Michelle Obama: The Black Face of White Flight
Last weekend, former Obama campaign adviser David Axelrod kicked the Democrat barn doors open, suggesting on X that it may be time “to change horses.” If that horse just happens to be former first lady Michelle Obama, America will be in for one hell of a ride. Knowing her potential to spark turmoil within the party, Axelrod hedged his bets.
“A lot will happen in the next year that no one can predict & Biden's team says his resolve to run is firm,” he cautioned. “He’s defied [conventional wisdom] before but this will send tremors of doubt thru the party — not ‘bed-wetting,’ but legitimate concern.” The “this” to which Axelrod referred was a poll showing Donald Trump leading Joe Biden by comfortable margins in five of six swing states and hanging close in the sixth.
On Monday’s Megyn Kelly show, Sen. Ted Cruz suggested a likely strategy for the Democrats going forward. “The chances are rising dramatically that the Democrats at their convention next summer will dump Joe Biden and parachute in Michelle Obama as the nominee,” said Cruz. He added, “I don’t want to see that happen, but... I think Axelrod has just increased the chances of that significantly.”
No one on the right wants to see Michelle run — too much potential for even more racial madness — but Los Angeles filmmaker Joel Gilbert may be an exception. In the summer of 2022, Gilbert released a prescient film and book, each titled Michelle Obama 2024: Her Real Life Story and Plan for Power. Having secured a copy of this doggedly researched book in manuscript form, I was able to incorporate relevant facts unearthed by Gilbert into the book on which I was then working.
Of Michelle’s many hypocrisies — Gilbert documents them all — none struck me as viscerally as her self-appointed role as the Torquemada of so-called “white flight.” In her 2018 bestseller, Becoming, and on the arena tour that followed, Michelle laid out her version of “white flight.” Although largely progressive boilerplate, Michelle added her own angry edge.
At a 2019 Obama Foundation Summit, Michelle was at her finger-wagging best. “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,” she dissembled, adding, “They were afraid of what our families represented.”
Lest her liberal white audience think themselves exempt from her scolding, Michelle reminded them that they were and are part of the problem. Pointing to herself and to her older brother Craig, Michelle continued in a black patois only slightly less grating than Hillary’s, “I wanna remind white folks that y’all were running from us, and y’all still runnin’.” Among the things that scared white people, Michelle imagined, were “the color of our skin” and the “texture of our hair.”
The 50 or so people I interviewed for my book had a slightly different take on white flight. One lifelong friend nailed that take in a single word. When I asked why he and his widowed mother finally left our Newark, New Jersey block in the early 1970s, twenty years after the first African-American families moved in, he thought for a moment and then simply said, “It became untenable.” When I asked what “untenable” meant, he answered, “When your mother gets mugged for the second time, that’s untenable. When your home gets broken into for the second time, that’s untenable.”
If you take my friend’s account and multiply it by a few million, you have the story I tell in Untenable: The True Story of White Ethnic Flight from America’s Cities. As the rare Democrat among Newark exiles — most abandoned the party of their parents — my friend’s opinion has added weight. He was arguing, as lawyers say, “against interest.”
Michelle knows the truth as well. From the time she was a little girl, her family was doing what white Chicago families were doing and for almost exactly the same reasons. Born in 1964, Michelle spent the first six years of her life in Chicago’s Parkway Garden Homes, the nation’s first cooperatively owned African-American housing development.
As soon as its cornerstone was laid in 1950, middle-class black professionals were vying to get in. Michelle’s parents, the Robinsons, weren’t rich, but they were connected. Her mother, Marian, was a stay-at- home mom, and her father, Fraser, worked for the municipal water department, a front for his real job as a precinct captain in the Daley machine.
In 1962, a new elementary school opened just a block away from the Robinson home. After sending Craig there for two years, the Robinsons had seen enough. From their perspective, the problem wasn’t the school building. That was still bright and shiny. It was the school’s students, many of whom came from nearby housing projects.
When Michelle was ready to start school, the Robinsons took a risky step. They used the address of Marian’s sister in Chicago’s then-middle-class South Shore neighborhood to enroll both Craig and Michelle at Bryn Mawr Elementary, a fifteen-minute drive from Parkway Gardens. Although their motives were understandable, the Robinsons had committed a class C misdemeanor. If found out, they would have had to reimburse the school district for the cost of tuition.
After two years of commuting, the Robinsons moved to South Shore, but they did not exactly get what they bargained for. The heavily Jewish neighborhood was deep in transition. By the late 1960s, most of the Jews had fled for the same reason the Robinsons fled Parkway Gardens: schools and crime.
“Crime did rise sharply in South Shore during its era of racial turnover,” writes Carlos Rotella, a South Shore native the same age as Michelle. “Crime had previously been low in South Shore, so it came as a shock when the neighborhood’s rate of FBI-designated index crimes — murder, assault, rape, robbery, burglary, larceny, car theft ... soared from well under the citywide average to double and almost triple that average, among the city’s highest.” In his brave book, The World Is Always Coming to an End, Rotella observes that the blacks of South Shore blamed the crime spike on what they called “the element,” the refugees from the city’s public housing projects.
Among the South Shore blacks who had seen enough was Donda West. In her memoir, Raising Kanye: Life Lessons from the Mother of a Hip-Hop Superstar, West tells of the day some local thugs slashed young Kanye’s bike tire with a knife. “If it wasn’t safe for him to ride his bike in the park that backed right up to our backyard,” she writes, “then it was time to move. I began looking for someplace else to live. Call it black flight or whatever, I was ready to go.”
Michelle shies from the term “black flight,” but she has been doing it all her life. Having watched the South Shore elementary school descend into chaos, Marian Robinson wasn’t about to send her children to the nearly all-black public high school just a block or two away. Craig, she sent to a predominantly white Catholic high school. To afford the tuition, she took a job downtown. The Robinsons weren’t even Catholic. As for Michelle, Marian sent her to a selective magnet school more than an hour away by bus.
Responsible parents of all races, the Robinsons included, could see what was happening to America’s urban neighborhoods and the public schools they spawned. They acted in their children’s best interest. Barack and Michelle would do the same for their own children, sending both daughters to private schools even before they became rich and famous.
Unfortunately for America, Michelle has chosen to hector white parents who made the same decisions she and her parents made. God help us if she becomes the nominee, let alone the president. She will take the mess Barack made of race relations and make it all that much messier. She can’t help herself. As Gilbert documents, it’s in her nature.
Jack Cashill’s new book, Untenable: The True Story of White Ethnic Flight from America’s Cities, is available in all formats.