The White Flight Lie

Jack Cashill’s “Untenable: The True Story of White Ethnic Flight from America’s Cities”: A Review

Great civilizations are known for their cities. Babylon, Alexandria, Rome, Constantinople, Baghdad, Paris, London, and New York, all evoke stronger associations than their countries. Cities are both pearls and pillars. Although all great cities, like all great civilizations, have their cycles, only modern Western civilization has watched some of its finest cities simultaneously, as if on cue, degenerate from healthy multicultural metropoles to crime-ridden monocultural hellscapes in one generation.

Untenable: The True Story of White Ethnic Flight from America’s Cities by 75-year-old American author, blogger, and urban native Jack Cashill tells the story of one of them: his hometown of Newark, New Jersey. The story of Newark is the story of families of generations of working-class immigrants who put aside their Old World animosities to forge the new American Dream, before experiencing its violent post-Sixties implosion. Cashill weaves together dozens of moving individual stories: the stories of people whose memories read like eulogies to what they lost and the city they abandoned to its fate. 

Untenable is fundamentally an indictment: of federal and local government, of the destruction enacted by the “Civil Rights” movement, and the cynicism of Social-Revolutionaries who have controlled the narrative of the fate of the cities for over a half-century.

I am two generations too late to remember cities like Newark, Baltimore, and Detroit in their splendor: I grew up in the era of Escape from New York and Robocop, where filmmakers no longer needed to invent a natural disaster or war to set the scenes for a dystopia, but simply set their story in a modern American city. But Cashill is also realistic about the reality of his upbringing. From poverty to organized crime, political cronyism, and the erasure of German street names during World War I, American cities were never perfect. Nonetheless, they worked, despite their flaws, As Cashill notes, “In America, their unlimited privilege was the privilege of possibility, It did not come in a color.”

So what caused cities like Cashill’s beloved Newark, and others across the country, to stop working?

Cashill, in a pull-no-punches New Jersey Irish style, is quite clear in his condemnation. What caused this arrangement to collapse in the 1960s was everything from the corruption of local city officials and the rise of fatherless youths aided by drugs and government welfare incentives, which has been covered by multiple other writers beginning with the famous Moynihan report. Cashill takes special care to mention this was not all done with ill intent: “At every stage of the process, progressives paved the road to urban hell with their good intentions, and it did not matter what ethnic group they had to steamroll to get the job done.” 

Despite widely circulated claims blaming White fear of Black families, the “racism of highways,” poverty or loss of jobs, the dozens of people with whom Cashill spoke, and the scores of records he produced tell a different story. If the past is truly prologue, that lie is put to bed in Newark’s past. Destitute immigrants from Old World Europe began flooding into American cities on the east coast in the mid-1800s; by the 1920s American cities were a polyglot mixture held together by the conviction that hard work brought rewards, and a belief in the family. A century later those diverse European cultures are castigated together as “White” but at the time the fact that Protestant Germans could live peacefully next to Catholic Italians and Catholic Irish, was far from guaranteed. These immigrants set aside centuries of mutual national animosity to form themselves into a new people: Americans. Even the great migration of Southern Blacks to the North between the 1930s to 1950s did little to damage the great success story that was the American City. If “white flight” was caused by Whites being scared of Blacks moving into their neighborhoods, it took them decades to realize it. 

Nor was poverty the issue. No one living in the rented row apartments of Newark was wealthy. Despite essentially everyone Cashill knew, including his own family, living in varying states of poverty, crime stayed low. Men, and also women, worked for what they had. Untenable pulls the census records from a sample neighborhood, and painstakingly lists the two dozen plus professions of the neighborhood’s residents. This was the home of factory workers, carpenters, the infamous Radium Girls, and a dozen other working-class jobs that made the American machine run. Permanent boarders were common in the small apartments of the time and luxuries were at a minimum. Cashill describes him and his childhood friends playing a game of one-upmanship to see who was poorest.

But Cashill adds an important new contribution in his blend of statistical analysis: firsthand interviews with the urban dispossessed, and his own firsthand experiences. He also delivers an effective critique of the racially-charged mainstream narrative promoted by writers like Ibram Kendi (born Ibram Henry Rogers), “anti-racist” Tim Wise, Ta-Nehisi Coates, poet Amiri Baraka (born Everett Jones), and former First Lady Michelle Obama. Cashill very clearly did the legwork that the previously mentioned “academics” could not be bothered to do. He criticizes and compares the often Ivy League/Suburban roots of those who wrote the history with those who lived it saying: “[his] experiences… enables me to write authoritatively. We were there. We saw it. We know what we saw.”

Cashill holds to account the lie that Blacks in the neighborhood scared off Whites, without whom the cities fell apart. These immigrants and children of immigrants were not quitters. Post-war GIs of all races used their Montgomery-GI bill to finance a home, often being the first person in their family line to own a home they could call their own. These people would never surrender the birthright they had bought through the blood and sweat of a World War because they didn’t like the color of the person moving into an already mixed racial bag. These people were fiercely patriotic to their neighborhood, and practiced the type of zip code nationalism that has come back into vogue today. Cashill interviewed dozens of current and former Newark residents. Residents who “anti-racist academics” talk about but rarely speak to. Uniformly they scoff at the notion that racism played a part in their decision: it was often quite literally life or death.

The book’s title “Untenable” paints a picture of the last vestiges of scrappy and determined residents trying to push back the tide – but this is misleading. Nothing pushed the families out of the city, the city they knew ceased to exist around them. Yes, some stayed to their own detriment (often fatally), but the traditions, safety, and greatness of the city they had helped build rotted away around them, replaced by a crime-infested racial homogeny. Members of all races fled from crime and moved to safer neighborhoods. The refugees of the burning cities moved to the suburbs, where life was safer, but lost in the move was the feeling of community and the bonds that held the people together. 

Cashill’s ode to his fellow refugees in a great urban diaspora is a tragedy, and specifically an American tragedy. America, which has never lost a city to a modern war, watched helplessly as a generation of Revolutionaries lied and razed her beloved cities to the ground, by destroying the very values that built them brick by brick. Cashill’s message is clear: If we want to retake our once beloved cities, if we want to build them back into the beacons of hope and prosperity they once were, then we need to look at the real reasons they failed, and not the reasons that make leftists money. We need to look at every statement accepted as fact pushed by people who don’t know, and listen to the voices of our citizens who do. Those who were there, and whose lives were forever altered by the tragedy that befell them.

Philip Voodoo is an American writer and a veteran.

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