Responding to “The Disturbing History of the Suburbs”

A recent episode of Adam Ruins Everything addressed how racism helped create the American suburbs. Here are my quick thoughts in response to “The Disturbing History of the Suburbs.”

-Using the Settlers of the Suburbs game as a visual tool is a clever technique with its Monopoly appearance (though I could also imagine linking it to Settlers of Catan). Urbanists over the years have developed numerous classroom activities involving games to help show students who development works. Like games, development tends to follow certain rules or patterns (even if from the outside those rules are hard to see or, in the case of the suburbs, it all looks fairly haphazard). Also, for a simulation of residential segregation, see the modeling of economist Thomas Schelling where the preferences of individual residents to live near people like them can add up to a racist system. For a good board game that gets at suburban development (though there is only a limited racial dimension), see my quick review of Suburbia.

-The main emphasis here is on redlining: federal guidelines for making loans based on the neighborhoods the home was in was then also picked up by private developers. There is a lot more to this story including what were the patterns already in place that make redlining seem logical to the government in the 1930s (the book Sundown Towns can help explain a lot as black Americans had truer geographic dispersion from roughly 1865 to 1890 but then were restricted in where they could live in the North) as well as what other groups were discriminated against with these policies. Redlining certainly did a lot but it was not the only technique used to limit where non-whites could live. Other options included restrictive covenants, provisions written into deeds, racial steering, blockbusting, and riots and bombings. And the groups targeted included blacks, Jews, Asians, Mexicans, and others. In other words, redlining was an important part of a large package used by white structures and individuals to keep their communities all white.

-The video then nicely suggests that the effects of redlining compounded over time: growing individual wealth for white homeowners, new development in whiter communities, limited wealth in redlined communities, and segregated schools in the long run. This is the Matthew Effect in action.

-At one point, Adam suggests Levittown is still mostly white. This may be the case yet minorities have moved in increasing numbers to suburbs in recent decades. At the same time, the legacy of housing discrimination lives on as racial and ethnic groups are not necessarily evenly dispersed across suburbs. And, as noted later, black and Latino residents still have a harder time obtaining loans and continue to face housing discrimination. This is despite the 1968 Housing Act which was intended to eliminate such discrimination; the sociologists who wrote American Apartheid suggested that we lack the political will to see the Housing Act through.

-Nikole Hannah-Jones of NYT makes an appearance to talk about school funding and how white suburbs can draw upon a larger property tax base. Yet, Hannah-Jones goes much further in a 2015 episode of This American Life titled “The Problem We All Live With.” I highly recommend this and have had multiple classes listen to the story of segregated schools in Ferguson, Missouri and other nearby suburbs of St. Louis. By a loophole in state law, Ferguson students were allowed to attend a wealthier white district and it worked…until the loophole was closed. School funding is not the major issue. The deeper issue is the segregation of schools which we know can help minority students. And we know that integration – the 1966 Coleman Report made this clear and busing was tried in a few places for a few years until the outcry was too great – would work but few suburbanites want to consider it as a legitimate option.

-The video closes with these two lines: “The suburb you live in was built on a foundation of segregation. And we can’t close our eyes to that.” I imagine many white suburbanites would still object. At least two good academic books addressing two different contexts (White Flight in Atlanta and Colored Property in Detroit) show how white suburbanites in the 1960s made a switch from race-based arguments for segregation to economic-based ones. Now, if you ask suburbanites about race and ethnicity in their community, they will tend to say that they do not know of any issues or do not contribute to the problem yet they are more willing to talk about quality of life, property values, and good schools. Additionally, suburbanites tend to associate certain classes with certain racial and ethnic groups, leading to different treatment. Of course, race and class are intimately intertwined in the United States and class can often be used as a proxy for excluding by race or ethnicity.

-Just a note on sources: the video uses an interesting mix of scholarly and journalistic sources. There is a lot of excellent academic literature on race and the suburbs and I have tried to point to some of those in this review.

In sum, this video could be a great start to a discussion of ongoing racial disparities in the suburbs. Residential segregation is not just present in large cities and it has long-lasting consequences. Even though the oft-cited histories of the American suburbs – such as Crabgrass Frontier – acknowledge redlining and discuss its implications, many Americans may be unaware of how race strongly influenced the creation of suburbs. (There were other influential factors present as well but that is a long story.) Going further, there are easy ways to go beyond this video and draw upon more complex studies of race in the suburbs.


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