Historian Thomas Sugrue on the complex suburbia of today

In an interview, historian Thomas Sugrue discusses what the suburbs are today:

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That said, while in the aggregate, suburbs are more diverse, the distribution of nonwhites isn’t random. Metropolitan America is not a place of free housing choice. It’s still very much shaped by deep patterns of racial inequality and a maldistribution of resources. A lot of the nonwhite newcomers to suburbia live in what I call “secondhand suburbs” — places that have become increasingly unfashionable for whites, often older suburbs closer to central cities, with declining business districts and decaying housing stock.

And just as the distribution of minority groups across suburbia is not random, the distribution of whites across suburbia has really significant political implications. We’re seeing a suburban political divide quite different from the one that played out after World War II, when well-to-do, middle-class and even some working-class whites living in suburbia found common ground by looking through their rearview mirrors with horror at the cities they were fleeing. By the early 2000s, you have growing divisions among white suburbanites. The whitest suburban places are often at the suburban-exurban fringes — places where middle-class whites who are attempting to flee the growing racial diversity of cities and nearby suburbs are moving. By contrast, many of the older suburbs, particularly those with late 19th-, early 20th-century charming housing and excellent schools, have been attracting well-to-do and highly educated whites…

But suburbs didn’t freeze in time circa 1950 or 1960; they continued to evolve and transform. And those transformations were largely overlooked by political commentators, journalists, social scientists, novelists and pop culture. You saw, for example, beginning in the 1960s and expanding in the ’70s and ’80s, the emergence of clusters of multifamily housing — apartments, townhouses and condominiums — in suburban places. And as the housing market opened, a lot of new immigrants chose suburban places as points of settlement because suburbs offered access to jobs. In the post-WWII period up to the present day, most American job growth has been in suburban places — office parks, industrial parks, shopping malls, stores, restaurants, the construction industry, all sorts of service jobs. And those changes are crucial to understanding the remapping of metropolitan America. They capture a more complex reality than the post-WWII image of the suburbs….

One of the consequences of that are the fierce battles over even modest or token efforts to bring diversity to predominantly white suburban school districts, and really significant opposition to the construction of multifamily housing. And it’s not even couched in the rhetoric of class. It’s not, “I don’t want multifamily housing in my neighborhood because I don’t want lower-class people living here.” Instead, it’s, “This is going to change the character of the neighborhood,” or “It’s going to jeopardize my property values,” or “It’s going to bring congestion.”

A few quick thoughts:

  1. For a definitive history of white flight as it played out in Detroit (and contributed to the current landscape), read Sugrue’s The Origins of the Urban Crisis: Race and Inequality in Postwar Detroit.
  2. See earlier posts on complex suburbia, the various visions Americans today have of suburbs., and suburban NIMBY arguments.
  3. This reminds me that the image of 1950s suburbia is so pervasive as part of the American Dream and yet it has only some connections to current realities. Why does this image live on? It was incredibly powerful (postwar success, baby boomers, tremendous growth and sprawl), repeated and critiqued endlessly (numerous cultural products on both sides for decades), and some would like to continue or recreate what happened then. History rarely works this way; even if it were possible to recreate similar conditions, people are now different and society has changed.
  4. There is a lot more here for academics and others to explore about desirable and undesirable suburbs. Now that suburbs are more diverse in race, ethnicity, and class, the sorting within suburbs is a powerful force. Do wealthier people primarily select places through personal networks? How do residents of a metropolitan region come to know about and regard other communities (and how do communities try to “subtly” signal what they are)?

Rasmussen poll finds few Americans want the federal gov’t involved in deciding where people live

New poll data from Rasmussen suggests Americans would prefer the federal government not be involved in where people can live:

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The latest Rasmussen Reports national telephone and online survey finds that 83% of Likely U.S. Voters say the federal government should not play a role in deciding where people can live. Just 10% disagree. (To see survey question wording, click here.)

