Continuing suburban life next to a Karen

The suburbs often operate under a code of moral minimalism. But, when open conflict does occur, it involves race, and it goes viral, how do suburban residents move on? A case from Montclair, New Jersey involving a reaction to the construction of a small patio:

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“It shouldn’t have started any conversation,” Norrinda replied. The Hayats spent most of the summer hoping the conversation would die out, if she was being honest. In the end, they didn’t write back to the people vowing to curse Schulz on their behalf; they didn’t take that discount at the restaurant. They chose not to cooperate with the prosecutor. “Personally, I think if [Schulz] had been prosecuted and found guilty in any way, even just paid a $500 fine, I think this would have gone away for her a lot faster,” suggested a Montclair resident who had tracked the situation…

Fareed posed a question in one of our talks: “White supremacy that’s alive and well and a part of all of us,” he said, “and the question is, How much of it are we going to reject? And how much are we willing to sacrifice ourselves in order to continue to move forward?” He asked it from an intellectual distance, as if he were delivering closing arguments or posing a question to his class. But at close range, the question simply is, Would my neighbors step up to defend me again? And will they continue to want to have this conversation about race now that the immediate drama is over?…

As for Schulz, Norrinda thought she once saw her in the grocery store. Fareed told their boys they needed to be careful with the balls in the yard. He doesn’t want things to escalate. They finally have peace. Everyone wants it to stay that way.

But sometimes, well, often, when he’s standing in his house, looking out over the fence, he sees Schulz in her yard, or even just the empty yard, and it hits him. Just for an instant. Maybe it was silly or naïve or too optimistic, but there was an expectation that in Montclair he could be aware of the reality of being Black in America without having to confront it or acknowledge it in his daily life. But now, “we do actively acknowledge it,” he said. “It’s just a reminder of that reality.”

The American suburbs are built in part on a legacy of exclusion. Yet, racial incidents in wealthier suburbs might be rare and so surprising when they do occur (see other examples) for multiple reasons:

  1. There are relatively few interactions between wealthier suburbanites and Blacks and Latino neighbors. If wealthier communities have policies, housing, and character that discourage certain people from living in the community, there are fewer opportunities for being neighbors or regular interaction.
  2. As I noted in the introduction to the post, moral minimalism suggests open conflict in suburbs is undesirable. Instead, conflict is mediated through other actors or institutions such as schools.
  3. As the article notes, wealthier communities would often say they open to diversity. But, given #1 and #2 above, this does not mean they are really welcoming of residents different than the majority.

Even without the viral incident/open conflict, this does not mean suburbs are open to all. Technically, yes. In practice, not really.

Treating suburban communities as another consumer good to choose among, Part Two

With the New York Times sharing suburban communities to choose among, I argue this could have long-term consequences for how suburbanites think about their community and social life. In short: treat suburbs like objects to consume and suburbs and suburbanites will struggle to form, develop, and maintain community. Here is why:

woman picking wine in store

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  1. Suburban community is often anchored in moral minimalism. With an attitude of leave each other alone, community is relatively shallow. The emphasis on each resident making the best choice for them could hinder efforts to build community. Consumerism encourages individual choices and often says less about and provides fewer opportunities for collective action.
  2. Making a choice among places of where to live could encourage people to more easily move away from places and/or limit their investment into each community. Purchase one suburb, throw it away when it no longer works for you or no longer meets expectations or another looks more attractive. Suburbs can be picked up and discarded at will, limiting commitment from residents and community members.
  3. Consumerism works through consumers making choices based on the resources they have available. This sorts people based on resources and makes it easier to justify different outcomes – and inequality –  by what resources people had coming in (which can be the result of social and individual factors). For example, one historian highlighted the shift in the 1960s from language about segregating by race or ethnicity to economic resources and social class.
  4. Consumer goods need to be differentiated from other competing consumer goods. The sort of analysis from the New York Times – fairly common in real estate sections – can put a spotlight on a few New York area suburbs and it is very difficult to provide an overview of all suburbs. While suburbs do indeed have unique characters, they also share similar traits compared to other places. Yet, for each of the suburbs highlighted, there are dozens of other suburbs with similar characteristics as well as other unique features. Going even further, trumpeting a few suburbs only might push more residents there while depriving other suburbs of possible residents. Highlighting particular features of places can reinforce statuses and traits and encourage agglomerations of both amenities and a lack of resources. In the long run, this pits suburbs against each other when they actually have multiple common interests and residents need particular services and options.

