I grew up in a suburb of Rochester, New York that was known as the “nicest” town in the area. Families would move to Pittsford first and foremost for the high-performing public schools: both of the town’s high schools rank in the top 300 nationwide, out of more than 17,000. But once there, folks would also fall in love with the greenery, small-town feel, and charming historical downtown. Living a short drive from the flagship Wegmans grocery store didn’t hurt either.
Does your local grocery store span multiple buildings? Source: Google Maps
Growing up, this seemed pretty normal to me. My parents worked hard and went to college, and we got to live a comfortable life where my job as a kid was to get good grades in school. What I didn’t spend much time thinking about, as a white kid in a wealthy suburb, was race.
I don’t quite remember whether I ever said “I don’t see color,” but race was rarely talked about in a direct way. Even today, Pittsford remains 86% non-Hispanic or Latinx white and just 3.5% of residents are Black or Latinx. Drive less than 15 minutes to reach the City of Rochester, and the area’s racial segregation is stark: 40% of residents there are Black and 18% are Latinx.
Talking about race without talking about race
Everyone in Pittsford was aware of these demographic differences, of course. Adults just found other ways to talk about them. For instance, it was common to ascribe the stellar quality of the suburb’s schools to things like the high degree of parental involvement and the ability to attract great teachers, and when the depressing results in the Rochester City School District came up, folks would say things like, “Parents there just don’t put as high a priority on education.”
With the perspective of adulthood and having worked in education for nearly a decade, I now know this was horseshit. Pittsford schools got great student results primarily because most Pittsford parents were rich. According to Census data, Pittsford’s median household income of $117,000 is more than three times that of the City of Rochester’s $35,000. 75% of adults in Pittsford have college degrees vs. just 26% in Rochester.
Source: Statistical Atlas by Cedar Lake Ventures and the US Census. (Map shows slightly older median income numbers from 2016.)
A tale of two districts
Not surprisingly, student outcomes reflect these disparities in household characteristics. 97% of students in Pittsford graduate from high school vs. only 59% of students in Rochester. And these differences are visible far earlier in one’s educational career as well. On the crucial metric of 3rd grade reading proficiency -- the point at which students transition from “learning to read” to “reading to learn” -- just 18% of Rochester 3rd graders scored as proficient on their English Language Arts state exam, compared to 85% of Pittsford 3rd graders. And in Rochester, 45% of 3rd graders scored at the lowest level of proficiency, while just 4% of their Pittsford peers did.
Interestingly, unlike in a lot of regions, you can’t actually blame differences in per-pupil funding for these differences in outcomes. According to a very comprehensive investigation into school district funding by NPR in 2016, the Rochester City School District actually spends more per student ($26,392) than Pittsford does ($20,780).
So in short, for the sake of maximizing educational attainment and all the life outcomes that correlate with it (income as an adult, health outcomes, life expectancy, etc.), you would much rather be a student in Pittsford than in Rochester.
I can personally attest that the academic environment in Pittsford is highly conducive to success: being around high-achieving students has all sorts of beneficial effects, honors and AP classes are plentiful, expectations of going to college are universal, and teacher positions are highly sought after, since they pay well and, frankly, teaching honors classes can be a lot less frustrating than dealing with a student body suffering from the trauma of poverty. This environment personally got me into Yale and plenty of my classmates into top-notch universities, and Pittsford schools virtually guaranteed that their graduates would lead economically comfortable lives.
There are plenty of high-income Black families that could afford to live in your rich, white suburb
Like in many high-performing public school districts around the country, the price of admission to Pittsford’s public schools is high: the ability to rent or buy a home within the attendance catchment area. According to Zillow, the median-priced home in Pittsford is worth $296,000, and using their site’s Affordability Calculator, you need an annual income of about $68,000 to afford that kind of home. (Higher if you account for Pittsford’s unusually high property tax rates.)
Despite this, there are still literally thousands of Black families living in the same county who could afford to buy a home in Pittsford. According to the most recent American Community Survey, 6,300 Black households in the county made $75,000 per year or more. In fact, 1,900 of those households made $125,000 per year or more, which would put them ABOVE the median income in Pittsford.
Yet, there are only about 108 Black households in the entire town, approximately 1% of the population. In fact, if you are a white family in Monroe County making $75,000 or more, you are four to five times more likely to live in Pittsford than a Black family with the same income. Four to five times more likely to take advantage of some of the best public schools in the nation. Four to five times more likely to live within easy commuting distance of jobs in downtown Rochester AND suburban office parks. Four to five times more likely to be surrounded by an abundance of educational and professional opportunity.