Sixty-five percent (65%) still say it is not the government’s job to diversify neighborhoods in America so that people of different income levels live together. But that’s down from 83% when Rasmussen Reports first asked this question in mid-2015 as the Obama administration prepared to release its new housing regulations. Twenty-three percent (23%) now say that diversifying neighborhoods is a government role, up from eight percent (8%) five years ago…

Twenty percent (20%) of blacks and 21% of other minority voters feel the federal government should play a role in deciding where people can live, but just six percent (6%) of whites agree. Seventy-one percent (71%) of whites say it is not the government’s job to diversify neighborhoods, compared to 52% of blacks and 53% of other minority voters.

Interestingly, voters who earn $100,000 or more a year are more supportive of government neighborhood diversity efforts than those who earn less.

A few quick thoughts:

1. I do not know the accuracy of this data. I do not think this is a survey question that is regularly asked of a national population.

2. That said regarding #1, it does seem to align with patterns in the United States. Housing is a very localized issue and involvement from the federal government is not often viewed favorably. Part of the appeal of suburbs is local control and exclusion. A diverse vision of suburbia may not catch on.

3. As I argued earlier in the week, even though attitudes may have improved regarding outright housing discrimination, this does not mean there are not ways to keep people out of communities or neighborhoods.

4. It is a little strange that Rasmussen asked directly about different income levels living together and not also about different racial and ethnic groups living together.

5. If we cannot tackle the issue of residential segregation – which is an outcome of the attitudes in the poll – it will be very difficult to address race.

Community disparities in COVID-19 cases mean districts and schools will need to respond differently

Given disparities in who is more at risk for COVID-19 (higher proportions of Blacks and Latinos, differences across suburban communities), school districts and possibly even schools within districts might need different plans to address the situation. In the Chicago suburbs, many districts have already announced plans for the start of school.

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Yet, what the plans are and in which communities is interesting to observe. Approaches can vary quite a bit with some opting for all remote learning to start, others going with a hybrid model (alternating attendance), and a few considering more in-person instruction. Wealthier communities that go for remote options may have more flexibility: parents and families can provide for childcare or have adults who can work from home and technology is plentiful. Furthermore, some communities appear to have a lower risk of COVID-19 compared to other places where people work in different kinds of jobs and households are larger. And larger school districts that encompass pockets of residents from different social classes and racial and ethnic groups could have very different situations within their schools. To some degree, this is nothing new: outcomes can vary for students within schools and districts. At the same time, COVID-19 (and other crises) help expose inequalities already present and may exacerbate them further.

That said, it might difficult to develop one-size-fits-all options even at the district level, let alone among county education boards or state education boards, unless there is a lot of homogeneity. The residential segregation common in the United States which then affects who attends what schools as well as  COVID-19 cases means addressing learning and safety together could require flexibility across schools.

President Trump suggests suburbs can exclude and exercise local control

In a June 30th tweet, President Trump expressed disagreement with policies enacted under President Obama involving desegregating housing:

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President Donald Trump on Tuesday said he would reverse a federal rule that promotes fair housing and sets desegregation as a national priority. The policy is known as Affirmatively Furthering Fair Housing, or AFFH; it’s a provision of the Fair Housing Act of 1968, signed into law a week after the assassination of Martin Luther King Jr.

“At the request of many great Americans who live in the Suburbs, and others,” Trump tweeted, “I am studying the AFFH housing regulation that is having a devastating impact on these once thriving Suburban areas. Corrupt Joe Biden wants to make them MUCH WORSE. Not fair to homeowners, I may END!”

Trump was specifically aiming at an Obama rule about how to finally implement the policy, a mandate (on paper only) for more than 50 years due to federal reluctance to address racial segregation. It might come as a surprise to the president, but his administration has already tackled this policy: The White House took steps starting in 2018 to gut the rule by arguing that it was too burdensome—not because desegregation would have a “devastating impact” on suburban America.

