Trump seems to have a suburb in his imagination, one that’s a remnant of the 1950s and 1960s. It’s populated entirely by white people, who came there to escape diversifying neighborhoods and are terrified that people of color might move in next door. These suburbanites can be pulled to the Republican Party with a proper dose of racialized fear.
Yet, the suburbs as a whole today do not look like this:
Trump seems to think it’s still 1973. But here’s his problem: The suburbs of today are very different than they were then. The suburbs are still majority white, but they’re more diverse than they were when Trump was refusing to rent to people of color. They have more immigrants, more people of color, more people with higher education — and critically, the white people who live there are rejecting Trump.
Suburbs have indeed changed – see this earlier post on complex suburbia. In multiple ways, suburban areas are now different. They have more nonwhite residents and more residents who are lower-class and working-class (as well as more who live under the poverty line). Some suburbs are classic bedroom suburbs populated by whiter and wealthier residents but there are also numerous suburbs that are more diverse and less well-off. Suburbs are now full of jobs, from manual labor and production jobs to elite white-collar positions.
While this story casts the issue in terms of voters and winning the 2020 election – and suburban voters are indeed crucial – there is a bigger issue at stake: what vision of American suburbs will win out? Here are three competing options:
1. The suburbs are the American Dream where anyone who works hard can purchase a single-family home, live with their family, and expect to live a relatively comfortable life and expect good things for their children. This is often tied to the mass suburbanization of the 1950s and 1960s – and this vision may have fully flowered at this point – but this ideology stretches back at least a few decades earlier.
2. The suburbs are the American Dream as they offer opportunities to all Americans who want to find the good life as defined by a decent job, a place to live, and peace and quiet. This would be a more multicultural vision of suburbs where the movement of minorities and those with fewer resources to suburbs in the last few decades represents progress and success as they too can enjoy a suburban lifestyle (and the dream of #1 was restricted largely to whites).
3. The suburbs are a dead-end for all Americans. According to critics of the suburbs, the emphasis on sprawling land use and driving, individual lives and private homes, and exclusion are not sustainable or desirable for future generations. While some people may want to live this lifestyle, we should encourage more Americans to live in denser communities.
No presidential election is a referendum on just one issue. At this point, the issue of suburbs is still not a front-burner issue: housing received limited attention at the Democratic debates and arguably Trump is more interested in discussing race and cities in ways to attract voters than he is in considering suburban life and its ongoing role in American life. Yet, this is an opportunity for Americans to think about what kind of spaces they want to encourage and inhabit in the future.