the system

Two Visions of the Suburbs Are on the Ballot. Both Are Myths.

Photo: Greg Stimac/Document, Chicago

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.

American cities in general are less segregated than they were in 1970, including Atlanta, but segregation between municipalities has held relatively steady. The results are damning. Roughly 60 percent of Greater Atlanta residents in 2010 would’ve had to move in order to achieve neighborhoods whose level of integration reflected the region’s demographics — just 8 percent fewer than in 1990, 20 years before. This is exacerbated by modern trends like “cityhood.” Since 2005, seven new cities have been formed in the Atlanta metro area, all between 65 and 82 percent white, as their residents sought to pull resources and prime real estate from Blacker and more socioeconomically diverse municipalities. The pressure to follow suit has reverberated outward. Wealthier property owners, including some Black ones, are drawn increasingly to form their own privileged enclaves to avoid being left behind with the less advantaged when others do the same.

The regional architecture of segregation, built up over the course of more than 100 years, has permitted other white enclaves to maintain their exclusivity through local zoning ordinances that prevent density and affordable housing. “It is no longer necessary to invoke race to achieve racial segregation,” writes Jessica Trounstine in her book Segregation by Design.

At the heart of these patterns is an understanding of segregation as a means of resource accumulation and protection. Trump knows this well — and so does Biden. Biden was elected to the U.S. Senate in 1972 and promptly cast two votes preserving the practice of mandatory busing to integrate schools. It would mark the end of an era. White suburban constituents in Delaware lambasted him into changing his tune, and he soon became his party’s premier busing opponent in the Senate, promoting nearly a dozen pieces of legislation that limited its scope between 1975 and 1982.

The old Biden shined through in his frequent arguments that fair housing was a more effective solution to segregated schools. Trump, for his part, made sure it didn’t happen. The scion of his father Fred’s real-estate empire based in New York, he was named president of the firm in 1971 at age 25. It was a testament to the notoriety of his family — and the scale of their offenses — that the Justice Department sued them for violating the Fair Housing Act in 1973. Years of evidence was gathered by “testers,” undercover agents deployed by housing-rights organizations to document racist practices. One Trump super alleged that he’d been instructed by management to attach an extra sheet of paper to applications from Black applicants and mark it with the letter C to indicate “colored.” Another staffer told DOJ investigators that Fred Trump and other managers would use the number nine to indicate an application from a Black renter. The results were evident in the racial makeup of Trump-owned housing across Brooklyn and Queens. “[Only] one percent of tenants at the Trump-run Ocean Terrace Apartments were black, and that there were no black tenants at Lincoln Shore Apartments [on Ocean Parkway in Brooklyn],” reports the Washington Post. “However, minorities were steered to a different complex on Flatbush Avenue in Brooklyn, Patio Gardens, which was 40 percent black.” The Trump Organization settled in 1975 without having to admit wrongdoing. Both sides declared this outcome a victory.

But Black homeowners and renters continue to lose. Segregation persists across metro areas from Atlanta to Delaware to New York, decimating Black wealth and thwarting access to resources like jobs and high-quality schools. The borders of Black neighborhoods have determined where urban-renewal projects could raze homes without risking political fallout. One consequence of segregation is that few others benefit from improved services in Black neighborhoods, making it hard to form multiracial coalitions. They’ve shown police where harassment and brutality would appear to observers as normal, even necessary and desirable. They’ve shown polluters where to pollute. They’ve also been predictive. “Over 70 percent of African Americans who live in today’s poorest, most racially segregated neighborhoods are from the same families that lived in the ghettos of the 1970s,” writes sociologist Patrick Sharkey in his book Stuck in Place.

Should Trump lose, there will be an impulse to interpret the election as a rebuke of his campaign’s themes, a refutation not just of him but of his beliefs — including his gambit to make the election a referendum on desegregation. It should be restrained. Demagoguing desegregation for him is as reflexive as breathing, a time-tested way to capitalize on the bonds between whiteness and wealth. He has been doing it since before he even considered the presidency, when he was fresh out of the Wharton School following in his father’s footsteps. But it won’t disappear with him. The fate of his presidency is not a referendum on its primacy. Segregation is already working where it was always intended to: in the lives of everyday people. Its durability transcends whatever Trump’s electoral fate might appear to suggest about it.

*This article appears in the October 26, 2020, issue of New York Magazine. Subscribe Now!

Two Visions of the Suburbs Are on the Ballot; Both Are Myths