As he’s done time and time again, Trump said the quiet part out loud. The U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development has taken numerous steps to undermine key rules and policies that promote desegregation as a requirement for jurisdictions that receive federal housing dollars. But under Housing Secretary Ben Carson, the agency has carefully framed those revisions in procedural terms—namely as ways to reduce the paperwork load for housing authorities. In his tweet, Trump essentially admitted that there’s a different motive: Eliminating the rule will reduce the pressure on local governments to provide space and opportunity for Black families in affluent white neighborhoods.

Several thoughts:

1. The suburbs were built in part on exclusion – by race/ethnicity and social class – as well as on local control where suburbanites could avoid regulation from outside parties.

2. This continues conservative opposition to President Obama’s policies regarding cities and suburbs and might give hope to those who hoped President Trump would inaugurate a new wave of suburban development.

3. As the article notes, Trump has not said much else recently about housing or suburbs. It is not an easy national policy issue to address and Democrats have not spent much time on the issue in this election cycle. Yet, Trump’s tweet fits with other things he has said about law and order, racial issues, and cities. If I had to guess, he is trying to win over some suburban voters by suggesting he would allow suburbanites to dictate their own community’s fate. Whether he has the ability to appeal to suburban voters by November given his approach and positions is something to watch.

4. I’m on the record saying addressing issues of race in the United States requires addressing residential segregation. Even as suburbs as a whole have become more diverse by race and class, this does not necessarily mean opportunities in wealthier suburbs are available to all or even many.

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:

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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).

The US needs the Census in order to keep up with societal change

Even amid COVID-19, data collection for the 2020 Census continues. Recent Census data helps provide a reminder of why we need the Census:

The new data shows that, by 2019, the white population share declined nearly nine more percentage points, to 60.1%. The Latino or Hispanic and Asian American population shares showed the most marked gains, at 18.5% and nearly 6%, respectively. While these groups fluctuated over the past 40 years, either upward (for Latinos or Hispanics and Asian Americans) or downward (for whites), the Black share of the population remained relatively constant.

The declining white population share is pervasive across the nation. Since 2010, the white population share declined in all 50 states (though not Washington, D.C.) (download table A), and in 358 of the nation’s 364 metropolitan areas and 3,012 of its 3,141 counties. Moreover, as of 2019, 27 of the 100 largest metropolitan areas have minority-white populations, including the major metropolises of New York, Los Angeles, Washington, D.C., and Miami—as well as Dallas, Atlanta, and Orlando, Fla., which reached this status by 2010 (download Table B).

Most noteworthy is the increased diversity in the younger portion of the population. In 2019, for the first time, more than half of the nation’s population under age 16 identified as a racial or ethnic minority. Among this group, Latino or Hispanic and Black residents together comprise nearly 40% of the population. Given the greater projected growth of all nonwhite racial minority groups compared to whites—along with their younger age structure—the racial diversity of the nation that was already forecasted to flow upward from the younger to older age groups looks to be accelerating…

The unanticipated decline in the country’s white population means that other racial and ethnic groups are responsible for generating overall growth. Nationally, the U.S. grew by 19.5 million people between 2010 and 2019—a growth rate of 6.3%. While the white population declined by a fraction of a percent, Latino or Hispanic, Asian American, and Black populations grew by rates of 20%, 29%, and 8.5%, respectively. The relatively small population of residents identifying as two or more races grew by a healthy 30%, and the smaller Native American population grew by 7.6%.

This is important data to have regardless of what people make of this data. Having an organization that collects and reports important data is valuable to residents, scholars, and policy makers. With good data, people can now examine and use the patterns and trends.

At the same time, it is interesting to see how the Census is trying to market participation in the 2020 Census:

Census2020RationaleforPublic

The emphasis here is more on what residents might get out of the process – federal funds, political representation – with a final reminder of the government mandate since 1790.

Together, this suggests having good data is critical for understanding and responding to social change. Without such data, we are left with triangulated data or anecdotes that do not inspire confidence. The United States is a large country with many interest groups. While other organizations might be able to collect similar data, having it done by the government offers some advantages (though the Census process has long been politicized).

