Michelle Obama spoke out against “white flight” Tuesday at the Obama Foundation Summit in Chicago. She said she experienced it as a child growing up on the South Side of the city, but that it still exists today with immigrants as the “others.”
“I want to remind white folks that y’all were running from us … This family, with all the values that you read about, you were running from us,” she said.
Obama, who was raised on the South Side of Chicago, said when her family moved into the neighborhood, white families began moving out.
“As families like ours — upstanding families like ours who were doing everything we were supposed to do and better — as we moved in, white folks moved out because they were afraid of what our families represented,” she said.
The term “white flight,” refers to a phenomenon that began in the 1950s and ’60s when white people moved from urban areas with high populations of people of color to suburbs. Obama said this movement away from communities of color stems from fear of them and failure to look at them as people.
She said when she was young, she had friends of all races, but that has changed.
“There were no gang fights; there were no territorial battles,” Obama said. “Yet one by one, they packed their bags, and they ran from us. And they left communities in shambles.”
White flight was problematic because it left communities of color more open to the government’s discrimination. With fewer white children and families to provide for, communities’ capitals for schools and infrastructure decreased. Communities with primarily Black and Hispanic populations still struggle with inferior schools and other facilities.
Obama said she felt this injustice, even as a child. She wrote about her experience with white flight in her book Becoming.
“You know this when you’re young,” she said. “You know people are running from you. And you can see it.”
Chicago is the fourth most segregated city in the U.S., according to a USA Today Money report in July. The Black poverty rate is 26.5%, while the white poverty rate is 6.8%, according to the data.
Obama said white flight still is occurring, most recently with white people moving out of neighborhoods immigrants are moving into.
“You were running from us, and you’re still running, because we’re no different than the immigrant families that are moving in, the families in Pilsen, the families that are coming from other places to try to do better,” she said, met with applause.
Obama condemned the superficiality of fearing people as “others” based on their appearances rather than their values. Obama endured racist and sexist comments on her appearance throughout her time as first lady. She was labeled as not respectable enough because of her choice to wear sleeveless dresses that show off her muscular arms and even called a “poor gorilla” who needs to “focus on getting a total makeover (especially the hair).”
“Because we can so easily wash over who we really were — because of the color of our skin, because of the texture of our hair — that’s what divides countries, artificial things,” she said.