In recent weeks, as President Donald Trump has returned time and again to the well-worn campaign playbook of white suburban fears — accusing Joe Biden of wanting to “abolish the suburbs,” promising to block low-income housing from being built, and protecting property values — the whole routine has elicited hand-wringing that Trump has America’s increasingly Democratic suburbs all wrong.
And that’s true, says Thomas Sugrue, director of metropolitan studies at New York University and a historian of race and city-suburb relations, Trump has “misread the reality of today’s suburbs.”
But the thing is, most of the rest of us have, too.
It’s not simply that suburban America is increasingly diverse, nor that a majority of Black Americans live in the suburbs, nor even that a majority of new immigrants settle in suburbs, not cities. Instead, it’s that America’s suburbs are ground zero for a major schism among white suburbanites — one remaking the electoral map before our eyes, and revealing why that old suburban playbook just doesn’t work anymore.
“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,” says Sugrue.
In past decades, that commonality made appeals to suburbanites’ fears about those cities and the people of color they were fleeing a potent political weapon. Now, white stratification within the suburbs is changing that.
“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,” says Sugrue. “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.”
We’re seeing the results of that play out in elections. “Trump supporters are more likely to be clustered in the outlying, more heavily white suburbs, and Democrats are making real inroads into the communities with more heterogeneity and better-off whites,” says Sugrue. “That’s a really big change.”
But there’s a whole lot more to the story. Just because certain suburbs are trending blue doesn’t exactly mean they’re woke to the racial politics that have long plagued suburbia. “White liberal suburbanites have played a critical role in the process of housing segregation and the resistance to low-income housing,” says Sugrue. “We can’t just think about it as torch-bearing angry white supremacists. If they were the only obstacles to equality in suburban housing, we would have come a lot farther than we have.”
To sort through all of this — what we mean when we talk about the “suburbs,” how they’re changing and the implications that has for American life — POLITICO spoke to Sugrue on Tuesday. A transcript of the conversation is below, edited for length and clarity.
Stanton: Recently, President Trump has been particularly vocal in his appeals to white suburbanites, tweeting that he is “happy to inform all of the people living their Suburban Lifestyle Dream that you will no longer be bothered or financially hurt by having low income housing built in your neighborhood.” There’s a lot to unpack there. As someone who has spent decades researching issues of housing, race, cities and suburbs, what’s your reaction when you hear something like that?
Sugrue: Well, there are a lot of different ways to react to the president’s tweet. He’s appealing to the hard-core racial sentiments of his base — in particular, fears of African-Americans, Latinos and low-income residents moving into homogeneous, mostly white suburban communities. But he’s evoking a suburbia from, in many respects, the past. This is not the land of “Leave it to Beaver” anymore. Suburbs are more diverse and heterogeneous. Today, a majority of African Americans live outside of central cities and in suburban places. Suburbs have become gateway communities for new Americans: A majority of new immigrants to the United States live in suburban places.
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.
And I think we’re seeing that play out in elections — both the 2018 midterms and in 2020, where Trump supporters are more likely to be clustered in the outlying, more heavily white suburbs, and Democrats are making real inroads into the communities with more heterogeneity and better-off whites. That’s a really big change.
The “suburban lifestyle dream” is really different depending on who you are. There’s not one single “suburban lifestyle dream.” For immigrants from Guatemala, Mexico and El Salvador, it’s getting access to the plentiful service-sector jobs available in suburban places. For educated, well-to-do whites, it’s having a charming house in an older, walkable neighborhood with first-rate public schools. For middle-class whites alienated by the growing diversity of society, it’s having a place closer to open fields and farms, with brand-new housing stock and racially homogenous public schools. We have to talk about the diversity of “suburban lifestyle dreams,” and see that there’s not just one. And that’s where I think Trump has really misread the reality of today’s suburbs.
Stanton: It seems like there’s some question as to what we even mean when we say “suburbia.” Why do we have such a fixed idea of the suburbs — the “Leave It to Beaver” image — even as they’ve changed drastically?