Leisure differences by race and class in time of COVID-19

What people do and can do for recreation differs across racial/ethnic groups as well as social class:

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The fireworks encapsulate the cramped, complex reality of urban leisure amid both a pandemic and a reckoning over policing. The pandemic has canceled summer travel plans en masse; many beaches and parks have capped capacity and closed facilities; air-conditioned spots outside the home—malls, movie theaters, restaurants—remain largely off-limits. For many, especially the immunocompromised, outdoor fun may seem like an unthinkably risky indulgence. But the fear of infection and the lack of options for things to do aren’t keeping everyone inside. To a greater extent than ever, city summer entertainment involves local public and semipublic spaces: sidewalks, stoops, parks, and, in the case of fireworks, the shared sky. The summer of social distancing will also be one of social closeness between neighbors, illuminating divides of class, ethnicity, and place—as leisure has always done…

The history of urban policing, leisure, and class is instructive. Cities implemented open-container laws only in the late 20th century, after courts struck down vagrancy laws, whose expansive definitions had been used to effectively criminalize homelessness and harass people of color. In a 2013 history of open-container bans, the journalist Joe Satran reported that “patterns of police enforcement of public drinking laws do suggest their origin as a replacement for unacceptably vague and discriminatory status offenses. Though national data on public drinking infractions are hard to come by (or nonexistent), the few studies of police enforcement indicate that poor, black people are arrested at rates many times higher than affluent white people.” A similar story—of hazily defined ordinances being used to discriminatorily regulate who can hang out where—applies to the loitering laws tested today whenever friends in masks congregate on sidewalks or street corners.

“Everything we think of in terms of race in the United States, recreation and leisure had a hand in influencing it,” Rasul Mowatt, an Indiana University professor who studies leisure and race, told me earlier this week. I’d called him to talk through the sociology of stoop hangs and pavement barbecues: classic inner-city rituals that would seem to be more important than ever this summer. He emphasized that such gatherings have always been shaped by structural oppression. Low wages and unemployment keep many city dwellers from traveling or otherwise engaging in pricier forms of recreation. Urban planning has often sought to contain poor populations where they are (Robert Moses allegedly designed the overpasses to Long Island’s Jones Beach to be too low for public buses to pass under them). Green spaces have been sites of racist harassment, a fact illustrated by the recent stories of Ahmaud Arbery (the black man killed while out on a run in Georgia) and Christian Cooper (the black bird-watcher accosted by a white woman in Central Park).

Four quick thoughts:

  1. That race and class matter for recreation is not a surprise. At the same time, how it continues to influence different aspects of American life – including what people do with their free time or to relax or for fun – and evolve over time is still worth considering.
  2. The article briefly mentions public spaces and I think it is worth paying attention to. Most of the activities discussed here are viewable by others. As sociologist Elijah Anderson argued, it can be difficult to find public spaces where Americans of different backgrounds regularly mix. Or, as sociologist Eric Klinenberg suggests, the United States could strengthen local public spaces and institutions with positive outcomes for all.
  3. The majority of the examples in the article come from cities. Does this play out similarly or differently in suburbs where private homes are emphasized and moral minimalism governs interactions?
  4. What is the flip side of this: what the wealthy doing for leisure during COVID-19? How possible is conspicuous consumption is an era of anxiety and pain for many?

Moving away from “master bedroom” and “master bath” in Houston

In the nation’s growing fourth-largest city, the realtor group for Houston will stop using the term “master” on its listing service:

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Earlier this month, HAR replaced the phrases “master bedroom” and “master bathroom” with “primary bedroom” and “primary bathroom” on its property listing database.

The change came after several HAR members called for a review of the terminology.

“It was not a new suggestion to review the terminology,” according to the statement HAR sent its members. “The overarching message was that some members were concerned about how the terms might be perceived by some other agents and consumers. The consensus was that Primary describes the rooms equally as well as Master while avoiding any possible misperceptions.”…

“You may still use the term ‘Master Bedroom’ or ‘Master Bath’ as you feel appropriate in your marketing materials and in the Public Remarks, Agent Remarks, and photo descriptions,” according to the statement HAR sent its members.

