Left-Behind Suburbs Are a Civil-Rights Battleground

Suburbs usually stay alive and thrive when they become more racially integrated. But at some point a turning point will be reached and the corrosive effects of racial isolation and segregation are being felt. When this happens, middle-class residents – mostly white, but not entirely – begin to leave in large numbers. Since 2000, the Brooklyn Center has lost 42 percent of its white population. Ferguson has lost 49 percent. The economic opportunities have also disappeared. Adjusted for inflation, the median income in Brooklyn Center has declined about $ 9,000 since 2000, and the city has lost one-sixth of its middle- and upper-income population. In Ferguson, median wages have fallen by nearly $ 15,000 over the same period.

The suburbs that this dynamic leaves behind repeat many of the conditions that existed in separate neighborhoods in the 20th century. As in these enclaves, certain aspects of the relationship between residents and the powerful institutions with which they interact – police, elected officials, school systems, landlords, employers – appear to be colonial in nature. At the time of Brown’s murder, Ferguson’s mayor and almost all of the councilors were white. Many police forces in resegregated suburbs are staffed with large numbers of non-residents who may also be disproportionately white. Even private sector agreements in separate locations can be extractive in nature. Prior to the 2008 financial crisis, the Brooklyn Center was the largest sub-prime lending suburb in the Twin Cities region. Tragically, residents of resegregated suburbs face the same obstacles that many have tried to escape by leaving large cities: struggling schools, unemployment, poverty and police violence.

The fergusonization of suburbs is a nationwide problem that unites many distant communities whose residents and leaders may not even realize they have something in common. Census data shows that in 2010 more than 20 percent of the suburban population in large American cities lived in a predominantly non-white suburb resembling Brooklyn Center or Ferguson, and that proportion has grown every year since then. Since the forces that cause resegregation are greater than any municipality, individual suburbs cannot solve this problem on their own. But there are solutions.

Resegregation can be slowed down by ensuring that affordable housing is available in all communities, not in older suburbs. When schools are stably integrated and given the support they need to thrive, families are less likely to leave their current neighborhoods to find better education. Economic aid can be directed to already separated communities, which improves the decline in services and schools.

Such measures are best implemented at the regional level, usually by the federal or state government. Ideally, government structures would be created for large cities to manage regional policy. This in and of itself is not sufficient; Minneapolis-St. The Paul area has more robust regional government than most metropolitan areas and has evaded its role in preventing resegregation. However, individual suburban communities in other parts of the country are still alone and forced to compete with neighboring cities if they really need to help protect their residents’ civil rights and their own futures.

These lagging communities – the country’s Fergusons and Brooklyn centers – are not disappearing or disintegrating. People still live in them. Their suffering is real and the injustices that their residents face become a focal point for conflict, violence and protests across the nation.

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Will Stancil is a research fellow at the University of Minnesota Law School.

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