Defining the suburban aspects of the movie “Eighth Grade”

Defining the suburbs, whether considering geography or social life, can be complex. So when the film Eighth Grade claims to depict “the tidal wave of contemporary suburban adolescence,” how is suburbia depicted? Here are some key traits according to the film:

  1. People live in single-family homes. Kayla is shown going from house to house and acts as if her bedroom is a personal sanctuary from the outside world.
  2. The story revolves around the lives of children, a key emphasis of suburban life. When not in a home, Kayla is at school. Her social life revolves around school. Family life is critical as the primary relationship Kayla has is with her father who tries at various points to encourage her.
  3. A land of plenty. No one in the film lacks for anything and all the teenagers apparently have phones and devices to connect with each other and broadcast their lives. Some people in the film have more than others but consumer goods are not an issue in the suburbs depicted. Everyone is middle class or above even though we see little of what people do for work.
  4. The shopping mall is part of a key scene, one of the iconic places where teenagers can interact and consume.
  5. There is a good amount of driving required to get from home to home or to the shopping mall.
  6. The teenagers and families depicted are mostly white.

On one hand, the movie depicts a fairly typical residential suburban place. Many of the features of the suburbs listed above are on my list of Why Americans Love Suburbs.

On the other hand, the film does a lot with Kayla engrossed with her phone and social media. Could this take place anywhere? Or, is the film suggesting the particular combination of suburbs and social media leads to a negative outcome (too much online immersion) or positive (the values or features of suburbia help give her a broader perspective about live)?

Furthermore, the film primarily works within a well-worn depiction of suburbia: largely white, middle-class and above, revolving around teenagers, school, and families. Thinking like a sociologist in terms of variables, would it have been too much to situate a similar story in a more complex suburbia with more racial/ethnic and class diversity and a different physical landscape?

Deciding at which social level to counter a social problem

Once groups of Americans agree that an issue in society needs to be addressed, they encounter an important question: at what social level should we target our efforts? There are numerous options for many important issues. For example, see an earlier post about how efforts to fight smog in Los Angeles did not seriously address driving but rather pushed Detroit to create more efficient vehicles.

Two social institutions regularly come to mind when I think about how many Americans want to address social problems: schools and the federal government. Even as different sides might not agree which problems they think schools or the federal government should, the country has regular debates about how these institutions should be doing something different.

Start with schools. Because attendance is compulsory, children spend so much time there, learning may be the universally recognized need in a knowledge economy, and what is learned as a child can carry through a full lifetime, they seem like they are great places to address issues.

For similar reasons, it may appear prudent to operate at the level of the federal government Because it has broad oversight over the United States, it has the potential to shape numerous lives. Certain issues are so big and/or affect so many people that the federal government may seem to be the only way to adequately address a concern.

Both institutions are important in our society yet enacting change at these larger levels can be very difficult. Change brings a lot of attention. Politicians on all sides get involved. Those opposed to large-scale government action can be energized. Crafting one-size-fits-all policies is difficult.

What, then, are alternatives? Here are three common ways Americans go if they do not want to go large-scale:

Work through local or national voluntary associations. This can range from the local Rotary to religious congregations and a group of neighbors who get together to do something. With de Toqueville’s oft-repeated quote about the zeal with which Americans joined such groups, this option could offer hope (even as Americans are not participating in these like they did before – see Bowling Alone).

Voluntary associations benefit from the eagerness of their members to participate but Americans can also work through local governments which are always present. Americans tend to like smaller-scale government activity and oversight. Why get the federal government or the state involved when a city or community, township, or county could try to address the matter? For some issues, this social level may be too local – larger issues are hard to deal with one community at a time. At the same time, these smaller governments could try a variety of options and this can provide information on what might work at larger levels.

Finally, Americans can work through individual action. There is a reason that we celebrate certain notable individuals who worked tirelessly and successfully to fight for their convictions: it is rare to see such individual level success (and often, these famous figures benefited from organizations and support behind them). The actions of one person may typically not accomplish much but the aggregate actions of thousands or millions of people can add up or passionate individuals can help start movements.

All together, it is not easy to figure out which option might be the most effective in order to address important social problems. For many issues, it is likely that people are trying to find solutions at all of these levels: schools, the federal government, voluntary associations, local governments, and individual action. Actions at these various levels can occasionally intersect and enrich each other, helping provide energy for a broader movement or consensus. Indeed, truly finding solutions to social concerns likely requires broad action, even if the efforts began at just one of these social levels.