If you look at the demographics of the suburb where you live, target reader, I’d wager the data tells a similar story: Even when accounting for differences in incomes across race and the high “cost of admission” of buying a home in your area, your suburb is disproportionately white.
This is on purpose.
(Note: There are thousands of suburbs in the US that are disproportionately Black, Hispanic/Latinx, or Asian. This Vox article discusses some of those population dynamics, and we’ll probably talk about them here at some point. However, most of my writing, including this piece, will intentionally focus on the wealthiest, highest-opportunity suburbs in America, and those are almost all disproportionately white.)
Why the “nicest” suburbs are so white
There are many, many reasons why the highest-opportunity places in America are so disproportionately white, ranging from the lack of public and private investment in communities of color, to the racial profiling of Black and Brown residents, to the racist ways municipal and school district boundaries are drawn. But one of the most pernicious is how our federal government used housing policy in the first half of the 20th century to intentionally entrench racial segregation across the country, and the effects of this are directly visible in our suburbs today.
For a very long time in the US, homeownership has been encouraged by state and federal governments as a means of building wealth. The ability to deduct mortgage interest on your taxes, for instance, strongly incentivizes families to buy a home, and our culture has adapted to make owning a home as important a marker of adulthood as getting married and having children.
In my own life, there is no doubt that my parents owning their own home enabled us to stay in one school district for my entire K-12 education, and the financial stability it provided helped them save up to send my sister and me to college. And the fact that both sets of my grandparents owned their homes undoubtedly made it easier for my parents to eventually buy one themselves. But for many Black families, these opportunities to build intergenerational wealth were discouraged or denied through intentional government policymaking.
Many writers have covered this ground in extraordinary depth (see Ta-Nehisi Coates’s The Case for Reparations or Richard Rothstein’s book “The Color of Law”), but the gist is that the National Housing Act of 1934 created the Federal Housing Administration as part of the New Deal. In turn, the government-sponsored Home Owners' Loan Corporation (HOLC) set out on a national project to create “residential security maps” of 239 cities to identify which neighborhoods were desirable for mortgage lending purposes. “Type A” neighborhoods were marked in green and typically represented affluent suburbs outside of cities, while “Type C” and “Type D” neighborhoods were marked in yellow and red and were considered declining or blighted. Designating these neighborhoods as undesirable is known as “redlining.”
Here is a map of the Rochester, New York area produced by the HOLC. My hometown of Pittsford is just off the map on the bottom right, but it almost certainly would have been marked blue or green if this particular map had extended that far:
Source: The University of Richmond’s Mapping Inequality project. HOLC map from 1935.
Unsurprisingly, the presence of people of color was frequently cited as a reason to redline a neighborhood, and once designated this way, home loans in the private sector were generally more difficult to acquire. On the occasions they were approved, they frequently offered worse financing terms than homes in similarly situated white neighborhoods.
At the same time, the Federal Housing Administration published manuals for mortgage appraisers on how to qualify for federal insurance for their loans, and these manuals recommended banks avoid areas with “inharmonious racial groups” (aka racially integrated neighborhoods). They even went so far as to recommend municipalities pass laws prohibiting “the occupancy of properties except by the race for which they are intended.” Thousands of these “racial covenants” ended up on property deeds in the Rochester area, including in Pittsford:
The effect of these racist governmental policies was to encourage white families to purchase homes in all-white neighborhoods and discourage people of color from owning homes anywhere nearby. Compound this with many decades of discrimination in employment, education, and many other facets of life, and the results are still visible today. In the Greater Rochester Area, for instance, Black and Latinx families own homes at less than half the rate of white families:
Rochester is but one example. These practices were implemented in virtually every corner of the United States. I strongly encourage you to check out the Mapping Inequality project at the University of Richmond and look at the maps for your region. Odds are the richest suburbs with the best schools today were colored blue or green 80 years ago, and the areas marked yellow or red are still considered economically depressed. The world you live in today was intentionally built this way.
Redlining’s successors still exist
Of course, the practice of redlining was banned by the Fair Housing Act of 1968, which also prohibits anyone involved in real estate transactions from discriminating on the basis of race or national origin. But much of the damage was already done: Black families were deprived of the opportunity to build durable, intergenerational wealth, and the opportunities afforded to their children today are diminished on average compared to white children.
We have not undone this damage. Though a high-opportunity suburb like my hometown of Pittsford is now looking at ways to formally remove now-unenforceable racial covenants from property deeds, little else has changed to make sure a wider variety of people can live there. For instance, if you look at Pittsford’s current zoning map, essentially every scrap of residential land is zoned for the single most expensive housing type: detached single-family homes.
