families in the decades following their moves to the suburbs. Ultimately, this project is about the sometimes blurry line that separates the dual, perhaps dueling, emotions of fear and desire: fear of new groups encroaching on traditionally white urban neighborhoods versus the desire for the modern promises of mid-century suburbs.

There are two questions that drive this project: what motivations did the white residents that left Plainfield ascribe to their decisions to move; and how do those decisions, taken over fifty years ago, continue to affect attitudes toward race on family members who experienced that move? These are questions of human emotions and rationalizations with lasting cultural, social, political, and economic impact. They were decisions driven by large-scale social conditions but made on the personal, individual level. They were trends that were both local and national. In short, they continue to have real-world consequences that reverberate far beyond individual households, and that continue to affect urban planning, economic development, education funding, and social relationships. Understanding the human element behind these moves not only can help us understand the actions of the past, it can enable us to make better informed decisions today on personal, social, and public policy levels.

Plainfield, New Jersey is at once paradigmatic of the social issues that beset New Jersey, the Northeast, and the nation in the 1960s, as well as a place with its own unique history and circumstances. The area was first settled by Europeans in 1684 and incorporated as a city in 1869. For a good portion of the nineteenth century and the first half of the twentieth century, the city had a thriving downtown district with upscale department stores and other shops. Uprisings by black and Latino residents occurred in multiple New Jersey cities between 1967 and 1971. Violence erupted in Plainfield on July 14, 1967, lasted three days and four nights, and led to forty-six injuries, the death of one policeman, 167 arrests, and an estimated $700,000 in property damage (Peter Dreier). As horrible as these statistics certainly are, the events in Plainfield would be overshadowed in the public memory by uprisings in Newark and, further from home, Detroit. Between 1950 and 1970 the black population of Plainfield rose from 5,724 to 18,749 even as the overall population of the city remained fixed. At the same time, the populations of surrounding largely white, upscale suburban towns grew exponentially, with a net increase in their white populations versus non-whites. (NJSDC 2000 Census Publication). Today, Plainfield’s population is listed as 43% Hispanic, 40% Black, 11% other non-white, and 9% white. The median household income is $56,883 versus $76,126 for all of New Jersey (

This dramatic shift in population, and in the impact of that change on communal and personal wealth, opportunity, and identity, was traumatic. As W. Edward Orser notes, the impact of these population shifts had lasting consequence for all concerned: “Flight on such a scale traumatized whole communities, leaving its mark on those who left as well as upon those who took their place.” There is no doubt that the effect of white flight on the inner cities was profound, and it would be a mistake to equate the collective and individual trauma in the suburbs to what was inflicted on urban neighborhoods. As federal funding and jobs followed the increasing populations to the suburbs, increased poverty and government neglect left a lasting, multigenerational mark at the city, neighborhood, and family levels. But was there a sense of guilt, collective or individual, over the fate of urban neighborhoods among those who left the city for the suburbs and led to its own form of trauma? This project seeks to probe the impact of the move among the new suburbanites over succeeding generations while recognizing the comparative trajectory of their lives, materially and emotionally, with those who stayed behind.

This project will rely on multiple fields of humanities research and scholarship to draw a comprehensive picture of the residents who left Plainfield, and to create an understanding of their motivations and social transformations that can be applied to a broader, national context. While the humanities are the central focus and discipline of this project, it will also draw on scholarship and methods from the social sciences including economics, psychology, and sociology. In an era of data-driven research and interdisciplinary studies the intersection of the humanities and social sciences can only enhance humanistic understanding of history and society. Research methods will range from archival digging to attitudinal surveys, data-mining to personal interviews. It is a story of history and geography, identity and demography, large data sets and individual recollection.

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