Arrogance and racism in Michelle Obama’s lecture on White Flight

Arrogance and racism in Michelle Obama’s lecture on White Flight
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Arrogance and racism in Michelle Obama’s lecture on White Flight

Former First Lady Michelle Obama addressed an audience at the 3rd Annual Obama Summit this week and one of her topics was Chicago’s history of “White Flight.” But instead of speaking about it with knowledge, she addressed it with a subtle anger blaming White people for a race relations phenomena that Blacks and Whites shared and both contributed to.

By Ray Hanania

I was very offended by Michelle Obama’s comments about the late 1960s phenomena of “White Flight,”  comments she made while speaking at her husband’s 3rd Annual Obama Summit this past week on Chicago’s Southeast Side.

Michelle Obama said she and her family moved into the South Shore neighborhood in the 1960s and “White people moved out.”



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In her comments, she blamed the phenomena of “White Flight” on White racism against African Americans. She can make that argument all she wants but all she is doing is fueling the gap that continues to exist between Whites and Blacks, a racism that is in a truth much deeper than she is willing to go.

Why did White families living in an all-White neighborhood on Chicagp’s South Side sell their homes when African Americans moved in?

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For starters, the first African Americans who came didn’t move into the neighborhood to be “neighbors.” The first few African American families moved into the Southeast Side, which was all White, did so as a part of a financial strategy directed by the real estate industry. They wanted to profit from “fright sales,” a term that refers to the scaring people to force them to sell their homes by fueling the racial stereotypes that existed between African Americans and White Americans.

Former First Lady Michelle Obama, courtesy of Wikipedia

Former First Lady Michelle Obama, courtesy of Wikipedia

In the Fall and Spring of 1968 and 1969, the community of South Shore Valley, between 87th Street and 95th Street, Calumet Avenue and Stoney Island Avenue, was the heart of the White Flight phenomena. The community was all White, but it was a divided, a segmented community consisting of different White ethnic groups that lived “apart and together.” Polish residents lived together. Italians lived together. Irish lived together. Jews and Arabs also lived together, one of the great ironies of the 1960s.

After the first African American families rented properties all within the same period of two months in several locations in the South Shore Valley community (more recently called Calumet Heights), the realtors went door-to-door fueling fear and convincing homeowners that they had to sell.

“If you don’t sell now, the Black people will be here and your home will be worthless,” the realtors said.

The community changed from all-White to 85 percent Black in a period of six months. Oftentimes, White families were so ashamed of moving because of the race issues and fear mongering that they moved out in the middle of the night. (That prompted me to name my online book about White Flight “Midnight Flight”.)

But the truth is something that Michelle Obama and many other African American historians are not interested in exploring because it contradicts their narrative that it was the result of racist hatred where the Whites were racists and Blacks were victims.

White Flight could not have happened had several African American families not partnered with the realtors in intentionally creating incidents that fueled community fear. It exploited the fact of America in that era that African Americans and White Americans lived apart in a social environment divided by segregation and racism across the nation.

The first African American family to move in the Southeast Side in South Shore Valley near Pill Hill was a family that rented a home, with the help of the realtor, at 89th and Luella Avenue down the block from my own home. The new family had a young daughter that was mentally handicapped. Every day, that daughter would walk up and down the block yelling and crying out. It was a sad and tragic spectacle to watch but it was also a prime motivator to fuel homeowner’s concerns. The family put lawn chairs in front of their home and sat and stared at the other neighbors. There was no effort to ever engage the neighbors, because living in harmony in the new community with the White neighbors was not their goal.

Their goal was pure profit, and the guilty party exploiting both sides were money-hungry realtors who knew that they could make fast commissions by quickly flipping homes at discounted rates or “fear rates.”

None of the White families in that neighborhood had any real experience with African Americans. They only knew what they saw on television and in the news media about race relations, which was constantly filled with conflict and violence.

The fact is that in neighboring Pill Hill, which was the wealthy co-neighborhood to our community of South Shore Valley (Calumet Heights), there were several African American families that were already living there peacefully and in friendship and brotherhood with their White neighbors. One of those African Americans was the famous Chicago Cubs player Ernie Banks. But others were African American doctors and business owners. They were well off financially which speaks to one of the problems of simplistic analysis of racism: the fear is often driven by economic differences more than it is about race.