Sugrue: Well, suburbs occupy a distinct place in American popular culture. The way they were represented in films, novels, memoirs and by a whole generation of social scientists was as a place where well-to-do whites lived separate from each other in houses surrounded by green lawns. And that reflects a reality based in the extraordinary period of growth following the Second World War, when the suburbs expanded exponentially and largely followed a model of single-family detached housing and accessibility by car.
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.
Stanton: At recent telerallies, President Trump has said that under his administration, “you’re not going to have low-income housing built right next to you, which drives down your housing value, and a lot of crime comes in.” What is the history he’s drawing on?
Sugrue: Charles Tilly, one of the great sociologists of our time, coined a term: “opportunity hoarding.” His notion was that certain groups can accumulate all sorts of advantages that reinforce their political power or socioeconomic advantages. The post-WWII American suburb was a place where whites could “opportunity hoard” — particularly by getting access to a well-funded, first-rate public education — and during the 1950s, ’60s and ’70s, civil rights activists made the case that the way to move toward racial equality was by opening up housing opportunities in places that were exclusive. During the late ’60s, the Department of Housing and Urban Development — a Cabinet-level agency created by President Lyndon Johnson — made it its task to build affordable housing in suburban places. Interestingly, it was Republican President Richard Nixon and his HUD Secretary, George Romney, who pushed aggressively to open suburban places to affordable housing. But that was extraordinarily controversial politically, and over the course of his first term, Nixon increasingly marginalized both HUD and Romney because of the high political costs of attempting to open up suburban places. We live in a world that hasn’t changed [that policy] too much since Nixon began to withdraw HUD from the construction of affordable housing in suburbs. The federal government has put less and less energy over the last 40–50 years in diversifying housing stock and opening up predominately suburban places, particularly white and well-off places, to low-income housing. There’s very little political will for it.
And this gets to another critical dimension of suburban history: The federal government played a major role in creating suburbia. It provided subsidies to homeowners through programs like the Veterans Administration, the Federal Housing Administration and its predecessor, the Homeowner’s Loan Corporation, which made possible the dramatic expansion of single-family housing. When you drive through new suburban housing developments, you don’t see a sign that says, you know, “Whispering Forest: Brought to you by the federal government.” The federal role is largely invisible. But the federal government underwrote suburbia by providing significant funding for highway construction. It played a critical role in changing suburban economics by providing tax breaks — particularly in the form of tax appreciation — for new commercial developments in suburban places. It encouraged the decentralization of industry, particularly the defense industry, which was a boon for suburbia in places like Orange County, California; Suffolk County, Long Island; and suburban Phoenix.
The federal government played a critical role in the rise and growth and prosperity of suburbia. But it has not played a significant role in making the advantages of suburbia available to lower-income Americans. And that’s critical: When Trump talks about the federal government “inflicting” low-income housing on communities that don’t want it — not messing with the “suburban lifestyle dream” — he’s invoking the aspirations of federal policy that were seldom actually put into practice.
Stanton: What’s the political effect of the government’s role in the suburbs effectively being invisible?
Sugrue: For a long time, it meant that many white suburbanites who benefited hugely from these invisible programs attributed suburban homeownership simply to their own discipline and hard work. It meant that persistent, deeply entrenched housing segregation and discrimination were explained away as individuals expressing their own preferences, or freedom of choice to live where they want to live. It made it very hard for white Americans to interpret racial segregation or disinvestment from predominantly minority and largely urban neighborhoods as something that was the result of public policy — that it was not the result of individual recklessness or irresponsibility, which is the way that it often got framed. Instead, homeownership equals good citizenship and responsibility. And then, when you see signs of disinvestment and decline and decay, it seems that those must be the result of irresponsibility and recklessness. And that rhetoric remains really deeply entrenched in American politics.
Stanton: Regarding rhetoric, my understanding is that during the Nixon era, there was a realization that politically and legally, you couldn’t really defend racial segregation of housing. But you could defend economic segregation of neighborhoods. So when we talk about “low-income housing,” is that just a shorthand for talking about racial desegregation?