Why Americans identify their communities as urban, suburban, or rural: quality of schools, safety

A recent study in City & Community by sociologists Chase M. Billingham and Shelley McDonough Kimelberg titled “Identifying the Urban” includes these findings:

To do so, we utilize data from the 2010 Soul of the Community (SOTC) survey, a joint effort of the Knight Foundation and Gallup “focused on the emotional side of the connection between residents and their communities” (Knight Foundation 2017) in 26 metropolitan regions of the United States. While specifically designed to explore the factors associated with residents’ loyalty to and satisfaction with their communities, the SOTC project also yielded data that allow for an analysis of how people describe the communities they inhabit. We first compare the labels that individuals attach to their residential communities (“urban,” “suburban,” “rural,” etc.) to a categorization of those communities based solely on ZIP code designation, exploring the extent to which people whose ZIP codes reflect a central city, suburban, or rural residence actually characterize their communities as urban, suburban, or rural. As we demonstrate, the data indicate a fair amount of disjunction, with approximately one‐third of respondents embracing a residential identity different from that suggested by their ZIP code…

“Urban” is an imprecise term, open to multiple interpretations and contingent upon a variety of physical, demographic, and social factors. The label that a government bureaucrat or social scientist attaches to a given community does not necessarily reflect what those who inhabit that community believe about their geographic identity. Similarly, next‐door neighbors might disagree about whether they live in an urban, suburban, or exurban area. Municipal boundaries matter, of course. Overall, our findings indicate that a postal address that places an individual within the official city limits is the best predictor of whether that individual identifies his or her community as “urban.” Yet municipal boundaries alone cannot account for the wide variation in individuals’ perceptions of their communities. When most people characterize their communities as “urban,” “suburban,” or “rural,” they do so not by pulling out a map, but by reflecting on how they experience daily life in that community.

As the analyses presented here indicate, two factors in particular — individuals’ assessments of the local schools and how safe they feel in their neighborhood — play a significant role in the identity ascribed to place. A person residing outside the borders of a region’s central city, but in a community where she felt unsafe and had little faith in the local schools, was about equally likely to say that she lived in an urban area as someone with the same characteristics who lived within the city borders, but who felt safe in her neighborhood and had high confidence in the local schools.

Importantly, however, the understanding of place also varies by race. Even when they inhabit similar parts of their respective metropolitan regions, black, Hispanic, and white Americans have different experiences and report different community identities. Most U.S. metropolitan areas no longer resemble the stark “Chocolate City, Vanilla Suburbs” pattern (Farley et al. 1978) that prevailed in the late 20th century. The lived experience of community is still racialized, however, even as racial and ethnic minorities increasingly settle in suburban communities and gentrification brings new cohorts of whites into central‐city neighborhoods that their peers avoided in previous generations. For blacks, the geographical divide, at least as operationalized by ZIP code designation, is far less salient than it is for Hispanics and non‐Hispanic whites. Rather, our analyses suggest that blacks see the distinction between urban and nonurban living more as a function of community characteristics, especially personal safety. These social factors influence the perceptions of place for all respondents, but they are particularly meaningful for blacks.

Summarizing: the study suggests how residents rate their local public schools and their safety in their neighborhoods affects whether they view their own location as urban or not.

This study sheds light on a long-running American tension between urban and non-urban life. From the beginning of the country, people debated whether city life or more rural life was preferable. They likely did not overlay the issues of public school performance and safety on the conversations but the debates could take on moralistic tones. Move to the mid-1800s and beyond and the arrival of new immigrants as well as industrialization and urbanization changed perceptions of cities. In the twentieth century, suburbs emerged as the morally safe places for many Americans, due to some of these issues as well as changing demographics in cities and increased support for suburban living. At the same time, the image of rural life lost luster.

Ten, twenty, fifty years from now, will the meanings of urban, suburban, and rural places be the same? It will be interesting to see what stays the same and what changes.

Rallying cry: support higher property taxes for schools to have higher property values

I saw a yard sign that made this argument about a proposed tax rate increase for a nearby school district: voting yes to the increase means you are protecting your property values.

