It's a loaded term, one that's been thrown around in connection with the exodus of white, middle-class students from the increasingly Latino-populated public schools in and near the Mesa Verde neighborhood of Costa Mesa.
In another sense, what's happening in Mesa Verde might be emblematic of a more recent trend referred to as reverse white flight.
Either way, what's happening in Mesa Verde bears close examination and thoughtful discussion about the future of the neighborhood, Newport-Mesa and Orange County. It signals a possible tipping point in the not-too-distant future, a juncture that brings both peril and opportunity, with the outcome dependent on strong leadership and a community willing to engage and make the most of a changing environment.
Let me be clear: In no way do I stand in judgment of other parents when it comes to their choices of schools for their children. Parents consider a variety of factors, from test scores to subjective assessments of a school's culture, when making their decisions. The bottom line is that we all want the best for our own kids. Period.
Nonetheless, the abandonment of Mesa Verde public schools by many white families touches a societal nerve that can't be ignored.
In considering these matters, it helps to get some historical perspective.
White flight refers to the large-scale migration of middle-class whites from racially mixed urban regions to suburban areas in the post-World War II era. The movement has been attributed to the lure of new housing coupled with anxiety about increasing minority populations in large cities — although how much of the trend could be attributed to outright racism remains a subject of debate.
Orange County was a prime destination. During much of the second half of the 20th century, both Costa Mesa and Newport Beach attracted affluent white families from Los Angeles and other big cities.
While the white-flight phenomenon is complex and fraught with knotty sociopolitical issues, it's not surprising that schools have always played a pivotal role. After all, for many families — particularly those with economic means — the choice of where to live is greatly influenced by the perceived quality of the schools.
In the early days, two important court rulings were thought to exacerbate the trend: 1947's ruling in Mendez v. Westminster (yes, in Orange County), which banned separate "Mexican schools" in California, and the landmark Brown v. Board of Education decision in 1954 that ended school segregation nationally.
Even as we approached the end of the 20th century, the pattern largely held. The word "urban" was code for minority-dominated areas, while the suburbs — some of them, anyway — were seen as enclaves for upscale whites.
But somewhere along the line, the demographic patterns began to flip-flop, or at least become more diffuse.
The idea of a reverse white flight gained traction last year after the Brookings Institution, a Washington, D.C.-based think tank, released a big new demographic report. Researchers found a growing proportion of the white population had changed course and begun shifting back to big cities as pockets of urban renewal and gentrification began to counter the image of decay and poverty.
In Los Angeles, for example, after a half a century of decline, the white share of the population had stabilized and even increased in the central city.
At the same time, the stereotype of lily-white suburbia no longer matched reality. Suburbs were increasingly diverse, and more likely to experience problems typically associated with urbanization, such as poverty, crime and ethnic tensions — the types of concerns that have surfaced in Costa Mesa.
Up until now, the white flight from Mesa Verde has been contained largely to public school enrollment. But it's not a big leap from there to envisioning a future when white families begin to feel so disenfranchised from the community that large numbers begin moving away. That's the tipping point I referred to earlier.
Is that point inevitable?
Not according to Margery Austin Turner, vice president for research at the Urban Institute, a nonpartisan economic and social policy research organization based in Washington, D.C.
Here's how Turner explained it: The dismal economy and housing market have made people less mobile. One overlooked side effect of that lack of mobility is that it could give schools and communities more time to figure out how to make diversity work.
And it's in everyone's interest to make it work, she said. Ethnic separation tends to concentrate poverty and distress, and our society as a whole suffers as a result.
"I don't want to be a Pollyanna," she said, "but I think most people want to live in racially diverse areas. I think what holds us back is our fears. As a white, middle-class person fears things like deteriorating schools and property values, they think, 'I'd better get out first.' Then they cause their fears to be realized.
"That's really why, when we see neighborhoods undergoing change, we need civic and community leaders to make a success of it, to show that we can make a success of diversity. Give it a little time to work and short-circuit that self-fulfilling prophecy."
White flight doesn't have to be a foregone conclusion.
PATRICE APODACA is a Newport-Mesa public school parent and former Los Angeles Times staff writer. She is also a regular contributor to Orange Coast magazine. She lives in Newport Beach.