Michelle Obama has compared her experience of “white flight” growing up to the treatment of immigrant families today, in a wide-ranging speech on racism and prejudice.
Michelle Obama has recalled how white people left the neighbourhood she and her family moved into on Chicago’s south side in the 1970s – comparing her experience of “white flight” to the way communities react to the arrival of immigrant families today.
Addressing the Obama Foundation Summit at the Illinois Institute of Technology yesterday, the former First Lady said: “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.
“I wanna 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.”
Though Obama’s experience took place in a different era, she says little has changed over four decades on:
“You’re still running,” she says. “We’re no different from the immigrant families that are moving in […] the families that are coming from other places to try to do better.”
Obama was accompanied by her brother, Craig Robinson, as she spoke to students and community activists at the event, which was part of a three-day summit ahead of the launch of the Obama Presidential Center in Chicago.
“We can so easily wash over who we really were because of the colour of our skin, the texture of our hair. That’s what divides countries,” Obama told the audience. “Artificial things that don’t even touch on the values that people bring to life.
“Being the first black first family gave the world an opportunity to see the truth of who we are as black people,” she went on. “That we are just as – and oftentimes better than – many of the people who doubt us.”
Obama said that effects of white flight in her childhood were subtle yet insidious.
“We were a part of creating… history, and a lot of people walked away from it, they disinvested. One by one, they packed their bags and they ran from us, and they left communities in shambles,” she said.
“There were no gang fights, there were no territorial battles but one by one they packed their bags and they ran from us.
“I can’t make people not afraid of black people,” she added. “I don’t know what’s going on, I can’t explain what’s happening in your head. But maybe if I show up every day as a human, a good human doing wonderful things, loving your kids, taking care of things I care about… Just maybe that work will pick away at the scabs of your discrimination.”
Immigration has shifted the demographic of US neighbourhoods such as Pilsen in Chicago (referenced by Obama in her speech), which is now home to a large Mexican community.
According to figures from the US Census Bureau and the Pew Research Centre, immigrants will be the primary driving force behind America’s net population growth over the next 50 years. Among the projected 441 million Americans in 2065, 78 million will be immigrants and 81 million will be people born in the US to immigrant parents.
This growth has prompted an inflammatory rhetoric from the Trump administration, which Obama – along with many others – has implicitly called out on previous occasions.
“Whether we are born here or seek refuge here, there’s a place for us all,” she tweeted in July. “We must remember it’s not my America or your America. It’s our America.”