Census data from 1980, shortly after court-ordered desegregation crested, show the city-suburban racial divide. In major metros, a large majority of white residents—more than three-fourths—lived in a suburban community. The average suburban neighborhood was 85 percent white. Meanwhile, more than half of nonwhite residents, and three-fifths of black residents, lived in a central city. In short, even after the civil-rights movement and court-ordered busing, the borders of major cities still served as racial borders. Venture outside the city line, and in most parts of the country, one would almost inevitably enter a vast patchwork of overwhelmingly white communities.
Historians of desegregation like Matthew Lassiter and Kevin Kruse have suggested that the fundamental conflict between exclusionary white suburbs and diverse cities helped define the whole course of American politics after the 1960s. Even half a century later, politicians and pundits see suburban borders as a firewall against racial integration. Many believe that any plan or policy that crosses the firewall risks once again mobilizing the silent majority lurking in the white hinterland. The perceived risk climbs higher when compulsory measures are invoked. Many school-diversity proposals circa 2019 are geographically siloed: Cities are welcome to improve their schools, and suburbs should not ignore questions of racial equality, but only a political naïf would try to integrate one into the other. And heaven help those who would bus a child across the boundary line.
But there’s a problem: While the trauma of the 1970s and ’80s seems to have locked these ideas in the national memory, the country itself has not stopped changing. The America of today is diversifying at a rate that’s often overlooked. And as that happens, suburbia’s uniform whiteness is disappearing. The suburban firewall isn’t just endangered—in a huge number of places, it has already fallen.
Look at the 50 largest American metros. By my analysis of U.S. Census Bureau data, in 1980, more than half the population of those regions lived in neighborhoods greater than 90 percent white. Today? That lopsided pattern is only preserved in a single large metro: Pittsburgh, America’s whitest major city. Overall, less than one-tenth of the national metropolitan population lives in a neighborhood that’s greater than 90 percent white.
Or consider that in 1980, white Americans in a major metro were more than 10 times as likely to live in a virtually all-white neighborhood than a “majority-minority” neighborhood. Today white residents are more likely to live in a majority-minority area—two and a half times more likely, in fact.
Read: School segregation is not a myth
The scale of these national changes is too great to leave suburbs unaffected. As a consequence, white suburbanites are exposed to more racial diversity than ever before, a process that compounds annually. In 1980, a majority of white suburban residents lived in areas greater than 95 percent white, according to my analysis of the Census data. Only about one in six lived in a neighborhood where people of color made up at least 20 percent of the population. Fast-forward to today, and the numbers flip: Fewer than one in 10 white suburban residents lives in a neighborhood greater than 95 percent white, while more than half can be found somewhere that’s more than 20 percent nonwhite. Suburbs are now home to most black Americans and Hispanic Americans.