All the yellow is zoned for “RN” -- Residential Neighborhood aka detached single-family homes. (Because condos, townhomes, and apartments aren’t “residential”?)
As discussed above, these homes typically cost about $300,000 and require incomes well above the county’s median income to afford. If, for instance, you work as a cashier at the Wegmans flagship grocery store in Pittsford and marry one of your fellow cashiers, your salaries together wouldn’t be enough to buy a median-priced home in Pittsford. If you do manage to find something in your price range (like this 917 square foot home for $154,000), chances are it’s small and not well maintained, and you may very well decide this 65% larger home in the City of Rochester is a better fit for your family. And thus, the cycle of economic and racial segregation continues.
There are low-cost, high-benefit solutions to these problems. For instance, it would do a lot for equity in Pittsford to rezone the large commercial area where the Wegmans flagship store is located (the red triangle shape in the zoning map above) to allow for mixed-use development and simultaneously incentivize the creation of affordable housing there. The hypothetical two-cashier family might actually really like living in a new construction condo within walking distance of their jobs and that allowed them to send their kids to Pittsford schools. And for existing Pittsford residents, creating a walkable, vibrant, mixed-use area would be a huge improvement over what exists there currently:
Source: Google Maps. Across the street from Wegmans. Have fun walking to that Marshall’s on the horizon.
As far as I can tell, there are no plans to improve this crucial part of town -- beyond the opening of a Cheesecake Factory in 2007, of course.
So why don’t more Black families move to Pittsford?
Despite Pittsford’s static development pattern, 6,300 Black households in the wider county technically make enough money to afford a median-priced $300,000 Pittsford home, and 1,900 Black households have high enough incomes to place them in the top half of Pittsford households. If my hometown is so wonderful and provides so much opportunity, why don’t more of these families move there?
Investigating why the wealthiest American suburbs remain racially segregated beyond what economics alone would predict is going to be a long-term project of this substack, but in Pittsford’s specific case, consider its decade-by-decade population growth:
By 1970, Pittsford was about the size it was in the mid-1980s when my family moved there. In 1970, using race to explicitly discriminate against homebuyers had only been illegal for 2 years. And I’m sure it took longer than that for the typical real estate agent to break their prior habits of directing buyers to the neighborhoods where they’d be the most “comfortable,” if those habits were ever truly broken.
Indeed, across the country in the 1960s and 1970s, many suburbs were deemed “built out” and either explicitly downzoned or otherwise found ways to prevent adding more residents. So the demographic patterns of the redlining era were essentially baked in. And in the decades since, how many Black families would want to deal with the discomfort of being one of the only non-white families in the neighborhood and everything that comes with that? See this news story from 2019 on allegations that Black students were repeatedly being called the n-word in Pittsford schools, as just one example of the racist harassment they face.
Some Black families have made this choice despite the discomfort, obviously, but no doubt such decisions were much more difficult for them than for a white family making the exact same amount of money. The courage this demands is grossly underestimated.
Making suburbs anti-racist
The suburban environment many white Americans live in is built on the implicit and explicit racism of our parents, grandparents, and great-grandparents and the open bigotry that guided local, state, and federal policy during their lives. Even though you would be hard-pressed to find a portion of your town’s municipal code that expressly references race today, a huge portion of suburban policymaking aims to preserve “community character” and “quality of life” -- aspirations whose bias towards the status quo end up reinforcing this long history of racial and economic segregation. If we are to have any hope of building a more equitable society, we need to break the stasis that defines most American suburbs and confront head-on the racist behavior that persists today.
This goes far beyond issuing a local resolution proclaiming that Black Lives Matter or asking that your police department adopt the 8 Can’t Wait use-of-force reforms. We need to break down the barriers that make our suburbs so exclusive, as well as invest in and empower the communities of color in our regions. None of this is easy or uncontroversial, but it is essential work if we are truly serious about righting the centuries of oppression our country has inflicted upon our Black fellow citizens. Merely stopping further harm is nowhere near enough.
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P.S. This substack is a new project for me, and I’m VERY interested in your feedback. Did this piece hit the mark for you, or did it cover familiar ground that was already incredibly obvious? Did I reveal any of my own blindspots on race and how we should talk about it? Was it too long, too short, just the right length? Anything else? Leave a comment here or reach out over email -- firstname.lastname@example.org -- or Twitter -- @mldunham. And please subscribe if you’d like to be notified of my next piece. Thank you!
P.P.S. If you are interested in reproducing the household income by race analysis for your county and are handy in R (or are technical enough to follow some instructions after downloading RStudio), you can check out my code here.