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.”