Absence makes the heart… familiarity breeds…

One fascinating historical narrative from the United States is called “white flight“. Essentially, this was a mass migration of white Americans out of major urban centres, into the suburbs. As with previous mass migrations of white folks in the USA, this was the result of various factors as kind of a ‘push-pull’. The ‘pull’ was the increased affordability of housing thanks in a large part to the GI Bill, as well as massive federal investments in transportation infrastructure and electricification*. The ‘push’ was multifaceted – cities were crowded, dangerous, and dirty – but it would be naive to assume that racial dynamics did not play a major role.

Whatever the causes of white flight, it is worth noting that one of the effects of it is that our whole notion of what the suburbs mean and are is inherently tied up in whiteness. The oft-invoked Rockwellian image of the suburbs is white because that’s who got there first and defined what that meant. And, just as we saw in yesterday’s examination of the impact that racist ideologies from our founders had on generations of immigrants, the ‘whitening’ of the suburbs at the hands of government subsidies have far-reaching effects that outstrip the mere fact of the legislation. The suburbs are white because they got there first, and anyone who comes after and doesn’t comport to that image and behaviour is ‘doing it wrong’.

That being said, shifts in economics, immigration, policy, politics, and the very character of race relations in the United States have made it increasingly possible for people of colour (PoCs) to move into suburban areas, which has led to new possibilities: 1) suburbs that are a mixture of whites and PoCs, or 2) suburbs that are populated predominantly by PoC. A report by the Institute of Metropolitan Opportunity at the University of Minnesota Law School examines this phenomenon and gives us some insight into some fascinating and relevant results.

The researchers investigated patterns of suburban demographic composition over time, dividing suburban areas into three categories:

  • Diverse: PoCs are between 20 and 60 percent of the population
  • Predominantly non-white: More than 60% of the population is PoC
  • Predominantly white: 80+ percent of the population is non-PoC

Things that probably won’t surprise you

Predominantly white suburbs (comprising 18% of the population of the metro area they were in) were wealthy and stable, leaned Republican and had low levels of poverty. Predominantly non-white** suburbs (12%) were much the opposite, with high levels of taxation relative to income and poverty; and had low incomes and housing prices that were in decline.

Table 2: Social and Economic Characteristics of the Community Types Compared to Metropolitan Averages

Click to enlarge

Things that might encourage you

Diverse communities, on the other hand, were thriving nearly as well as predominantly white communities. It turns out that segregation is part of the reason why predominantly non-white communities fail, not the simple fact of their racial homogeneity. The authors point to extensive evidence suggesting that integrated communities (particularly integrated schools) provide major opportunities to children of colour, while taking nothing away from their white classmates. Indeed, the authors argue that “integrated schools also enhance the cultural competence of white students and prepare them for a more diverse workplace and society.” Whether or not that is true, the fact is that integrating schools help close racial achievement gaps and has the added bonus of increasing the likelihood that PoC will pursue occupations as adults in which PoC are traditionally underrepresented. The cited evidence also suggests that integration of schools leads to an increased likelihood that white students will pursue interracial friendships, and have a increased sense of civic engagement. Everyone wins!

Another interesting fact of integrated communities is that they tend to be remarkably politically balanced, with an even split between Democrats and Republicans. The authors suggest that this provides more opportunities for meaningful political engagement, which I’m not so sure about, but it seems reasonable to assume that a diversity of political opinions among your peer group will reduce levels of group-think, which is always good. The authors also suggest that these suburbs will become hotly-contested prizes in political contests – a supposition not much evinced by the current political climate. The question that popped into my mind is whether the mix within the community is caused by increased integration (i.e., does living in a racially integrated environment moderate political opinions, many of which are racially charged), or is it merely an effect (i.e., PoC trend toward Democrats, white people tend toward Republicans, so any mixing will ‘moderate’ the population as a statistical artifact).

Things that might depress you a bit

Temporal trends suggest that racially diverse neighbourhoods, for all their promise and benefit, tend not to be as stable as segregated communities. Over time, diverse communities exhibit a higher tendency to turn into either predominantly white (2%) or predominantly non-white (16%).

Table 3: Racial Transition in Suburban Municipalities: 2000 to 2010

Click to enlarge

This suggests, at least to my eye, that a secondary form of ‘white flight’ is occurring, out of areas with a significant population of PoCs and into segregated communities. The differential rate of population change from Diverse -> non-white vs. Diverse -> white is underscored by the fact that predominantly white communities integrate at a much greater rate (18%) than predominantly non-white ones. All of this is highly suggestive of a phenomenon wherein PoCs are moving into white enclaves and diversifying them. Interestingly, there is very little evidence to suggest that white people are ‘gentrifying’ non-white suburbs – predominantly non-white suburbs “virtually never revert to predominantly white”, even over a 30-year timeline. It should also be noted that once a suburb becomes predominantly white, it tends to stay that way.

The ‘magic number’ for a diverse suburb to become a predominantly non-white one appears to be 23% – once an area is 23% non-white, it is more likely to become resegregated than to remain diverse. There appears to be an upper threshold of ‘tolerable’ diversity for white suburbanites, and it’s pretty low:

Chart 2: Status in 2005-09 of Diverse Neighbourhoods from 1980

Click to enlarge

The question that you’re probably asking yourself is whether this segregation is simply “folks want to live with people who look like them”. The answer to that question will have to be its own post. Spoiler alert: the section headline for the answers could be titled “Things that are likely to enrage you”.

