Responding to “white suburbanites are exposed to more racial diversity than ever before”

One researcher explores the increasing racial and ethnic diversity of suburbia:

The scale of these national changes is too great to leave suburbs unaffected. As a consequence, white suburbanites are exposed to more racial diversity than ever before, a process that compounds annually. In 1980, a majority of white suburban residents lived in areas greater than 95 percent white, according to my analysis of the Census data. Only about one in six lived in a neighborhood where people of color made up at least 20 percent of the population. Fast-forward to today, and the numbers flip: Fewer than one in 10 white suburban residents lives in a neighborhood greater than 95 percent white, while more than half can be found somewhere that’s more than 20 percent nonwhite. Suburbs are now home to most black Americans and Hispanic Americans.

Nonwhite residents skew younger, which means diversity is increasing in schools even faster than in cities and neighborhoods. As that happens, the racial isolation of white children has been broken in spectacular fashion. In 1988, the earliest year with digitized federal data, more than half of white children nationwide attended a school that was more than 90 percent white. In 2016–2017, the most recent school year with data, that share dropped to less than one-fifth. In public districts today, more than three-fifths of white children attend a diverse school where at least 20 percent of the student population was not white; in major metros, nine-tenths of white children do.

Lest the point get lost in a swarm of statistics, these figures represent an inversion of America’s historic racial geography. As recently as a few decades ago, almost all white people in America lived their lives in places where racial diversity was minimal or nonexistent. This is simply no longer true. In neighborhoods and, especially, schools, moderate diversity is now the norm for most white Americans. The America where busing failed was a place where islands of urban diversity drifted in an ocean of suburban whiteness. Today, the metaphor must be reversed: An archipelago of white enclaves is embedded in a sea of growing racial diversity.

And since this discussion is in the context of debates about schools and busing, the author suggests this change in diversity has implications:

By every available demographic metric, those white suburbs are losing ground in 21st-century America. The problem of segregated schools, as urgent and familiar as ever, is embedded in a deeply unfamiliar context. School integration in 2019 means moving children across racial boundaries that are already looking ragged. The communities it risks outraging have ever-shrinking political clout. People should consider whether they have overlearned the lessons of history—whether the antibusing consensus is more robust than the conditions that created it. Integrated schools are more achievable than the political system believes. The missing ingredient for desegregation may just be elected officials with the courage to stop fearing America as it was, and start leading America as it is.

The article takes a pretty optimistic view of racial change in communities. Indeed, residential segregation has decreased in recent years with more minorities living in suburbs and increased immigration.

I wonder if the same data could be interpreted differently:

1. The cutoffs for diversity cited above are low bars. More than 20% non-white is not that much diversity.

2. The article does not discuss social class and its interaction with race and class. What kind of diversity are white suburbanites interacting with in terms of class and race together?

3. The emphasis here is on the public school system as well as communities though there are plenty of white students (as well as other students) in different schooling environments and social ties and networks can operate through many institutions. Diversity by community or neighborhood may not translate into diversity in a school setting or in local government or houses of worship or friendship networks.

4. What is the end goal of such efforts? Is “moderate diversity is now the norm for most white Americans” enough or even be used a way to limit further diversity? Is representation in public schools enough or is the goal similar academic achievement or access to political power or homeownership rates or wealth (all areas with disparity)?

Suggestion that tiny houses face snobbish responses because of links to lower classes

An overview of tiny houses in the United States (though no mention of how many there actually are) includes an interesting bit about social class:

But the main obstacle is a legal one: most municipalities and towns ban residents from living year-round in anything on wheels, and often have statutes requiring homes to be at least 900 square feet…

Historically in American culture, bungalows, caravans and mobile homes have a bad reputation — they are seen as badly made and decidedly lower-class.

But the Berriers’ home is impeccably decorated with a bathtub, a sunroom and a movie screen — no “trailer trash” here.

“There are preconceived notions. They haven’t seen it enough. It’s just something new. I think that’s the problem,” Berrier said.

This leads to a conundrum: if Americans love driving and homeownership, why do they dislike mobile or smaller housing so much?

The less positive reactions to tiny houses suggests it is not solely about owning a vehicle or home; the kind of vehicle or home matters. Driving is good but driving a nicer car is better. Owning a home is good but owning a bigger, more permanent home is clearly superior. Cars and homes are functional items and status symbols, important social markers of who a person is and desires to be.

A more functional approach to housing might be more open to tiny houses. People need a place to live at a reasonable cost? Affordable housing is scarce? Homeless people need residences? Let’s make it happen. Change zoning guidelines. Make it cool to downsize.

