Two Visions of the Suburbs Are on the Ballot. Both Are MythsBreaking News
tags: racism, segregation, Joe Biden, Donald Trump, suburban history, Fair Housing
To understand the suburbs as imagined by Donald Trump and Joe Biden, you first have to understand that neither of them is really talking about the suburbs. They are talking about segregation. “Suburbs are by and large integrated,” Biden claimed at the first presidential debate in Ohio. He was responding to Trump’s warning that the “suburbs would be gone” under a Biden presidency, crushed under the weight of “problems like you’ve never seen before.” Trump’s evocation of suburban decline has become a theme of his reelection campaign. As his job-approval ratings have fallen and Biden maintains a healthy lead over him in national polls, the president has found himself grasping for proof that the foundational pitch of his presidency still has merit — that he’s the only candidate who can guarantee safety for white Americans.
Twenty-two million jobs lost and more than 220,000 Americans dead show that he’s not a credible steward of public safety. But he remains a credible racist, and his vow to preserve white housing exclusivity rings truer than most he has made. Suburbia has become shorthand for this commitment. “Sleepy Joe Biden has pledged to abolish Suburban Communites [sic] as they currently exist by reinstating Obama’s radical AFFH Regulation,” Trump tweeted on September 8. “There goes Suburbia!” Two days later, he added, “If I don’t win, America’s Suburbs will be overrun with Low Income Projects.”
Trump’s suburban idyll is the kind of single-family-zoned neighborhood that was the prototypical white-flight sanctuary half a century ago in metro areas like Atlanta, a site of recent condemnation and entreatment for the president. But these suburbs, once reliably conservative strongholds, are changing their complexion. They are why Georgia looks like contested political ground, a red state trending purple, where both the 2020 U.S. Senate race between GOP incumbent David Perdue and Democratic challenger Jon Ossoff and the presidential race between Biden and Trump are polling toss-ups. Understanding what has changed in the past half-century, and what hasn’t, gives us a clearer idea of what to expect after the final vote is cast in November.
In the 1960s, Atlanta saw a tenuous peace unravel between wealthy white moderates, white business elites, and Black leaders who had long run the city, which had conditioned a lack of racial strife on piecemeal desegregation. The city seemed outwardly like a model of interracial cooperation. Internally, houses in white neighborhoods were being bombed by residents to prevent Black people from moving in. A flamboyant segregationist named Lester Maddox, who famously brandished a pistol to keep would-be Black diners away from his Atlanta restaurant, won the majority of the white vote in a 1961 mayoral bid and then won Georgia’s gubernatorial election in 1966. A new generation of activists protested for more rapid desegregation of the city’s downtown business district. White residents viewed these changes partly as a surrender by city hall. They fled Atlanta in droves.
The suburbs to which many fled were white for a long time and had politics to match. A decades-long boom beginning in the 1960s concentrated most of the metro area’s economic and population growth in suburban counties, often to the north of the city, attracting well-off white people even as Atlanta proper grew Blacker and more unequal. Several such communities — suburbs in Clayton, Cobb, and Gwinnett counties — spent the 1970s blocking projects that would have let city dwellers share the spoils, like interregional public transportation. The region boomed, and politicians blared dog whistles. “Suburbanites have invested their lives in their houses, and they don’t want to see them ruined,” said Ben Blackburn, who represented Georgia’s Fourth Congressional District until 1975, railing against “the welfare mother with her numerous kids” coming out from the city. The 1968 presidential campaign of Richard Nixon was premised on a defense of such enclaves against integration. His victory attested to the issue’s national salience.
But things began to change in Atlanta as more Black people migrated south from northern and midwestern metropoles and settled outside the city. Henry County was 81 percent white in 1980; by 2015, it was down to 47.3 percent, and its Black population share quintupled between 2000 and 2010 alone. Newt Gingrich’s old congressional seat is now held by a Democrat for the first time since 1979. By 2010, 87 percent of the Atlanta metro area’s Black residents lived in the suburbs.
The result still doesn’t square with Biden’s notion that the suburbs are integrated. On the contrary: Rather than see them desegregate at a pace that matches their diversification, many whites are “exurbanizing” — decamping from inner-ring suburbs close to Atlanta proper that are getting Blacker, browner, and more Asian for farther-flung neighborhoods and more exclusive schools. Recent polling affirms that residents of Atlanta’s outer suburbs are still firmly in Trump’s camp, as are a majority of college-educated whites, who are breaking Democratic more consistently with time.
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