I remember Trick or Treating during Halloween in the 1960s in Pill Hill where homeowners gave away large and expensive candy bars, and knocking on the doors of African American families who answered. There was no animosity. No one told us to stay away from the Black families. We lived together as if there was no difference.

And when their children went to school with us, there were no explosions of fear or concerns among the White homeowners to sell their homes.

In her comments to the Obama Foundation Summit held in Chicago in late October 2019, Michelle Obama was speaking as if she has a disdain for White people. Her remarks are offensive and hurtful. They are disrespectful and also reflect a lack of knowledge. More importantly, her remarks reflect a lack of care or concern for the reality of White-Black relations which continue to survive in neutral, not improving but just cruising along in blind “tolerance.” Many Americans pretend everything is good but it is not.

Obama told her mostly African American audience, “I can’t make people not afraid of Black people. I don’t know what’s going on. I can’t explain what’s happening in your head.”

She continued, “I want to remind white folks that y’all were running from us,” she continued, according to a report from the Chicago Sun-Times. “And you’re still running.”

No, White people are not running, Mrs. Obama. They are perplexed. They are wondering about the entitlement that some African Americans display. They are worried about the high and extreme crime rates that exist in many African American communities. They wonder why is it that many African Americans don’t confront the crime in their neighborhoods but constantly blame it on everyone else.

Worse is that Michelle Obama is doing exactly what she condemns, stereotyping. She stereotypes all White people as being racist because of the White Flight that took place in 1969.

Although today’s racism is not the same as the racism that plagued America in the 19th Century and the first half of the 20th Century, today’s racism is in “neutral” with both sides pretending it no longer exists. Both sides talk at each other, casting blame rather than seeking understanding. That’s what Michelle Obama is continuing to do with her offensive remarks.

Don’t expect to get many answers from Michelle Obama. She has an agenda to advance by blaming others for society’s problems. Instead of looking deep into an issue and understanding how both sides, Black and White, contributed to the reality, she instead embraces the simplistic answer, an answer which claims Whites are guilty and Blacks are not.

The sad truth is about racism is that both sides find ways to benefit from conflict. Conflict creates heroes. It creates “leaders.” Michelle Obama can cast herself as being on the “right side” by pointing fingers of racism at innocent White families who were chased out of the neighborhood by fear mongering.

Michelle Obama lives on the “simplistic answer” to fuel her heroism. But we know what the simplistic answer really is. The simplistic answer is the answer people turn to when they don’t know better, or don’t want to know, or don’t have the real facts.

They embrace the simple answer and advocate it, and that is called stereotyping. A stereotype is basically a simplistic answer driven by fear to explain something that a person does not understand or that they fear.

Rather than speak the truth, Michelle Obama would rather rely on the stereotype that fits her personal political agenda. Because it makes her look good among her supporters.

Don’t expect a serious discussion about White Flight from Michelle Obama. All you will get from her is a lot of “rhetoric” and screaming headlines in the news media that blame racism on White people and on White people alone.

(Ray Hanania is a former Chicago City Hall reporter and award winning columnist. He is the author of the online book “Midnight Flight: The Story of White Flight in Chicago,” a firsthand account of what happened in 1969. Email ray at rghanania@gmail.com. Click here to read Ray Hanania’s online Book “Midnight Flight.”)

Ray Hanania

Ray Hanania is an award-winning columnist, author & former Chicago City Hall reporter (1977-1992). A veteran who served during the Vietnam War and the recipient of four SPJ Peter Lisagor Awards for column writing, Hanania writes weekly opinion columns on mainstream American & Chicagoland topics for the Southwest News-Herald, Des Plaines Valley News, the Regional News, The Reporter Newspapers, and Suburban Chicagoland.  

Hanania also writes about Middle East issues for the Arab News, and The Arab Daily News criticizing government policies in the Israeli-Palestinian conflict.

A critic of mainstream news media bias, Hanania advocates for peace & justice for Israel & Palestine, & the empowerment of Arabs in America. 

Click here to listen to Ray's Political Podcast. 

Hanania's columns are archived on his personal website at RayHanania.com. Hanania was named "Best Ethnic American Columnist" by the New America Media in November 2007, and is the 2009 recipient of the SPJ National Sigma Delta Chi Award for column writing.

Email Ray Hanania at rghanania@gmail.com.
Ray Hanania

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