Why Americans love suburbs #3: race and exclusion

The most difficult choice in ranking the reasons Americans love suburbs came between this reason – which I ultimately put at #3 – and the #2 reason involving families and children. The reason this choice was so difficult is that race is a foundational factor in American life. I have argued before that race should be considered a factor until proven otherwise, rather than the other way around where it is easy to limit discussion of race to blatant racism or discrimination.

While the suburbs are a central feature of American life, they from the beginning reproduced one of the other central features of American life: the suburbs were primarily intended for white people. The segregation was more obvious and protected in the past. This included sundown towns, Levittown not allowing black residents, and restrictive covenants excluding a variety of racial and ethnic groups. Blacks did have separate suburbs. The separation between white and non-white residents, particularly whites and blacks, is still present today in suburbs through residential segregation. The more recent segregation is due to factors like a lack of affordable housing (often challenged by wealthier and whiter suburbanites – see examples here and here), exclusionary zoning, housing discrimination, and unequal lending practices such as predatory lending. This can be illustrated by one Chicago suburb that claimed to be “home to proud Americans,” words that hint at a largely whiter and wealthier population.

It is therefore not a coincidence that a factor that contributed to the postwar suburban boom in the United States was a phenomena known as white flight. As millions of blacks moved to Northern cities in The Great Migration, government policies (changing mortgage guidelines, redlining, the construction of interstate highways) and desires to avoid blacks led many white Americans to move to the suburbs.

But, this was not necessarily a new phenomena. As cities expanded in size in the late 1800s, fewer and fewer suburbanites wanted to be part of the big city. Until roughly the 1890s, many big cities annexed nearby suburbs (such as Chicago with Hyde Park, Boston with Roxbury, and New York City with Brooklyn) as there were still benefits to being part of the big city (such as tapping into sewer systems). However, this stopped around this time as suburbs could better afford their own public improvements and cities became less desirable. What were the urban problems that pushed suburbanites away? A combination of factors played a role including overcrowding and dirtiness but immigration and new groups moving to the city also mattered.

While all of this could also be couched in terms of Americans preferring small-town life (and there is plenty of evidence to suggest this is true), it is worth thinking about what that small-town feel is really about. Americans like urban amenities, even if they do not want to live near them, and the suburbs offer easy access to many amenities within metropolitan regions. Americans do not want to live in rural small towns – even if Americans are nostalgic for such places, over 80% of Americans live in urban areas. Yet, many suburbs are not small (even as large ones, such as Naperville, claim to still have a small town feel). I suspect part of the small-town feel is really about racial and ethnic homogeneity.

Throughout all of this, the American suburbs have recently become more racially and ethnically diverse. More blacks are moving to the suburbs, whether outside Chicago, Seattle, Kansas City, or elsewhere. Many new immigrants are moving directly to suburbs. But, it could be a long time before non-whites achieve parity of location in suburban areas.

(Of course, social class also plays a role in all of this as race/ethnicity and social class are intertwined throughout American history. Non-white suburbanites who are middle-class or upper-class may be more palatable to white suburbanites. For example, it is interesting to see responses to increasing suburban poverty: will more suburban communities address the issue, such as through offering social services, or will they try to limit lower-income residents?)

42 thoughts on “Why Americans love suburbs #3: race and exclusion

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