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The Suburbs: Not Just for White People Anymore

The new racial dynamics of the American dream, in three eye-opening graphics

George Marks/Getty Images

The classic image of an American metropolis was that of a polyglot city surrounded by mostly white suburbs—the “chocolate city/vanilla suburbs” of the 1950s and 1960s, when white-dominated suburbanization left largely black minority populations stranded in many of the nation’s largest cities. That paradigm has almost entirely broken down. The rise of new minority populations, the sharp slowdown of white population growth, and the economic gains and increased residential freedom of new generations of blacks are rapidly changing the classic image of the suburban American dream. Together these trends paint a picture markedly different from the one etched in the minds of pollsters, political consultants, and the public at large.

As recently as 1980, less than one-half of metropolitan minorities resided in the suburbs. Only beginning in 1990 did more than half of metropolitan Asians become suburban residents, while Hispanics did not reach that tipping point until 2000. Moreover, it was not until 2010 that more than half of metropolitan blacks became suburban residents. An important milestone was passed when that year’s census became the first to show a majority of each of the nation’s largest racial minority groups residing in the suburbs. And those communities will only become more diverse in the years to come: Each of the major minority groups—Hispanics, Asians, and blacks—now contributes more than whites to suburban gains.

On the national level, white population loss is projected to occur in about a decade. While white population losses in cities are not new, what is new and likely to be a long-term trend is the slowdown in white population gains in the suburbs. From 2000 to 2010, whites contributed only 9 percent to total suburban population growth, with nearly one-third of large metropolitan areas experiencing absolute declines in their white suburban populations. As the white population ages and the childbearing population increasingly consists of minorities, the traditional attraction to the suburbs will be felt more by the latter groups. In addition, a “new white flight” has directed whites away from the cities and the suburbs of many large metropolitan areas in both coastal areas and interior metropolitan areas, especially in the Heartland.

The suburbs of all 100 metropolitan areas experienced Hispanic population gains in 2000–10. But the fastest Hispanic growth rates, all more than 150 percent, are found in the suburbs of the New Sun Belt cities of Nashville, Charlotte, Raleigh, and Provo as well as the Heartland cities of Indianapolis and Scranton, Pennsylvania. Asians also contributed to city and suburban population gains in each of the 100 largest metropolitan areas, and made substantial contributions to suburban gains in Los Angeles, New York, San Francisco, and Washington, DC. These new minorities and their later generations are poised to become the backbone of future suburban growth in ways that will transform the nation.

Another factor driving the diversification of the suburbs is the emergence of “black flight” from major cities with established black populations. Black population losses have been occurring in some cities since the 1970s, but the magnitude and pervasiveness of black losses in cities during the first decade of the 2000s were unprecedented. The central cities of the 100 largest metropolitan areas saw a total decline of 300,000 blacks, the first absolute population decrease among blacks for these cities as a group. The black presence, which has been the mainstay of many urban populations, is diminishing (in fact it is now Hispanics, not blacks, who constitute the largest minority group in cities).

Three of the cities with the largest black declines–Detroit, Chicago, and New York–were among the primary destinations for blacks during the Great Migration, but the losses were not confined to northern metropolises: Southern and western cities such as Atlanta, Dallas, and Los Angeles were also among those losing blacks. Much of that population is shifting to the suburbs, moves that can be attributed in part to the black population’s economic progress in recent decades, especially among younger people aspiring to the suburban lifestyle that eluded their parents and grandparents. On the whole, 96 of the largest 100 metropolitan areas showed gains in their suburban black populations. Of those, more than three-quarters had larger increases in the past decade than in the 1990s. While delayed for decades, the full-scale suburbanization of blacks is finally under way.

A growing number of suburban areas are achieving what might be termed “melting pot” status. In 36 of the 100 largest metropolitan areas, minorities represent at least 35 percent of the suburban population, approximately the same as their share of the national population. Sixteen of those same areas have majority-minority populations, up from just eight in 2000. Hispanics are the predominant racial minority in most of these suburban areas, an edge that they already held by 1990 and continue to hold today despite the increasing share of blacks in the suburbs. In 25 of these highly diverse suburbs, Hispanics represent the largest minority group. Blacks are the largest group in nine suburban areas and Asians in two.

The first decade of the twenty-first century has set the table for a very different city-suburban racial dynamic, one that stands in stark contrast to what existed in the past. Hispanics, Asians, blacks and other groups are becoming primary engines of growth in the nation’s suburbs in an era when the aging white population will be barely holding its own. As demographic forces continue to diversify those communities, leaders and policy makers at all levels will be challenged to understand and keep pace with rising demand for the services needed by new populations, particularly those of different economic circumstances and cultural and linguistic backgrounds. Increasing suburban diversity may cause suburbs to become more “purple” than their traditional red in local and national elections, making them unreliable bases for either Republicans or Democrats, who have depended on demographically homogeneous voting blocs.

There will be other hurdles to overcome. While Hispanics, Asians and blacks are now main players in suburbanization, they do not yet have a substantial presence in the outer suburbs and show some clustering in same-race communities, in many cases as a result of quasi-legal exclusionary practices.

But for the first time, more of the minority population in the nation’s largest metropolitan areas lives in the suburbs than in the city. That is surely an important marker on the road toward a more inclusive American mainstream.

Reprinted with permission from Diversity Explosion: How New Racial Demographics are Remaking America by William H. Frey (Brookings Press, 2014).