Mulder – Shades of White Flight

Mark Mulder, Shades of White Flight (Rutgers University Press, 2015).

Review by Michael J. Douma

This important book is a case-study of the role of religion and structural racism in the flight of Dutch Americans from the Chicago neighborhoods of Roseland and Englewood in a period from the late 1950s to early 1970s. This is an uncomfortable topic that many Dutch Americans would prefer not talking about. But the author, an Associate Professor of Sociology at Calvin College, makes a quite serious indictment that deserves to be heard. In short, Mulder argues that the CRC and RCA were “co-conspirators and accomplices” in a pattern of white flight. (page 3) He contends that religion played a contributory role in actually abetting the exodus from old neighborhoods. Before I continue, let the charge ring clear. Mulder believes he has found an example in which “White evangelical religion…has functioned to perpetuate racial barriers and systematic injustice,” and where “religion has fostered alienation and segregation.” (6, 18)

Mulder proposes two main reasons why religion was able to play such a role in this situation. First, he asserts that the “traditional Dutch community had no aversion to high mobility.” (34) In argues that Dutch Americans had historically demonstrated a pattern of fleeing from conflict and danger. As a corollary to this, they were not especially rooted in any place. Secondly, Mulder states that the de facto congregational nature of the CRC churches enabled these churches to relocate the suburbs more easily than could RCA churches or territorial Catholic parishes. This first is essentially an empirical claim that can be checked by historical research. The second point rests on empirical foundations, but is ultimately a sociological abstraction.

Let me take these two points in order. Again, Mulder’s first point is that Dutch Americans were especially mobile. He portrays Dutch immigrants as a “people only too willing to rupture social ties and remove themselves.” (19) He imagines Dutch Americans congregations ready “to detach and move easily when events and surroundings became unsavory.” (7)Those of us who study Dutch American history should surely find this a surprising claim. Every study of Dutch American migration that I am aware of sees Dutch immigrants as reluctant migrants who overwhelmingly sought to establish themselves in fixed communities. Although Mulder references James Bratt’s work from 1984, he does not cite Van Hinte’s classic study, or other more recent major works by Swierenga, Krabbendam, Sinke, and others. In any era, overseas immigration was for many a last straw, a necessary consequence of religious persecution, economic inopportunity, poor harvests, and a rigid social structure that did not provide room for advancement. The nineteenth century Dutch had essentially no overseas migration tradition, and after the difficulty of travel across the ocean, many Dutch Americans did not want to move again.

By what standard, then, can Dutch Americans be seen as an especially mobile people? Surely immigrants of any of nation, or native-born Americans living in other Chicago suburbs were equally as mobile. Certainly, many Dutch Americans in Roseland and Englewood struggled mightily with leaving their homes and communities. This book shows little sympathy for those struggles. If Mulder seeks to explain Dutch American white flight from this angle, I am afraid he has his work cut out for him.

Mulder is more convincing when explaining the effect of the structural composition of the CRC and RCA on patterns of white flight. Chapters eight, nine, and ten, are his best work. They tell the story of seven CRC churches (three in Englewood and four in Roseland) and six RCA churches (two in Englewood and four in Roseland). Although his sample size is small, Mulder demonstrates an obvious pattern. By 1972, all of the CRC churches had relocated to new suburbs, along with only one of the RCA churches. RCA churches then followed in the 1970s. Mulder identifies the greater autonomy enjoyed by individual CRC churches as the main variable in this pattern. CRC churches decided early to seek self-preservation, while in the RCA, synod and classis limited individual congregations from making such decisions.

Sociologists are of course never happy with particulars, but want to find some constants of social behavior to justify their research. For his academic readers who are not Dutch Americans, Mulder proposes that he has contributed to complicating our understanding of white flight. Previous studies of white flight gave little space to the influence of religion, but religion, Mulder says, must must be a contributing factor. That it must be a factor, of course, no one can really deny, but the extent to which it is a salient factor is the real question.

I identify in Mulder’s argument here something of a social scientific straw man, whereby a non-existent opposing argument is set up merely to be knocked down. When Mulder says that Churches can do this or that, it is as if a previous thinker has said they cannot do those things. But of course there are very few if any sociological constants, so in fact churches can have just about any affect on society imaginable. What is the contribution of saying that “sacred machinations of the church can be utilized to either integrate or disintegrate the local neighborhood.” (12) Of course they can. In the flight of Dutch Americans from Roseland and Englewood, religion was a certainly a factor, but was it a cause? Perhaps in some ways the churches stymied the flight to the suburbs. Had the Dutch Americans not been church-goers, maybe they would have been less motivated to remain in their communities as long as they did. Despite Mulder’s impressive research, I am not entirely convinced.

Mulder is careful to avoid using proper names. The nameless participants in Mulder’s story are hidden behind social and institutional forces. He charges the church with wrongdoing, but is it the church as a social institution that is to blame, or is it individuals who are ultimately responsible? If the latter is the case, Mulder has weakened argument by avoiding the entanglements and controversy that would arise from charging particular individuals with racism.

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