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Opinion | The Suburbs Are Poorer and More Diverse Than We Realize

This signal is meant to activate, in particular, white folks who remain in the suburbs. We know that now, in the nation’s largest metropolitan areas, the majority of Black residents live in the suburbs. Now the majority of immigrants live in the suburbs. Now the majority of Latinx and Asian Americans live there. But most news media, when they say “suburban,” they mean “white.”

So we have to be specific about whom we’re talking about. And if we continue to think of the suburbs as only white, we never ask suburban Black mothers or suburban Asian mothers what they actually think about these politics. Unfortunately, we have been trained to say, “If white women are thinking about this as an issue, this is the voice of the suburbs.” And frankly, it’s not. Because we see time and time again, as you actually speak to these residents, a lot of folks in the suburbs who are of color immediately saw through the hubbub about critical race theory as dog whistling.

But it also raises the question of what coalition politics are going to look like. So many folks have assumed, because the suburbs are becoming more Black, more brown, more poor, that they’re just going to vote straight-line Democrat. And I think when we look, we actually see that there are moments in which the Republican Party has made significant inroads in terms of mobilizing suburban voters of color. It varies significantly by racial and ethnic group. Black folks remain solidly Democratic in the suburbs.

Latinx folks, it depends a lot on the geography. Asian American folks, again, it depends a lot on the geography and the ethnicity at hand. So for us to think about critical race theory and the suburbs, we have to think about how the suburbs came to be. We have to think about how this is a signal and not assume that as we have an increasing share of people of color and poor folks in the suburbs, that they’re necessarily going to vote Democratic.

In your work, you talk to parents in the suburbs. What do you think is driving some of these shifts toward the right in suburban communities of color? What are people telling you?

Part of the work is understanding that people who have had a chance to opt for the suburbs — meaning they had the means and they chose — they are often trying to curate a particular kind of life. So when you talk about social policies that expand the safety net, when you talk about policies that put race at the center of discussion, this is, in some cases, a misunderstanding of the reality in the suburbs. Many suburban residents of color have tried to assimilate and buy into a notion that we don’t have to talk about race. Many residents, across race, have said one of the reasons they left the city was because of the safety net — the safety net was a burden that took more taxes away from them.

There are now more poor people in suburbs than in central cities, which means these problems have cropped back up for these same suburban residents. They have to reckon with the thing that they tried to escape.

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