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*Which, incidentally, is why the popular contemporary ‘bootstraps’ myth of the relative wealth of white Americans is a total farce. The government gave metric assloads of “handouts” to white Americans, who have since tried to block any and all attempts to see the same investments made in Americans of colour.

**While I don’t like the term ‘non-white’, I will adopt their nomenclature for the sake of consistency.


  1. Onamission5 says

    “The ‘magic number’ for a diverse suburb to become a predominantly non-white one appears to be 23% – once an area is 23% non-white, it is more likely to become resegregated than to remain diverse. There appears to be an upper threshold of ‘tolerable’ diversity for white suburbanites, and it’s pretty low”

    Is that, do you think, due to white flight or to the reverse–pushing out of non-whites by whites, or a combination of factors? (assuming you are already going to cover that in your Things Likely to Enrage You)

    I was also intrigued by the stats on integrated schools. I wonder if that’s because struggling schools are allotted more funding and resources the larger the student body of whites than if they are PoC, and if the class makeup of the student body plays a factor in resource allottment. I know my kids’ elementary, while afaik has always been racially diverse, used to be a “failing” school, and it wasn’t until about eight years ago when more middle class to upper middle class white families moved in to the area and made a fuss that something was done. Now it’s one of the best elementaries, with still about a 50-50 makeup between white and PoC in the student body. I saw something similar when I was in rural schools. Poor (almost all white, in my case) families complaining = administrative silence, number of upper middle class families increases to complain = action. I wonder how much social class plays a part in addition to race in getting attention paid to problems.

    As a recentish (within the last 6 years)transplant to the US south, who was sheltered from active experience of these dynamics for most of her life, I find that I have barely a 101 level of understanding as to how and why neighborhoods become segregated/unsegregated, but want very much to understand better. I look forward to your next post, should you decide to write it.

  2. says

    You’ll get to see a few reasons why this happens that are taken straight from the report in this afternoon’s post.

    The phenomenon you describe at your child’s school seems to me to be far from atypical. There are a lot of reasons for this phenomenon, some of them cultural. That being said, there has never been a difference detected between the attitude that white parents and parents of colour have when it comes to the importance of education. The relevant difference seems to be at least partially economic – the more free time you have to agitate on behalf your kid, the more likely you are to be able to see change as a result.

    It also has to do with perceptions of efficacy – if you believe that your complaints will be taken seriously (or deserve to be taken seriously), you’re more likely to complain. Conversely, if you think they’re likely to be dismissed, you may simply give up on seeing things improve. Poor folks and folks of colour have a lot of reasons to assume that their needs will be ignored; rich folks and white folks less so.

  3. Onamission5 says

    I have not percieved any difference in the importance placed on education for families of color vs. white families in our district schools. That’s pretty much the same across the board, some families find education important, some don’t, regardless. (although I do have experience with anti-intellectualism amongst rural, poor whites, that’s something for another day) I was thinking more along the lines of, is it that PoC and poor folks complain less or less vehemently because they rightly don’t expect to be taken seriously, or is it that they complain the same amount but *are* taken less seriously, or both? I lean toward “taken less seriously” rather than “complains less” in my assumptions just based on my own experiences but I don’t know for sure if that’s true.

    My lens for understanding is based upon having been a poor, young, single mother for ten years prior to meeting my now spouse. The difference between trying to address a problem for my child in school then, on my own, and addressing one for our kids now as a traditional, average parental aged, hetero looking couple is fucking extraordinary, just in the level of absolute legitimacy any complain is given, rather than blame being turned around onto me, the supposedly incompetent single parent. I can’t even explain how different, and probably don’t have to, given what blog network I’m on. So I think about how much harder someone of color could have to fight to be heard in a similar situation, given the lack of legitimacy attributed to my complaints, and my relative privilege as a white person? Then I hear someone go off on the whole bootstrap meme and get pissed. No, everyone isn’t magically afforded all the same opportunities just because they happen to be born USian. The playing field is not level.

    Thanks, btw, for fixing my fucked up block quote, if that was you! [No problem – C] Technology, not a strong suit.

  4. says

    I wonder if these stats hold in highly left-leaning metropolitan suburbs, such as those around San Francisco or New York. Anecdotally speaking (i.e. take it for what it’s worth), the SF Bay Area where I live seems to be much less segregated than the Dallas-Fort Worth area where I grew up.

  5. Anonymous Atheist says

    I live in an area with a population basically half black, half white. Yet many of the public schools are almost entirely black, because most of the white kids are attending private schools or a select few of the public schools (the ‘good schools’). There’s multiple entrenched feedback loops at work in this. I wish things could become more equitable somehow.

  6. Pen says

    I’d like to add another variant to this. My area (it’s more outer inner city, than suburbia, really) is roughly 40% white/40% South Asian/20% black. But there are very few white children in the schools. It’s not because we use private schools, few people in our neighbourhood could afford that. Rather, there’s a predominance of young white people who came for work and when they start to have families they move to areas with less expensive houses, even if they have to accept a long commute. On the other hand our schools are somewhat self-segregated between Asian and black children with a sprinkling of white kids everywhere and I don’t really know why the segregation.

    PS. I’m a happy resident of a multi-racial area. I think my discomfort zone might kick in around 10% white, but I’m not even sure of that. The way people get along is more important to me than numbers. I like that we have three groups and no majority.

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