This is a circular argument fit for the suburbs. Property values are partly dependent on the perceived status of a community. Generally, higher status suburbs have better performing schools. Thus, paying more in taxes means the property values are likely to increase. For the average suburbanite, this means they should expect a bigger payoff in the end when they sell their home. In other words, vote to hand over some money starting now to guarantee a bigger amount of money later.

There are other reasons a school district and its supporters could give in order to support a tax increase. Provide a better education for the children of the district. Support the important work of teachers. Invest in the community’s future.

But, given the difficulty of asking many suburbanites for higher property taxes, perhaps these abstract notions do not work. Many districts work hard to develop support for a referendum way before it comes to a vote. In this case:

The Board’s vote comes after months of community-engagement work. In January 2018, CCSD 89 Superintendent Dr. Emily K. Tammaru convened a Superintendent’s Finance Committee to examine the district’s financial status and priorities. The committee looked at the nearly $3 million in cuts the district has made since 2009, and examined how rising enrollment and increasing costs have affected the district’s budget.

The members of the Finance Committee eventually recommended two options to the Board of Education:

  • Option A: Increase revenues in order to maintain comprehensive, high-quality educational programming. Increasing revenues would allow the district to avoid cuts to programs that directly impact students.
  • Option B: Reduce programs and increase fees. The district would need to make about $1.2 million in cuts during the 2019-20 school year. These cuts could include reductions of: gifted services, band and orchestra, social work services, library staff, and full-day kindergarten. The cuts could also result in larger class sizes. The cuts could be more significant in subsequent years.

The district then hosted three community meetings to share financial data and gather feedback. Community members who attended those meetings said they valued fiscal responsibility, but did not want cuts that would affect programming and potentially property values.

At the community meetings, 84.7 percent of the people in attendance said they supported increasing the tax rate rather than cutting programs to balance the budget. When the district conducted phone surveys this summer of all residents (parents and non parents), 56.9 percent of residents said they would support a 40-cent referendum.

Even with this supposed support (note the drop-off in support in those who attended the meetings versus those who answered the phone survey; plus, who answered their phone?), the bottom line appeal here is money. Some parts of the district will pay more than others – the referendum page uses a $300,000 value as a baseline while Glen Ellyn has a median housing value of just over $400,000 and Lombard has a median value of $240,000 – but the money will come eventually. Pay us now so you can gain later.

If suburbanites value property values above all, perhaps this is the only way to build support for local tax increases.

Suburban schools (“institutions that are supposed to be the best”) and race (“the deeper systematic issues of race in this country”)

The new documentary America To Me looks at race in a well-funded suburban high school in the Chicago area:

“When you look at institutions that are supposed to be the best, and look at where they fail, you get a deeper understanding of where we’re failing as a whole, everywhere,” James said in a telephone interview.

James and three segment directors spent the 2015-16 academic year embedded inside the high school to follow 12 students in what appears to be a challenging, model educational environment for a highly diverse student body…

“What I hope people take away is a much more complete and full understanding of some of the deeper systematic issues of race in this country,” James said, “even in liberal communities like Oak Park. Even in well-funded school systems like Oak Park’s.”…

“Just because you live in suburban America,” James said, “if you’re black or biracial, it doesn’t mean everything’s cool.”

The setup is a good one: the suburbs are supposed to the places where the residents who live there can together share in amenities like nice single-family homes and local institutions, including schools, that help their children get ahead. If you live in the suburbs, many might assume you have a pretty good life.

But, of course, race and ethnicity matters in the suburbs as well. Historically and today, suburbs can work to exclude certain kinds of residents, often along race and class lines. Suburbs can have some of the same residential segregation issues as big cities. This means that students may be near each other in schools but may not necessarily live near each other or share other settings. Suburban poverty is up in recent decades. All together, just because someone lives in the suburbs does not guarantee a good job or a white middle-class lifestyle.

Regardless of where the documentary ends up at the end, perhaps it can help show what the suburbs of today often look like. The image of white, postwar suburban homes may match a few communities but many others are more diverse and face occasional or more persistent issues.

Once the housing line has been crossed, time to fight over the schools

An interim school superintendent in a suburb north of Chicago recently summed up the battle over redistricting in the school district:

Rafferty broke into a school board discussion on school boundaries Tuesday to express shock at the “exclusionary” attitudes that he said have surfaced in recent weeks. Rafferty said many of the emails and comments from parents and community members regarding proposed boundary changes have been “shocking, embarrassing and ugly.”

