Blow: The ‘Dilbert’ cartoonist and the durability of white-flight thinking

Scott Adams, creator of Dilbert, has rightfully been condemned for his racist rant. But that rant also reflects America’s long history of white flight.

Scott Adams, creator of Dilbert, has rightfully been condemned for his racist rant. But that rant also reflects America’s long history of white flight.

Marcio Jose Sanchez, STF / Associated Press

When Scott Adams, the Donald Trump-revering creator of the “Dilbert” cartoon strip, last week quoted stats from the right-leaning polling operation Rasmussen Reports to justify a racist rant in which he admonished white people to “just get the hell away” from Black people, whom he labeled “a hate group,” the condemnations were swift.

Hundreds of newspapers dropped the comic strip, Adams’ publisher scrapped plans to release his next book, and he said his book agent “canceled” him.

So what was in the poll? Adams referred to the responses to one question: “Do you agree or disagree with this statement: ‘It’s OK to be white.’” Fifty-three percent of Black people agreed, 26 percent disagreed, and 21 percent responded that they weren’t sure. Most Black people, in other words, innocuously said there’s nothing wrong with being white.

But before we go further, we should establish how odd, problematic and confusing the question is. What does “OK to be white” mean? What does “OK” mean in this context? Also: Why single out Black people? Forty-one percent of respondents who were neither white nor Black also didn’t answer in the affirmative. Furthermore, 20 percent of white people didn’t answer in the affirmative.

Are these people also part of a hate group?

Of course not. Adams was simply being lazy in his analysis and bigoted in his assessment. During his diatribe, he said that for years, he’s been “identifying as Black” because he likes to be on the “winning team” and he likes to “help.”

As he put it, “I always thought, ‘Well, if you help the Black community, that’s sort of the biggest lever, you can find the biggest benefit.’ So I thought, ‘Well, that’s the hardest thing and the biggest benefit, so I’d like to focus a lot of my life resources in helping Black Americans.’”

That’s like Miss Millie in the movie “The Color Purple” screaming “I’ve always been good to you people” while demeaning us people.

Adams was consoling himself for failing in the role of white savior while justifying the embrace of the centuries-old white fatalism about and exhaustion with the so-called Negro problem, a supposedly intractably lost cause that consumes energy and resources to no avail because, in the minds of some white people, Black people are pathologically broken.

As Adams concluded: “There’s no fixing this. This can’t be fixed. You just have to escape. So that’s what I did. I went to a neighborhood where I have a very low Black population.”

He’s not alone in this view or approach.

Since the process of school desegregation began in the 1950s; the gains of the civil rights movement of the 1960s, including the passage of the Fair Housing Act of 1968; and the civil unrest in major cities before and after the assassination of Martin Luther King Jr., we saw a tsunami of white flight that transformed cities across the country.

But in the decades that followed, as more Black people trickled out to the suburbs to which white people had fled, there was some ebb to segregation and some hope that it was coming to an end.

A 2012 report titled “The End of the Segregated Century” by the right-leaning Manhattan Institute found that “American cities are now more integrated than they’ve been since 1910.”

Now? America is resegregating. A 2021 analysis by the Othering & Belonging Institute at the University of California, Berkeley, found that “out of every metropolitan region in the United States with more than 200,000 residents, 81% (169 out of 209) were more segregated as of 2019 than they were in 1990.”

That pattern contributes to more segregation in our schools, which research has shown has negative outcomes, particularly for Black children.

And yet Adams blithely pronounced that Black people are haters who have to “fix” their “own problem” because “everybody else figured it out.” He said, “Focus on education, and you could have a good life, too.”

But the attendant problems of segregation — past and present — affect public elementary and high schools and extend to higher education. A 2021 Brookings Institution paper noted that not only does the overall Black-white wealth gap remain stark but “white college graduates have seven times more wealth than Black college graduates” and Black college graduates “experience more difficulty in accumulating wealth than white college graduates since they accrue more student loan debt.”

What Adams doesn’t acknowledge — or possibly doesn’t understand — is that the problems that make white people like him want to flee can be traced, in large measure, to the decisions that many white people have made.

As the 1968 Kerner Commission report put it: “What white Americans have never fully understood — but what the Negro can never forget — is that white society is deeply implicated in the ghetto. White institutions created it, white institutions maintain it, and white society condones it.”

There have always been people in this country who looked at Black people as a problem, one that needed to be contained, suppressed or escaped. There have always been those who preferred a white-flight ethos, who felt most at home with homogeneity, who felt that the best way to deal with Black people was with a remove.

It was the way some people in the South reacted when enslaved Black people were emancipated or the way some in the North reacted when throngs of Black people began to arrive as part of the Great Migration.

Nicholas Guyatt pointed out in his book “Bind Us Apart: How Enlightened Americans Invented Racial Segregation” that for decades before emancipation, even many abolitionists saw the only workable plan for Black liberation being the segregation of Black people in a colony of their own out West and away from the existing states.

But at the same time out West in the 1840s, the provisional government of the Oregon territory began to pass a series of racial exclusion laws meant to prevent or discourage Black people from living there. Walidah Imarisha, an assistant professor in the Black studies department at Portland State University and the director of the school’s Center for Black Studies, said, “Oregon was founded as a racist white utopia,” in which “the idea was that white folks would come here and build the perfect white society” — and that meant doing it without Black people there.

When California was drawing up its Constitution to join the Union, the state debated excluding Black people. The delegate who brought forth an exclusion resolution said that with migrating free Black people, the state could find itself “flooded with a population of free Negroes,” which would be “the greatest calamity that could befall California.”

In that way, what Adams said, while racist, was less outside the bounds of America’s troubled ideological canon and more in step with it on the question of having a functional, egalitarian, pluralistic society.