On the other hand, there are plenty of tiny house buyers who prefer getaways or luxury touches, not long-term housing in such a small size. It would be easy for the tiny house movement to be co-opted by those with resources and social status. Those people might be able to get tiny houses into certain places where they might otherwise not be allowed, but their motives would run against others who want tiny houses because of their reduced footprint and simpler lifestyle.

Many Americans can’t afford a McMansion (even if they might aspire to one)

A recent study suggested Americans aspire to own the larger homes in their neighborhood. By using the term “McMansion,” the study might be read as some as suggesting that this belief is widespread among many Americans. Americans like big houses and they like to look to external reference groups to help guide their own behavior. Isn’t everyone after a McMansion?

Just three little problems:

  1. Many Americans do not live in neighborhoods with McMansions.
  2. Many Americans cannot afford a McMansion.
  3. Not all larger houses are McMansions.

McMansions are particular kinds of houses that require a certain social class and set of resources to acquire. Even in cheaper housing markets, McMansions are not within reach of many residents. Academic articles and media articles journals can use the term broadly but how many Americans truly live in McMansions – 10%? 20%?

At the same time, it is worth looking at the aspirations of Americans. Homeownership, particularly in a suburban setting, is an ingrained goal in American society. And Americans do seem to like bigger homes. But, do they really want a McMansion, a home that can be made fun of by others and with a descriptor rarely used in real estate listings? There is clearly a market for such homes but the buffoonish McMansion may not exactly be the goal of homebuyers.

 

Linking nicer cars to a suburb on the rise

From the Australian suburbs: one insider suggests seeing nicer cars in driveways signals good prospects for the suburban community.

The gentrification of the driveway happens before the gentrification of a suburb, says the boss of a data analytics company.

Upmarket vehicles beginning to appear in the carports and garages of houses is often a forerunner of a suburb on the rise, as renovators move in...

When more models such as a BMW X5 or an Audi SUV begin appearing in the driveway of houses and apartments in particular suburban streets, it is a reliable predictor of a suburb undergoing gentrification and becoming much more popular with renovators. Extra investment in community infrastructure often followed, and there was a broad flow on to higher property prices…

He said households who were taking out a loan for $500,000 to buy a rundown home in an up-and-coming area were often also purchasing a $30,000 to $40,000 car to fit the aspirational lifestyle.

The article chalks this up to a big data insight as bringing together multiple pieces of information helped reveal this relationship. I can see how this new information might help investors but it is less clear how this would help residents or local governments.

More broadly, this gets at something my dad always said: look at the cars in driveways, on the street, or in parking spots and it gives you a sense of the people who live there. In societies that prize cars, such as in the United States and Australia and particularly their suburbs, a vehicle becomes an important social marker. The one-to-one relationship might not always work as some people buy more expensive cars than their housing might indicate and vice versa (recall the stories of millionaires driving old reliable cars). Yet, on the whole, people of different social classes drive different vehicles in varying states of repair. Hence, various brands aim at different segments of the market. Famously, General Motors did this early in the 20th century with five different car lines to appeal to different kinds of buyers.

UPDATE: I probably did not contribute to this upward trend with long-term ownership of a Toyota Echo. But, it looked good for its age.

 

Now is the time to see who really cares about their lawn (and social appearances)

This is the time of year in our area to see which residents really care about maintaining their lawn. There are three main features of the lawn to look at to make this determination:

1. Is the lawn regularly cut to keep up with the rapid growth? At this time of year, the grass grows quite quickly with plenty of rain and warmer temperatures. This likely requires mowing more than once a week in order to keep the grass at a pleasing-to-the-eyes height.

2. Are there no dandelions visible? This hints as the groundkeeper’s efforts regarding weeds. Green grass is all that should be seen as people pass by. The shame of an uneven lawn might be outweighed by having a yard full of dandelions surrounded by perfectly green (and yellow-free) yards.

3. Is the grass uniform and lush? Even with all of the rain and sunshine, different kinds of grass (and other kinds of ground cover) plus patchy spots in the yard could indicate the homeowner is less invested in the lawn.

Two bonus features about the landscaping (often connected to lawn maintenance) to look at during this time of year:

1. If the residence has blooming flowers. This requires either foresight – planting perennial flowers – or time each year to put in new flowers.

2. If fresh mulch has been applied to beds on the property. This may be accompanied by a particular smell or a visible pile (or dirt mark) on the driveway or side yard.

As I have argued before, all of these markers are signs of both residential social norms and class-related behavior.