“We have families telling us they do not want this population of kids with their population of kids,” said Rafferty, a retired Schaumburg superintendent who has shared superintendent duties in District 112 since February.

“We have other families telling us, ‘Don’t you dare move my students or my neighborhood, but I would love for you to move X, Y and Z to another school to achieve a balance,'” Rafferty said…

His remarks came during a school board discussion of the administration’s recommended boundary changes to accommodate students from Lincoln Elementary School and Elm Place Middle School, which are closing at the end of the school year. Board members set aside the proposed map for a variety of reasons, including the discontent voiced by some parents over the number of low-income pupils attending Northwood Junior High.

This reminds me very much of what I thought was the best chapter in anthropologist Rachel Heiman’s recent book Driving After Class (see my quick review here). That chapter described how a large suburban district in New Jersey decided to move students around based on capacity in schools as well as by race and class. In that case, as a number of the less wealthy and non-white residents of the districts had suspected might happen, the wealthiest community was able to keep its students nearby and severely limit how many outside students were able to attend.

Wealthier and whiter suburbs – Highland Park has a median household income of over $122,000 and is over 92% white – tend to first try to limit poorer residents by limiting the number of cheaper housing units. If that is not completely successful, the next battleground can be schools as residents of such communities tend to prefer that their children go to school with other wealthier children.

Diversity in a community does not necessarily lead to diversity in interaction

Having a diverse population within a municipality or neighborhood doesn’t guarantee the groups will interact or work together:

Although my neighborhood was majority-black for much of my life, most of my friends were white. The same held for most of my parents’ friends. The kids I played with on my block were white. Diversity segregation of this kind manifested in other ways too. Mount Rainier is divided between single-family homes and the WWII-era brick garden apartment complexes that house two-thirds of the population. By the 1990s, these were overwhelmingly populated by people of color, while almost all of the white population lived in the single-family homes…

“On paper we are so diverse, but we really are not integrated,” Christopherson, Miles’ opponent in the mayor’s race, told me in the spring. “Just because you are exposed to people from the West Indies or El Salvador, or African Americans and whites, that has only a little benefit. But what if you were also coming together in a city committee or city events?”…

At present, Mount Rainier is still majority-black, and there are plenty of Hispanic and black homeowners. But consider the most extreme scenario, in which the single-family housing stock largely becomes the preserve of white professionals while working-class people of color remain in the apartments. In that case, Mount Rainier would experience a dispiritingly familiar form of segregation, where urban design and geography separate races. The two housing stocks in town do not share the same commercial corridors. The residents of the apartments are often transitory, and they do not vote as often. They tend to not identify with the commercial corridor near U.S. 1, which contains the Glut Food Co-op and harbors much of the civic infrastructure. Instead, the residents of the brick, multifamily housing do their shopping on the high-speed autocentric Queen’s Chapel Road commercial corridor.

The proposed solution? More interaction across groups within the public school system:

“The important thing is consistent exposure over a long period of time,” says Camille Z. Charles, professor of sociology at the University of Pennsylvania and director of its Center for Africana Studies. “We are often friendlier with people we actually interact with. We do find there is lasting benefit to that, which is why we think it is important to have [diversity] in schools because kids spend so much time in classrooms and on school campuses.”

Four quick thoughts:

  1. This is where Census data can let us down and experience on the ground is helpful. From a macro level, a community or city can look very diverse. An obvious example is a major city like Chicago which is around 45% white but is one of the most segregated cities in America. However, this also happens in much smaller communities as well. Take Wheaton, Illinois. Starting in the late 1800s, a small population of blacks lived on the east side of the city. This was unusual: very few Chicago suburbs had any black residents. But, how much interaction was there between groups in Wheaton?
  2. The author notes that this community is unusual in that a sizable white population remained even as the black population grew. This doesn’t happen in many places: as minorities move in, whites leave.
  3. While race is highlighted here as the dividing force, it sounds like social class is also a factor. While the two areas are closely intertwined, addressing one without the other may be as profitable.
  4. The proposed solution in the public schools is not an unusual one. Yet, it does highlight how few social institutions in the United States really cut across racial or class lines. Where else might people of different groups interact when most other opportunities (from churches to local government to social clubs and civic groups) are segregated?