The Real Suburbs: Unpacking Distortions and Truths about America’s SuburbsRoundup
tags: Donald Trump, suburban history
Becky Nicolaides received her PhD in History from Columbia University in 1993. She is a historical scholar, writer, and consultant. She serves as co-editor for the “Historical Studies of Urban America” series published by University of Chicago Press and is the co-coordinator of the LA History and Metro Studies group at the Huntington Library. She is a CSW Research Affiliate and received a Tillie Olsen Research Grant from CSW in 2020.
In recent weeks, suburbia has become the latest political football in our polarized political universe. In a Rose Garden address in mid-July, President Trump accused Democratic presidential candidate Joe Biden of seeking to “abolish the suburbs”— referring to Biden’s support of policies to ensure more racially diverse, affordable housing in suburban areas.[i] And on August 12, 2020, Trump tweeted: “The ‘suburban housewife’ will be voting for me. They want safety & are thrilled that I ended the long running program where low income housing would invade their neighborhood. Biden would reinstall it, in a bigger form, with Corey Booker in charge!”
In Trump’s mind, the Democrats would destroy America’s idealized suburbs—a pillar of white Americanism, a racially pure space worthy of protection.
While this may be an attempt to woo the all-important female suburban vote, a task that looms large in the upcoming election, Trump missed the mark in a few ways: one, the suburbs have already become quite diverse, and two, the suburbs are not as politically straight-forward as he might imagine. Trump might want to turn the clock back to 1950s “Ozzie and Harriet” America, when overt racist practices kept the suburbs lily white nationwide. But it’s 2020 and times have changed; Ozzie-and-Harriet suburbia is a whisper of the past.[ii] The suburbs are hardly a monolith, and many suburban women look nothing like June Cleaver these days.
If the Trump administration did its homework, they would understand that the suburbs house a wide cross-section of America itself—including those who belong to groups the President repeatedly derides. Does his administration, then, really want to “save the suburbs” for the 51 percent of immigrants who live in suburbs? Or the Latinx, Black, and Asian American families, or families living in poverty who have moved into suburban neighborhoods over the past decades? The numbers tell a powerful story. From 1970 to 2010, the proportion of all suburbanites in the US who were Black, Latinx and Asian American rose from just under 10 percent to 35 percent. In Los Angeles, the vanguard of suburban change, those numbers jumped from 26 percent to 70 percent.
In my research on the history of suburbia in Los Angeles since 1945, I’ve encountered rich stories about these places—some familiar, others unexpected. In some cases, suburbia changed radically through these demographic transformations. In others, old ways of life and political cultures persisted. Unpacking these histories shows how important it is to fully understand the context and nuances of a place and its history before proposing policies that rely on presumed demographics and biases.
My research on Los Angeles shows that suburban change happened most dramatically in the realms of demography and class. For example, by 2000, the “vanilla suburb” had essentially dissolved; virtually every suburban town had some ethno-racial diversity. Even more profoundly, by 2010, people of color outnumbered whites as homeowners in LA’s suburbs for the first time in the history of the metropolitan area. Given how deeply race and property ownership intertwined, this racial crossover carries deep significance. We know that for generations before 1970, suburbia was synonymous with white advantage. For much of their history, the suburbs made white racial exclusivity a vital part of their appeal. Suburbia came to represent a wage of whiteness that conferred numerous advantages through property ownership, superior schools, safe neighborhoods and preferential tax breaks, passed down from one generation to the next. So when a majority of suburban homeowners in an entire major metro emerged as non-white—for the first time ever—something big was shaking out.
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