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Diverse suburban neighborhoods now outnumber those in their central cities by more than two to one. Can we help guarantee their success?

Despite the stereotypes, suburban communities are now at the cutting edge of racial, ethnic and even political change in America. Racially integrated suburbs are growing faster than their white counterparts. Diverse suburban neighborhoods now outnumber those in their central cities by more than two to one. Fully 44 percent of suburban residents in the 50 largest U.S. metropolitan areas live in racially integrated communities, places between 20 and 60 percent non-white.

Integrated suburbs represent some of the nation’s greatest hopes and its gravest challenges. The rapidly growing diversity of the United States, which is reflected in the rapid changes seen in suburban communities, suggests a degree of declining racial bias and at least the partial success of fair housing laws. Yet the fragile demographic stability in these newly integrated suburbs – as well as the rise of poor virtually non-white suburbs – presents serious challenges for local, state and federal governments. Data indicates that policy makers could pay a political price for failing to connect with "swing" voters in these integrated suburban communities: Integrated suburbs are the only places that have nearly equal enrollment in the major political parties.

By mid-century, the increasingly metropolitan nation that is the United States will have no racial majority. Last year a majority of the children born in the United States and nearly half of students in public schools were non-white. Almost 60 percent of U.S population lives in the 50 largest regions, 80 percent in its metropolitan areas. At the same time, a growing number of central city blacks and Latinos experience apartheid levels of segregation and civic dysfunction. In comparison, despite challenges, integrated suburbs are gaining in population and prosperity. Given these trends, ensuring successful racially integrated communities represent the best policy path for the nation’s educational, economic and political success.

Stably integrated suburbs are places where whites and non-whites can grow up, study, work, and govern together effectively. Integrated communities have the greatest success eliminating racial disparities in education and economic opportunity. While non-whites in integrated communities have seen improvements in these areas, non-white residents of segregated urban communities are further behind than ever. In integrated communities, whites and non-whites have the most positive perceptions of one another. These communities are much more likely to be politically balanced and functional places that provide high quality government services at affordable tax rates than high-poverty, segregated areas. In environmental terms, they are denser, more walkable, more energy-efficient and otherwise more sustainable than outer suburbs, and benefit from their proximity both to central cities and outer suburban destinations.

These communities also reflect America’s political diversity. On average, they are evenly split between Democrats and Republicans, and are often the political battlegrounds that determine elections. They are more likely than other suburbs to switch parties from one election to another and, as a result, often decide the balance of state legislatures and Congress as well as the outcomes of gubernatorial and presidential elections.

Yet, while integrated suburbs represent great hope, they face serious challenges to their prosperity and stability. In America, integrated communities have a hard time staying integrated for extended periods. Neighborhoods that were more than 23 percent non-white in 1980 were more likely to become predominately non-white (more than 60 percent non-white) during the next 25 years than to remain integrated. Illegal discrimination — in the form of steering by real estate agents, mortgage lending and insurance discrimination, subsidized housing placement, and racial gerrymandering of school attendance boundaries — is causing rapid racial change and economic decline.

By 2010, 17 percent of suburbanites lived in predominantly non-white suburbs, communities that were once integrated but are now more troubled than their central cities, with fewer prospects for renewal. Tipping or resegregation (moving from a once all-white or stably integrated neighborhood to an all non-white neighborhood), while common, is not inevitable. Stable integration is possible. However, it does not happen by accident. It is the product of clear race-conscious strategies, hard work, and political collaboration among local governments.

Critical to stabilizing these suburbs are the following strategies:

  • Creation of local stable integration plans with fair housing ordinances, incentives for pro-integrative home loans, cooperative efforts with local school districts, and financial support of pro-integrative community-based organizations.
  • Greater enforcement of existing civil rights laws including the Fair Housing Act, especially the sections related to racial steering, mortgage lending discrimination and location of publicly subsidized affordable housing.
  • Adoption of regional strategies to limit exclusionary zoning and require affluent suburbs to accommodate their fair share of affordable housing.
  • Adoption of metropolitan-scale strategies to promote more integrated schools.

If racially diverse suburbs can become politically organized and exercise the power of their numbers, they can ensure both the stability of their communities and the future opportunity and prosperity of a multi-racial metropolitan America.

This commentary is based a new report issued by the Institute on Metropolitan Opportunity. Accompanying the report is an extensive website with maps and data for the 50 largest metropolitan areas in the United States. Here's a look at the data from Chicago:


Top image: Kenneth Sponsler /Shutterstock

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