Three quick thoughts:

1. Given the social and political climate, this is not a surprising move. And yet, the group said this concern has been raised before and the term is allowed in materials outside of the property listing database. I suppose this is change over time but it is incremental and limited.

2. Real estate is said to be about location, location, location. Realtor groups across the United States are organized by geography even as there is a National Association of Realtors. The local groups can act somewhat independently; in the past, local groups limited blacks and other minorities from moving into certain places. Would the National Association of Realtors strike master from their listings and other materials or would this have to happen region by region?

3. The Houston area presents an interesting case for this change given its demographics. The region has sizable Latino, Black, and foreign-born populations. Will such a change real estate or will the slow transition away from using master (#1) barely register?

Continued disparate impact of COVID-19 in DuPage County communities

Here is recent data from the DuPage County Department of Health on COVID-19 cases by municipality:

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Just looking at the map and knowing about population distributions in DuPage County, there are both more cases and higher rates of cases in certain communities: Addison, West Chicago, Glendale Heights, Carol Stream, and Bensenville. These are communities with more diverse populations.

Data from the dashboard also look at rates by ethnicity and race:

The case rate for Latinos is 5.5 times that of whites though the Latino mortality rate is slightly lower. The case rate for Blacks is 2.1 times that of whites and 1.7 times that of Asians and Black mortality rates are higher at similar amounts. Further data breaks this down by ethnicity and age and race and age with case rates being much higher for Latinos and Blacks among those 60 and older (and rates are higher at all adult age groups).

Put these together and COVID-19’s impact on DuPage County depends on race, ethnicity, and location. This also probably means COVID-19 has some connection to social class since DuPage County communities, like many metropolitan regions, have different levels of income and housing costs.

Looking at suburban crime and police activity across suburbs

With the popularity of suburban surveillance and discussions of police behavior in suburbs, it is helpful to have data about suburban police activity and crime:

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Since 1990, arrest rates have trended downward nationwide. In suburbs, though, they have been leveling off or actually increasing since 2015, says Leah Pope, a senior research fellow at the Vera Institute of Justice, a nonprofit that aims to address the causes of mass incarceration and the loss of public trust in law enforcement. Arrest rates have declined faster in cities than suburbs.

This largely comes from a drop in “Part II” crimes, she says, which covers “less serious” offenses such as vandalism, drunkenness, disorderly conduct, loitering, and more. More serious, “Part I” crimes—including murder, rape, and robbery—have been declining as well, but arrests for Part II crimes have seen a sharper drop in cities than suburbs. These are arrests for crimes that many don’t think should necessitate an arrest anyway, Vera Institute research associate Frankie Wunschel notes: They could be citations, or warnings, or simply decriminalized, in the way that marijuana has been decriminalized, but not legalized, in some states.

Some suburbs are seeing their jail populations grow, too. According to 2015 data, nearly 9 in 10 large urban counties saw their jail populations decline. Between 2014 and 2015, the jail population in the country’s 61 large urban counties fell by more than 18,000 people total—equivalent to emptying Los Angeles County jails. The jail population grew, though, in 40% of suburban, small, and midsize counties.

Racial disparities also play a role in arrests for Part II crimes. Narcotic drug laws fall under these “less serious” crimes, and in 2015, more than one in four people arrested for drug law violations were Black, although drug use rates do not differ substantially by race. “There are huge racial disparities in arrests, and those racial disparities are more prevalent in suburban areas than they are in urban areas,” Pope says.

There are long-standing perceptions about the safety of suburbs as well as presumption that suburban police act better. But, this data and analysis suggests this can differ dramatically across suburban communities and suburban populations. At the least, this is a reminder of the complex suburbia of today: discussions of a monolithic suburbia simply do not line up with suburban realities. Going further, crime and policing can differ across suburbs, just as it can across urban neighborhoods or cities.

From this analysis, I wonder how the variation in crime and police activity across suburbs compares to the variation between wealthier urban neighborhoods versus those urban neighborhoods not as well off.