the suburbs

Trump’s Racism Won’t Win the Suburbs. But It May Diversify Them.

Diversify this. Photo: John Keating/Newsday via Getty Images

The United States is full of lily-white, deep-blue suburbs with lawn signs that shout Black Lives Matter — and zoning laws that whisper, But preserving “neighborhood character” matters more.

For decades now, college-educated white suburbanites have been drifting leftward. And the white professional class’s realignment has only accelerated during Donald Trump’s time in the national spotlight. In recent polls, Joe Biden’s margin over the president among college-educated white voters is nearly twice as high as Hillary Clinton’s was four years ago. And as the New York Times illustrates, Trump’s (already low) support among suburban-dwelling Americans of all colors has dwindled since 2016.

Graphic: New York Times

Meanwhile, college-educated whites who were already in the Democratic coalition have drifted toward its left flank, especially on issues of race. The rise of the Black Lives Matter movement — and then, the election of Donald Trump — alerted white Democrats to the resilience of racial inequity in the U.S. Today, white liberals’ views on the roots of Black disadvantage are more left-wing than Black Americans’ views on the subject.

Graphic: Vox
Graphic: Vox

When the conversation turns from abstract national questions to concrete local ones, however, white liberals are often more keen to acknowledge their privileges than to forfeit them. A 2018 survey experiment from Stanford University found that liberal homeowners tend to oppose increasing development in their communities, even when informed that such development progressively redistributes resources and opportunity to the disadvantaged. In some instances, this information about the distributional implications of increasing density actually reduced liberal homeowners’ support for more housing.

This experimental finding is buttressed by the actual housing policies of blue cities and suburbs throughout the United States. The affinity of many affluent Democrats for exclusionary zoning does not mean that their avowed liberalism is wholly fraudulent. Many NIMBY liberals enthusiastically support politicians who raise their taxes to fund social spending on the poor. But when asked to sacrifice more immediate and visceral privileges to their ideological commitments — by, say, supporting redistricting efforts that would force their kids to share classrooms with children from markedly lower socioeconomic backgrounds, or tolerating low-income housing developments that could theoretically impair the value of their homes (in the eyes of other racist, classist white people) — many an affluent white progressive discovers his inner Archie Bunker. Or else, such liberals delude themselves into believing that resisting new housing construction is some kind of populist stand against greedy real-estate developers, and/or that preserving single-family zoning will somehow aid the environment.

All of which is to say: Donald Trump’s recent vow to protect “all of the people living their Suburban Lifestyle Dream” from being “bothered or financially hurt by having low income housing built in your neighborhood” wasn’t devoid of political logic. When the president rolled back an Obama-administration effort to encourage fair housing practices, he put his finger on the soft spot in suburbia’s creeping liberalism.

Alas, if Trump has an intuitive grasp of white suburbia’s id, he has no feel for its superego. Making it impossible for poor people to move to your town — and thus, lay a claim on your local tax dollars, or the time and attention of your kid’s public school teachers — clearly has some appeal to left-leaning suburbanites. But being confronted with the fact that this is what they are doing when they oppose new construction — let alone, that by doing so they are effectively entrenching racial segregation — has no appeal to this voting bloc. NIMBY liberals want racially exclusionary zoning policies wrapped up in rhetoric about historical preservation, not Trump’s garish branding.

In fact, by ripping off liberal NIMBYism’s Jane Jacobs mask — and revealing that it was actually Old Man Racism all along — Trump likely did more to advance the cause of neighborhood desegregation than that of his own reelection. A variety of euphemisms — and the fact that zoning laws are a form of government regulation — have helped liberal NIMBYs reconcile their political identities with their reactionary housing politics. Trump has now made that task more difficult. Meanwhile, among liberal homeowners who’d previously lacked strong views about local housing debates, Trump’s intervention could be a catalyst for pro-inclusive-zoning voting behavior and civic engagement. The president has already demonstrated a gift for mobilizing Democrats against regressive policies they’d previously abided (or even supported). There are large and important distinctions between the Obama and Trump administrations’ immigration policies. But there’s no question that the unabashed racism of the latter’s rhetoric on border security made white liberals less tolerant of mass deportation — and more supportive of Central American migrants’ asylum rights — than they had been under Trump’s predecessor. Similarly, by associating opposition to immigration and trade with xenophobic nationalism, Trump has brought the American public’s support for both those pillars of “globalism” to new heights.

Of course, as already noted, affluent white liberals are more apt to put ideology above privilege on national issues than on those that hit closer to home. But even before Trump’s intervention into the NIMBY debate, the movement for inclusive zoning was already gathering momentum, scoring a major victory in Minneapolis and narrowly losing a fight for reform in that mecca of regressive housing policy known locally as “California.” The president’s remarks are unlikely to change the hearts of the minority of suburban liberals who attend zoning meetings to actively oppose affordable housing developments. But they could serve to nudge more passive supporters of discriminatory housing policy toward a “come to density” moment.