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Defending the Integrated Suburb

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eye on the news

Defending the Integrated Suburb

Joe Biden wants to argue both sides of the question. September 30, 2020
Politics and law
The Social Order

Among Donald Trump’s many alleged race-related sins is his defense of “the suburbs” from low-income housing. Liberals call this a “dog whistle,” an appeal to racist suburban whites with a warning that minorities will invade their all-white neighborhoods. But the fact that Trump’s view is not racist was acknowledged in last night’s presidential debate by none other than Joe Biden, when the former vice president spoke of changes in the demographic composition of suburbia since the 1950s.

Trump has made the suburbs a campaign issue, thanks to his rollback of the Affirmatively Furthering Fair Housing Act (AFFH), promulgated by the Obama administration. That rule linked federal community-development grants to zoning changes aimed at engineering greater racial integration, specifically in the form of housing for low-income families. Trump has implied that such housing would threaten suburbs, and that he is “protecting our suburbs.” In announcing his executive order, he said, “the suburb destruction will end with us.” In a speech in Midland, Texas, he elaborated: “There will be no more low-income housing forced into the suburbs . . . It’s been going on for years. I’ve seen conflict for years. It’s been hell for suburbia.”

Liberals have reacted as if ending this rule would bring back Jim Crow. “Our President is now a proud, vocal segregationist,” Senator Chris Murphy of Connecticut announced. But Biden, despite calling Trump’s action and rhetoric racist, nevertheless admitted that suburbs don’t need low-income housing in order to be racially mixed. “Suburbs are by and large integrated,” said Biden. “There’s many people today driving their kids to soccer practice and black and white and Hispanic in the same car as there have been any time in the past.”

He’s right. As Harvard’s Edward Glaeser and the University of Washington’s Jacob Vigdor have written, “All-white neighborhoods are effectively extinct.” Even many affluent suburban neighborhoods are racially integrated. In Shaker Heights, Ohio, where median income is $83,000, 35 percent of the population is black. In Oak Park, Illinois, with a median income of $93,000, 18 percent of the population is black. Both have long been stably integrated.

Indeed, stable racial integration and happily mixed neighborhoods are achieved through similar household income levels, not by social engineering. As Herbert Gans observed in his classic 1961 book, The Levittowners, “experience with residential integration in many communities, including Levittown, indicates that it can be achieved without problems when the two races are similar in socioeconomic level and in the visible cultural aspects of class.” African-American suburbanites are no more enthusiastic about low-income housing than are their white neighbors. Housing and Urban Development Secretary Ben Carson, who is black, oversaw the rollback of the AFFH rule, and he opposed the rule in his own 2016 presidential campaign.

Trump has made this point clearly. In announcing the AFFH rollback, he explained, “our suburbs are diverse and thriving communities where the majority of African Americans, Hispanic Americans, and Asian Americans now live. . . . You know the suburbs, people fight all of their lives to get into the suburbs and have a beautiful home.”

That’s consistent with what Biden himself said in the Cleveland debate. It’s not, however, consistent with Biden’s canard that systemic racism dominates American society. In response to a question about race and the criminal-justice system, he said, “there’s systemic injustice in this country, in education and work and in law enforcement.” Yet somehow, white, black, and Hispanic soccer moms are already car-pooling together in integrated suburbs. How did that happen?

Photo by Chip Somodevilla/Getty Images

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