The Suburbs Should Be Less Racist

Yes, including yours.

If you’re a white American, chances are you live in a suburb, or at least grew up in one. If you’re a person of color, odds are about 50/50 you’ve had this experience.

Social scientists have their own technical definitions of what constitutes a suburb, but I think a practical definition is pretty simple: If you need a car to conveniently live your daily life, you probably live in a suburb. And if you live in a suburb, a couple of other things are also probably true:

  • Most people who live near you look like you and have similar household incomes to you.

  • The look and feel of your physical surroundings aren’t radically different than they would’ve been a few decades ago.

Homogeneity and resistance to change are hallmarks of suburban life in the United States. And that’s what we need to talk about.

The murder of George Floyd has sparked perhaps the largest awakening on racial issues among white Americans since 1965, when photographs of Black civil rights leader Amelia Boynton were transmitted around the world after she was beaten unconscious by Alabama state troopers in the first Selma to Montgomery march.

Amelia Boynton, in bright blue, marking the 50th anniversary of Bloody Sunday in 2015, alongside President Obama and Rep. John Lewis. Source: The White House - P030715LJ-0549, Public Domain

Today, most non-Black Americans have finally become aware that the subsequent federal civil rights legislation and addition of Martin Luther King’s “I Have a Dream” speech to school curricula did not, in fact, adequately address hundreds of years of oppression of Black Americans.

But if you’re white and live in a suburb, it might feel like the action on anti-racism is primarily somewhere else. There probably aren’t that many Black neighbors in your community -- the population of my city, Burlingame, California, is 1.5% Black -- so beyond tweaking your local police department’s use-of-force policies, the nearest vector of change may feel like your state legislature or Congress.

Fortunately, that isn’t true. The structures guiding how most Americans live, including how your suburb operates, reinforce the same racial inequities that Amelia Boynton was protesting when she put her body on the line in Selma, Alabama more than five decades ago. For folks who care about righting these wrongs, especially white people in the ‘burbs, we need to tackle these problems right here in our own backyards.

This is why I gave this substack/newsletter/blog the aspirational name The Suburbs Should Be Less Racist. I’m a white person who grew up in a suburb (Pittsford, New York: 1.1% Black) and as an adult, have lived in a big city (Manhattan: 17.8% Black), a suburban-ish part of a big city (the westside of Los Angeles: 4.4% Black), and now a suburb again. Shit needs to change here.

People who live in suburbs and believe Black Lives Matter need to be the ones demanding change, because once you start looking into it, you will be astonished by the retrograde attitudes of the people who show up at your local city council meetings and who serve on your city’s public commissions and elected bodies. Aside from some new phrases subbing in for the explicitly racist language of the past, many of them sound exactly like you’d expect their 1960s predecessors to sound, and the decisions they make lead to similar outcomes. This system is not going to become more inclusive and less racist on its own. It needs us.

I’m planning to write here about exactly how suburbs like the one you live in perpetuate racial and economic inequality; how they hoard opportunities for the richest among us and deny them to the people who need them the most; and how the small percentage of Black neighbors you have was an entirely intentional outcome of decades of city and regional planning. 

Assuming you are convinced of the problem, we’ll also talk about the things that you, suburban resident who gives a shit, can do to make things better right where you live. Because I promise you, the grumpy asshole who lives the next block over and thinks Black Lives Matter protests are “the wrong way to approach the problem” is making his voice heard. Let’s fight back.