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The growing diversity in America's suburbs

(Scorpions and Centaurs/flickr)
(Scorpions and Centaurs/flickr)

The “suburbs” have become a hot constituency in recent years. But has the term enveloped the full range of their residents?

“In the last two decades in particular, the number of people of color, immigrant folks, low income folks have increased in suburban spaces,” R. L’Heureux Lewis-McCoy, a professor of sociology at NYU, says.

“So now the conversation of ‘Do you appeal to the suburban voters?’ is even more important because … in reality it actually means a very diverse sector.”

Today, On Point: The growing diversity in America’s suburbs.


R. L’Heureux Lewis-McCoy, associate professor in the sociology of education program at New York University. (@DumiLM)

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Interview Highlights

On when the suburbs became a key constituency in politics

R. L’Heureux Lewis-McCoy: “The suburbs, for better or for worse, in many people’s imaginations right now, are pretty hot. And we saw with the last election cycle, whether it was the gubernatorial election in Virginia or the presidential election, that people are calling out to the suburbs and saying, We need to court suburban voters. And that appeal to suburban voters has an earlier route, probably closer to the 1970s and ’80s. When we think about what happened with major metropolitan cities in the 1960s and 1970s, you had the concentration of poverty within cities.

“Those who had the economic means tended to move outside of the city into suburban areas, and there was also the movement of jobs away from the cities, to the suburbs or to other countries. And what happened was the idea of the American dream really crystallized along the suburban frontier. So in that way, by the time you get to the 1960s and ’70s, you have politicians explicitly saying, I know I have to capture the vote inside of Boston, as well as the vote outside of Boston.

“And the appeal to the suburban voters coming out of the 1970s and ’80s, even through the 1990s, was often an appeal targeted directly at where they thought middle income and above white residents were. So there’s a longer history of an appeal to a suburban voter. But more recently, this appeal to the suburban voter gets complicated, in part based on who’s there now and what an individual politician may be signaling when they say they want to get the suburban voter.”

On assumptions about the suburbs, and what the suburbs are actually like

R. L’Heureux Lewis-McCoy: I think the the canonical example of the suburb is the one that was developed after World War II. They took a plot of farmland, and they build out a set of often cookie-cutter houses. And there, they would define how big the house was. They would make sure it had similar plumbing. They made sure they had common streets and sidewalks. But those covenants were also pretty significant. … You would have areas where Black people could build homes, could do the plumbing, could pick up the trash, but they were restricted from living in. And so what happened was in those predominantly white suburbs, that were central to the suburbanization of America, there were also suburban spaces that were developed that had large concentrations of color.

“So we now know that there were a number of Black suburbs and Black settlements that existed alongside or separate from the white suburbs that develop. Now, in particular, those Black suburbs usually were not as affluent or not as well resourced. But there has actually been a history of Black people, and nonwhite folks and Asian folks in the suburbs. What happens, though, over time, is that when there are people with more economic means started to move out into the suburbs, the challenges of the city emerge. But intergenerational challenges often emerge.

“So maybe you were the child of a college-educated family that found refuge in a nice suburb outside of the city. And while your parents love the suburbs, when you completed college, the last place you wanted to be were the suburbs. You said, Well, the suburbs are boring, the suburbs are tired. I don’t want to drive everywhere. And so you had a migration from the suburbs back into central cities.

“And what we’ve seen, particularly in the last two to three decades, is as middle class and above residents, particularly white, middle class and above residents return to cities, many of those cities that have been places where Black folks have been, Asian folks have been, Latinx folks have been, they have found the ability to secure housing in the city is compromised. So the prices of a downtown rent in 1985 look very different than in 2005.

“And so then those lower income folks have to say, Well, where can I afford to live? And oftentimes they started to migrate back out into the suburbs. So that would mean sometimes they would go right across this city line into an inner ring suburb. And with that migratory pattern, what you started to find, is that more people were pushed into the suburbs. But this time not so much by choice, but this time by circumstance. Which has led now to us now having more poor residents in the suburbs than we do in central cities, having more Black residents in the suburbs than we do central cities, and on down the line.”

There’s more racial, ethnic and economic diversity in the suburbs. Why don’t we see that reflected in the way politicians and members of the media talk about the suburbs?

R. L’Heureux Lewis-McCoy: I think we have a really strong imagination of what the suburbs are. So as you mentioned before, when you say suburban, you think of something like ‘Leave it to Beaver’ or the ‘The Dick Van Dyke Show’ or even more contemporary examples, maybe even something that looks like ‘Black-ish.’ And everyone who’s in the suburbs seems to have enough money. They’ve created their own little cottage curated space. But the issue with that is often it misses out on the folks who are poor.

“One of the dimensions of the suburbs that we have to think about also is how private things are. It’s the idea you have your own space, your own domicile. So when it comes to a question of, Well are people experiencing poverty? Oftentimes, that’s not polite conversation. We can see in the suburbs, over the past two decades, an immense increase in foreclosures. But folks don’t talk about, What does it mean to have a house where you’ve missed mortgage payments? What does it mean to own a home where you’re now underwater on the mortgage?

“This is a suburban experience, but that’s not the kind of conversation we often like to have. The other thing that often happens is in suburban communities, we think about single family homes. As more folks have moved into the suburbs, the question of where can you rent? Where can you find affordable rent and how do apartments and homes mix? So these are the questions of actually addressing the new suburban reality that we face.”

This article was originally published on WBUR.org.

Copyright 2022 NPR. To see more, visit https://www.npr.org.