The Suburbs Are Poorer and More Diverse Than We Realize
Understanding diversity in the suburbs is a key to winning elections.
Jay Caspian Kang
Everything You Think You Know About the Suburbs Is Wrong
The suburban school is an imagined space that invites an unhealthy amount of hyperbole, misinterpretation and fear. All-white classrooms with a few token Asians, expansive, well-kept playing fields and pickup circles filled with Volvo S.U.V.s driven by anxious, potentially reactionary mothers might still exist in small pockets of the country. But even many of those privileged spaces have likely seen significant demographic change over the past few decades.
Millions of minority families have moved outside the country’s largest cities over the past 20 years. At the same time, the number of people in these areas who are living under the federal poverty line grew by 57 percent between 2000 and 2015.
In an earlier edition of this newsletter, I wrote about the Sweet Home Central School District in suburban Buffalo, where — with an influx of Black, Latino and Middle Eastern refugee families, many of whom were poor — the schools had to adjust, adding language support and other social services.
These transitions don’t always go smoothly. As suburbs have gotten browner over the past two decades, they’ve hosted all sorts of racial fights. Spats over critical race theory and what should be taught in schools are just the latest iteration.
Loudoun County, Va., which became ground zero of stoking panic about education and critical race theory by the incoming governor, Glenn Youngkin, has become an example of many different political ideas, but they can’t be understood outside the local context. In the 1990s, over 80 percent of Loudoun County’s students were white. Today that number has dropped to 43 percent, after a large influx of Asian American and Latino families. Youngkin’s strong showing in Virginia’s suburbs, then, should be seen not only as a triumph of manipulation and messaging by the G.O.P. but also as the most recent nationwide response to demographic changes in the suburbs.
Readers of this newsletter have surely noticed that I have been focused on the recent Virginia gubernatorial election and the ways in which the G.O.P. leveraged education in its favor. My interest in this lies not so much in how effective the C.R.T. paranoia might have been in that race but more in how much Youngkin’s strategy exposed oversights and misconceptions within the Democratic Party — its fundamental misunderstanding of Asian American voters and the ways in which it tends to focus on race and inequality in urban areas while mostly ignoring what’s happening right outside city limits.
To better understand what has been happening in the suburbs and the bearing that shift has on politics, I spoke to R. L’Heureux Lewis-McCoy, a sociology professor at New York University who studies race and inequality in the suburbs. Our conversation has been edited for length and clarity.
What are some of the factors that have led to communities of color moving to the suburbs?
In the imagination of American folks, suburbs are the ideal and the embodiment of the American dream. You can own property. You can have a picket fence. You can control the kind of school you go to.
But as suburbanization happened after World War II, Black residents, Asian residents and Hispanic residents didn’t have the same access to that dream. And so when we got into the 1980s and 1990s, in particular, a number of Black, Asian and Hispanic families were saying, “Well, listen, I don’t want to deal with a crumbling infrastructure where taxes continue to rise and schools aren’t going well. I don’t want to deal with some of the challenges and problems that we have in central cities, things like crime and poverty.”
And so in the 1980s, 1990s and early 2000s, folks who had the means moved out of central cities and into suburban areas, oftentimes with the idea that they could go to a place where they could customize and control what was happening. They knew what the schools were like. They knew the families that were there.
But another thing that’s happened post-2000 is that a lot of folks who ended up in the suburbs didn’t move by choice. The central city got too expensive. So the rents and tenements that used to be accessible to low-income people, those got snapped up. In Detroit they got turned into downtown lofts. And many low-income people started to move outside the city because that’s where affordable housing was.
So what are some of the challenges that schools have when they experience this type of demographic change?
We hold in our imagination that schools in the suburbs are good and schools in the city are bad. My first question is always, “For whom are suburban schools good?” Are Black students experiencing high-quality education? Are they gaining access to the best classes in the school? Are they being suspended at a proportional rate to white students? And sadly, the answer is no. As we look at increasing shares of groups like Latinx folks, it becomes a complicated portrait. Why? No. 1, some areas have a history of Latinx presence, and so you may be talking about California, where people are starting to move from cities into more suburban areas, but there’s a familiarity with that population. So in a place like Orange County, they may quickly develop appropriate language services and other support.
In suburbs that are more diverse, that have white folks, Black folks, Asian folks, Latinx folks, multiracial folks, you’ll sometimes find competition for resources. Who actually gets to drive what’s happening inside schools? Do we have a curriculum that actually features the full kaleidoscope here? Or does one group get a disproportionate share? What happens when you have to make trade-offs between hiring more folks for translation and more folks who are reading coaches for native English speakers? Those are the things that happen in real time and oftentimes don’t get discussed.
Loudoun County, a suburb in Virginia, was at the center of Glenn Youngkin’s messaging against critical race theory in schools. How do you think the growing minority presence in suburban schools that used to be mostly white and are controlled by white school boards has played into the national panic over these ideas?