Sugrue: It’s something of both. In modern American history, race and class have been fundamentally intertwined. It’s impossible to understand economic inequality and how it plays out without understanding its racial dimensions. Race became, for many Americans, an easy marker for class, and class often became a way to obscure the racial dynamics at play in shaping housing markets. And along with that goes a rhetoric of colorblindness shared by many white Americans, regardless of their political orientation: “I don’t see people by the color of their skin,” or “I would have anybody be my neighbor — red, white, black, yellow or purple.” I can’t tell you how many times I’ve heard that as a way of professing supposed indifference to race.
Also, one thing that’s important to consider are the ways in which white liberal suburbanites have played a critical role in the process of housing segregation and the resistance to low-income housing. In other words, we can’t just think about it as torch-bearing angry white supremacists. If they were the only obstacles to equality in suburban housing, we would have come a lot farther than we have.
Stanton: Explain that. What have white liberals done?
Sugrue: So, one of area of really important bipartisan convergence is the politics of homeownership — the notion that property values need to be protected and, in particular, the politics of NIMBY, or “not in my backyard.” And there are liberals who profess to be progressive on matters of race — who profess and support the idea of a racially diverse society, who say that they would like their children to go to racially mixed schools — but when it comes to the questions of changing the landscape of their neighborhoods or changing the color of their neighbors or their kids’ school classmates, these folks start to sound a lot like conservatives, even if they’re ostensibly liberals.
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.”
Another tool that especially more-exclusive suburbs regularly use — and NIMBY activists especially — is challenging the environmental impact of affordable housing developments in their communities, and using environmental laws as a way of trying to end-run around the construction of affordable housing. It’s problematic because in general, the suburbs are disastrous environmentally. Single-family detached housing on large lots with lots of roads and parking and dependence on the automobile is problematic in an era of global warming. But environmental impact becomes one tool of those fighting at the town or county level against the construction of affordable housing: “It’s going to have a negative impact on the ecology of a particular place,” even when the whole history of suburbia has been the story of the utter transformation of once-rural ecologies by massive housing and commercial development.
Stanton: One last question: You’ve done a lot of work looking at cities and suburbs in relation to civil unrest in the ’60s. Both Donald Trump and Joe Biden are white men in their 70s who grew up on the East Coast — Trump in Jamaica Estates in Queens, Biden in Wilmington, Delaware. What were the sort of formative events of race and social unrest in those cities that they would have experienced while coming of age?
Sugrue: As far as being white men of a particular generation, they came of age in a moment of extraordinary racial conflict in the United States.
For Trump, it was the intense racial conflict of New York in the 1960s, ’70s and ’80s, when relations between African Americans and whites was one of the wellsprings of the culture wars. You had Italians and Irish folks living in the outer boroughs in Queens and Brooklyn, resisting the integration of their neighborhoods, resisting the integration of their schools, and battling fiercely against affirmative action. That indelibly shapes his understanding of these issues. When he’s young and taking over the family business, Trump is embroiled in a civil rights lawsuit by the DOJ alleging discrimination against African Americans in apartment complexes the Trump family managed in New York’s outer boroughs. So Trump very much comes of age at a moment when all these issues are simmering. Of course, he also comes of age at a moment when “law and order” politics is central.
Biden is shaped by the politics of the 1960s and ’70s. And as Kamala Harris reminded us in a pointed debate exchange last year, he was shaped first by the politics of school desegregation. Delaware had a far-reaching plan that brought together city and suburb in school desegregation efforts. And Biden ran and made his name in the 1970s as a vocal critic of what he saw as “forced” integration. And, of course, the “law and order” politics that shaped Trump shaped Biden in a different way, leading to the criminal justice legislation of the of the 1990s and the Democratic Party’s attempt to take control over an issue that had been firmly on Republican turf since Nixon.
Both candidates are very much products of the intense racial conflicts in the post-1960s era.