The dystopian sociological origins of the concept of meritocracy

What exactly meritocracy means requires going back to the origins of the term in the 1950s:

As the tech writer Antonio García Martínez pointed out, “It’s worth recalling that the word ‘meritocracy’ was coined as a satirical slur in a dystopic novel by a sociologist.” Martínez is referring to The Rise of the Meritocracy, 1870–2033, published in 1958 by the British sociologist and politician Michael Young. Young’s work was indeed intended as a social satire, positing a future in which trends in the British educational system were carried out to their absurd conclusions.

Written in the style of a doctoral dissertation by a scholar in the year 2034, The Rise of the Meritocracy imagines a world in which social class has been replaced by a hierarchy that places at the top those who could advance educationally through rigid testing standards. But those standards simply end up reinscribing the old class system, leading to a popular revolt.

Writing in The Guardian in 2001, a year before his death, Young looked back ruefully on how the irony of his coinage had been lost on the likes of Tony Blair, who was then making “meritocracy” the keystone of the Labour Party’s educational policy. “I have been sadly disappointed by my 1958 book, The Rise of the Meritocracy,” he wrote. “I coined a word which has gone into general circulation, especially in the United States, and most recently found a prominent place in the speeches of Mr Blair.” His book, he added, was “a satire meant to be a warning (which needless to say has not been heeded).”…

But our friend Throgmorton didn’t simply see meritocracy as some sort of Platonic ideal—he jingoistically claimed that the United States was already a meritocracy, and the world’s only example of it. Not only did he overlook the peculiarly British irony in which Young couched the term, he also missed out on an irony much closer to home: In 1959, five years after the Supreme Court outlawed segregation in public schools, African Americans were still being systematically denied equal access to education across the South.

It sounds like people wanted the idea of meritocracy to be true or they could justify their existing ideologies with such a term. And then the concept simply takes on a life of its own separate from its origins. It is hard to imagine a ruling class – whether there by wealth or educational achievement or battle – that does not have an ideology that justifies their presence there and rise to that position. At what point will meritocracy fail to provide enough justification? And, if meritocracy is at some point no longer defensible, what ideology comes next to explain those in power?

This origin story also may serve as a reminder that satire is difficult to present to the public. It is a relatively lesser-known genre and can easily be misunderstood. Plenty of recent examples suggest satire is often taken as truth (think incidents with The Onion or the Babylon Bee) until a respected source goes out of their way to point out the original point.

 

Three thoughts on Naperville having “white supremacist policies”

Newly-elected Illinois State Representative Anne Stava-Murray made strong comments about Naperville:

The 81st District representative, who also has launched a campaign for the U.S. Senate seat held by Dick Durbin, says what she sees in Naperville — and the Chicago area as a whole — is “white supremacy in an unclad kind of way, without its hood on.”

She points to what she calls racial profiling during traffic stops, questionable police hiring, discrimination in housing and home showings, largely white teacher populations, high rates of black student suspensions and low rates of black student enrollment in advanced placement courses as evidence of “white ignorance” in Naperville policies…

Many Naperville leaders, including Mayor Steve Chirico, who has worked to diversify membership on the city’s advisory boards and commissions, say her claims of “white supremacist policies” are far from the truth…

Some say the criticism of harboring white favoritism doesn’t fit a city becoming known as a hub of Indian-American business and culture. Naperville demographics show the city is 68.3 percent white, 17.9 percent Asian, 5.7 percent Hispanic, 5 percent black and 3.2 percent two or more races, according to the U.S. Census Bureau in July 2018.

Three quick thoughts based on my own study of the large suburb:

1. Naperville had issues in its past with race including opposition to a fair housing ordinance in the late 1960s and a discrimination complaint filed by several black workers transferred to the new Bell Labs facility in the 1960s. Some of these comments could be referendum on whether Naperville has changed sufficiently in fifty years and also reflect changing ideas about diversity over time.

2. Naperville today is certainly more diverse than in the past: it was 99.8% white in 1960 and is now 68.3% white. At the same time, the population of Naperville does not match or approach national figures in several areas. It has fewer black and Latino residents (roughly one-third of national averages) and more Asian residents (three times the national average). It is very wealthy with a median household income of around $110,000, double that of the United States as a whole. And the poverty rate is less than one-half of the country as a whole. On the whole, it has more racial and ethnic diversity than in the past but is also at a higher social class than many suburbs.

3. It seems like it would be helpful to speak less to leaders of the suburb – and leaders rarely would admit problems in their own community like racism – and more to a variety of  minorities in Naperville. For example, read “What it’s like to be black in Naperville, America.” Is there a common experience across racial and ethnic groups as well as social classes? My guess is that experiences can differ.