We know that the panic around critical race theory is really a lightning rod to activate conservative folks who desire a throwback to yesterday. It’s similar to when Donald Trump was on the campaign trail and stoked fears about building affordable housing in the suburbs and the types of people it would attract. It’s an appeal to a time in which segregation was normal and unquestioned.
This signal is meant to activate, in particular, white folks who remain in the suburbs. We know that now, in the nation’s largest metropolitan areas, the majority of Black residents live in the suburbs. Now the majority of immigrants live in the suburbs. Now the majority of Latinx and Asian Americans live there. But most news media, when they say “suburban,” they mean “white.”
So we have to be specific about whom we’re talking about. And if we continue to think of the suburbs as only white, we never ask suburban Black mothers or suburban Asian mothers what they actually think about these politics. Unfortunately, we have been trained to say, “If white women are thinking about this as an issue, this is the voice of the suburbs.” And frankly, it’s not. Because we see time and time again, as you actually speak to these residents, a lot of folks in the suburbs who are of color immediately saw through the hubbub about critical race theory as dog whistling.
But it also raises the question of what coalition politics are going to look like. So many folks have assumed, because the suburbs are becoming more Black, more brown, more poor, that they’re just going to vote straight-line Democrat. And I think when we look, we actually see that there are moments in which the Republican Party has made significant inroads in terms of mobilizing suburban voters of color. It varies significantly by racial and ethnic group. Black folks remain solidly Democratic in the suburbs.
Latinx folks, it depends a lot on the geography. Asian American folks, again, it depends a lot on the geography and the ethnicity at hand. So for us to think about critical race theory and the suburbs, we have to think about how the suburbs came to be. We have to think about how this is a signal and not assume that as we have an increasing share of people of color and poor folks in the suburbs, that they’re necessarily going to vote Democratic.
In your work, you talk to parents in the suburbs. What do you think is driving some of these shifts toward the right in suburban communities of color? What are people telling you?
Part of the work is understanding that people who have had a chance to opt for the suburbs — meaning they had the means and they chose — they are often trying to curate a particular kind of life. So when you talk about social policies that expand the safety net, when you talk about policies that put race at the center of discussion, this is, in some cases, a misunderstanding of the reality in the suburbs. Many suburban residents of color have tried to assimilate and buy into a notion that we don’t have to talk about race. Many residents, across race, have said one of the reasons they left the city was because of the safety net — the safety net was a burden that took more taxes away from them.
There are now more poor people in suburbs than in central cities, which means these problems have cropped back up for these same suburban residents. They have to reckon with the thing that they tried to escape.
What are the actual harms that take place because of this misunderstanding of suburbs?
One of the things I think that people underestimate is just the depth of violence. So even as we watched the Black Lives Matter movement emerge, many of those killings were happening in the suburbs. In fact, some estimates suggest that more people are killed by police in the suburbs than in cities. And cities have had a lot of conversation about police reform. Now, I don’t necessarily think those have gotten that far, but in many of these suburban districts, there’s never even been a conversation.
More folks are now in the suburbs who don’t align with how a law officer thinks someone should look. So maybe you look like you don’t belong in this neighborhood. Racial profiling has a long history in the United States.
When we think about supports and social services, most of us think about the needs of poor people living in the city. And so what does it mean to be located in Larchmont, N.Y., and to be a nonnative English speaker and to be low income and to not have resources around finding adequate food, adequate income, adequate immigration support? And to say the only way you can do that is to travel an hour and a half into New York City? You start to see people floating in space.
Here’s one thing I’m genuinely puzzled by. These demographic shifts are not new. And yet the image of the suburban school as this white place with white students and maybe a couple of Asians thrown in there persists. Why?
So in the summer of 2020, as folks started to talk about defunding the police and abolition, Representative Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez was asked, “What does defunding the police look like? What does it really mean?” And she responded, “It looks like a suburb.”
I was particularly struck because she grew up in a suburb and she wasn’t white in that suburb. The pull is so deep to use “suburban” as shorthand for “white and moneyed.” And that shorthand allows us to talk about a lot of racial dynamics in politics, but it doesn’t actually capture what’s happening.
We’re going to be forced to reckon with where people are because the narrative has been marching along for 20 years. We just haven’t been paying attention. You hear it arise more and more around elections, but you’re going to see it when we try to figure out how to deal with national poverty, with food insecurity, with transportation and infrastructure. Because the conversation has exclusively assumed people of color are in cities and white folks are in the suburbs. So I hope that people get shaken out of that misconception. But I think we have another 20 years before that happens.
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Jay Caspian Kang (@jaycaspiankang), a writer for Opinion and The New York Times Magazine, is the author of “The Loneliest Americans.”