Articulating a different conception of social life beyond consumers making choices and could be more productive in the long run for nurturing the involvement of residents, deeper social connections, and stronger suburban communities. As I have heard said by multiple scholars, consumers take while citizens benefit as well as have responsibilities to others and the whole.

Some suburbanites do not like more explicit divisiveness or racism

With the 2020 presidential election riding on the suburbs, some suburban voters do not like the rhetoric and policies of President Trump:

young frustrated woman screaming with closed eyes

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From North Carolina to Pennsylvania to Arizona, interviews this week with more than two dozen suburban voters in critical swing states revealed abhorrence for Trump’s growing efforts to fuel white resentment with inflammatory rhetoric on race and cultural heritage. The discomfort was palpable even among voters who also dislike the recent toppling of Confederate statues or who say they agree with some of Trump’s policies.

As the president increasingly stakes his candidacy on a message of “law and order,” casting himself as a bulwark against “angry mobs” and “thugs,‘’ there are signs that he is alienating voters in bedroom communities who approach the debate over racial justice with a far more nuanced perspective than the president does.

The disconnect is especially pronounced in the swing state suburbs like Cornelius — traditionally a conservative-leaning area — and along the Main Line outside Philadelphia, where some educated white voters, including some former Trump supporters, are repelled by the president’s divisive rhetoric…

While Trump won suburban areas overall by 4 percentage points in 2016, according to exit polls, white college-educated suburban women have rapidly moved away from his Republican Party, and they helped deliver the House of Representatives to the Democrats in 2018. And now, as some polling shows Trump facing competitive races even in deep-red states, he cannot afford to lose all of those voters again.

What could be behind this discomfort among some suburban voters? A few possible answers:

  1. Suburbanites do not often like open conflict or confrontation in their personal interactions with fellow suburbanites. This could also apply to contentious social issues. If a candidate, party, or figure is openly combative, this may be too much for suburbanites who prefer more polite, refined discourse. Suburbanites have a particular status to protect, particularly those with education, good jobs, and homes.
  2. Suburbia has changed quite a bit in recent decades. Suburbanites themselves, particularly in middle suburbs (stuck between the exurban Republican voters and the inner-ring suburb Democratic votersthe exurban Republican voters and the inner-ring suburb Democratic voters), may have changed views of the world. Perhaps more well-off suburbanites than before do now care about race.
  3. Perhaps this is all still unclear or undecided months out from the election. Some suburbanites are caught in the middle and right now do not like Trump’s approach. If the economy picks up and COVID-19 winds down, will these same voters show less concern about polarizing views? If social movements, which are now in the suburbs too, wane, will this make it easier to support Trump?

Which way these voters go could indeed help decide the 2020 election. Among other things, it will be interesting to see how the candidates pitch themselves to middle suburbia (even as they balance pitches to other groups).

When Christmas lights and decorations violate the moral minimalism of the suburbs

I’ve seen lots of stories this year about Christmas lights and decorations on people’s houses. The biggest displays. The ugliest displays. Those that synced up their decorations to a hot song. The traffic generated, both on the street and online.

Such stories tend to contain some reaction from neighbors. Most seem either slightly amused with their excessively festive neighbors (“if they want to pay that kind of electric bill, that’s their choice”) or resigned to their fate. But, the variety of reactions illustrate one of the key pieces that holds suburbia together: the moral minimalism where residents tend to leave each other alone. In other words, suburbanites get along by not rocking the boat too much and not adversely affecting each other through their actions.

Christmas lights and decorations can cross these lines. They pit two opposing trends against each other: the moral minimalism of suburbs versus the excessive consumption and cheer of Christmas time in America. This is the one time of year that people can enhance their bland exteriors – often regulated by homeowner’s associations – and truly show their individuality. Large SUVs and garish homes illustrate bad or excessive taste at all times but Christmas means you can buy all sorts of things. It’s Christmas, after all. Yet, such displays threaten to decrease the quality of life of others and even lower property values (this is what some neighbors claim). What if your good cheer irritates your neighbors?

Hence, most people settle for limited decorations. This might be due to their own muted cheer or good taste but it also depends on the social control of the neighbors. Too much means that we may have violated the suburban trust. Such situations can get ugly. Best to display our Christmas cheer in ways that keep the suburban neighbors happy or at least indifferent.