Being White and Middle Class, We Had Many Advantages. And We Used Them to Leave North St. Louis

How white—and middle-class—flight continues to shape North St. Louis County.

Bel-Nor Elementary School in St. Louis, Mo.
Bel-Nor Elementary School in St. Louis, Mo. SCREENSHOT FROM KMOV NEWS 4 ST. LOUIS

Among those middle-class families who stayed, most sent their children to private schools (Catholic schools siphon off a lot of white students in the St. Louis area). One of my sister’s old classmates arranged to stay with a friend’s family so she could attend a different school. We knew only one white family who sent their children to Normandy High.

The high school I attended wasn’t exclusively white; at the time, it had one of the most racially diverse student populations in the state. I feel grateful and lucky for the education I received. But I also feel guilty, because the math is easy. When middle-class families like mine flee a neighborhood, a school, a county—a place like Normandy, or like Ferguson—they take resources with them. They take higher-achieving students—family income and educational success are inextricably linked (pdf)—right along with the tax revenue that can help struggling schools.

It’s an economic issue. It’s also a racial issue. Many of the families in my old neighborhood who could afford to move or send their children to private schools were white. Along racial lines, white poverty rates are among the lowest, and black poverty rates are among the highest (pdf). But statistics don’t tell the whole story. Neighborhoods are more than socioeconomic class and color, and the communities in North County are strong, with or without white families like mine, and the challenges they face can’t be reduced to one factor.

Individual decisions, though, can and do have an impact on communities. “I’m still glad you got the education you did,” my mother said about moving. “But it broke my heart. It felt like selling out.”

The truth is, we did.

We sold out a school district and a community, along with any notion that the kids scattered by the closing of Bel-Nor last December would have the same opportunities my brother and sister and I had. My parents made the very understandable—very human—decision to put their own children first.

But it’s also one reason that institutional racism persists. As a white, middle-class family, we had many advantages. And we used them to leave.

Molly Patterson is an assistant professor of English at the University of Wisconsin-Eau Claire.