What Daunte Wright’s Killing Foretells for the Suburbs

A memorial for Daunte Wright.
Marcus DiPaola / NurPhoto / Getty

The death of Daunte Wright, a Black motorist killed by police in the Minneapolis suburb of Brooklyn Center, Minnesota, is a window into the future of civil-rights conflict in America. That Black Lives Matter was launched after a police shooting in a similar community outside St. Louis—Ferguson, Missouri—is not a coincidence. Both Brooklyn Center and Ferguson are small, older suburbs. Both have become racially and economically segregated, and much poorer, over time. Both are perfectly tailored to produce inequality, discrimination, and, ultimately, conflict between their citizens and the institutions shaping those citizens’ lives—institutions that include local government and police.

Metropolitan regions across the country are producing hundreds of suburbs where similar problems prevail. The Fergusonization of parts of suburbia threatens the well-being of those communities’ residents and damages the fabric of American society.

In some respects, segregation is even more harmful in the suburbs than in major cities, which typically have a larger industrial and commercial tax base that allows them to weather crises and sustain public services. On average, predominantly nonwhite suburbs have the lowest per capita tax base of any community type in a major metropolitan area—about 25 percent less than major cities, and about 40 percent less than predominantly white suburbs. In many segregated suburbs, the quality of public services erodes over time. Some of these communities, including Ferguson, resort to raising revenue through fees and traffic tickets, inevitably leading to many more encounters between residents and police.

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U.S. Census Bureau data indicate that Brooklyn Center is the most rapidly segregating community in Minnesota. In 1990, the city was 90 percent white; its poverty rate was low, at 5 percent. Three decades later, the city is 38 percent white and its poverty rate has tripled, to 15 percent. It is now the poorest major suburb in the Twin Cities region, and it has a higher percentage of residents of color than any other major municipality in the area. Ferguson underwent nearly identical changes in the years before a police officer shot Michael Brown to death in 2014; the city transitioned from 85 percent white in 1980 to 29 percent white in 2010. Over the same period, its poverty rate almost quadrupled.

Social-science researchers describe this process as resegregation: Communities that start out as almost exclusively white go through a brief and unstable period of racial integration, and before long, an overwhelming majority of residents are people of color. These demographic shifts are the product of housing discrimination against people of color—especially Black and Latino people—and of de facto school segregation and white flight. They are not at all unusual in American metropolitan regions, and isolate millions of families of color in economically troubled cities.

Like many resegregating suburbs, Brooklyn Center was once a hub of opportunity, where middle- and working-class residents lived side by side. These places have proved attractive to economically successful families of color seeking better schools and an escape from the discrimination and disinvestment that are endemic in segregated central-city neighborhoods. Black Americans especially are migrating to the suburbs in record numbers. Just since 2000, the urban Black population in major metropolitan areas has fallen by about 5 percent, while the suburban Black population has grown by more than 40 percent, according to my calculations.

In wealthy new suburbs and exurbs, where McMansions line endless cul-de-sacs, housing that working-class families of color can afford is scarce. Inner-ring suburbs typically have an older housing stock, including small postwar houses, more rental units, and cheap high-density housing. Families migrating from the central cities of a metro area tend to cluster in these more affordable communities; so do immigrants. (Brooklyn Center has the highest share of foreign-born residents in the Twin Cities area.) Other, more nefarious forces also funnel nonwhite families toward the inner suburbs—such as the practice of discriminatory racial “steering,” wherein real-estate agents are more likely to show families of color homes in already-diverse neighborhoods. As a result, the demographics of many older suburbs are shifting fast.

Changes typically come even faster to these places’ schools, because in these communities, families of color are more likely to have children than white households are. The Brooklyn Center school district has transitioned from being 77 percent white in 1990 to less than 20 percent white today. The white share of Ferguson school enrollment fell from 58 to 17 percent in the two decades preceding the killing of Michael Brown. In 2012, 78 percent of Ferguson’s student body came from low-income families; similarly, 73 percent of Brooklyn Center students do today. School changes have a major impact on city demographics, because many affluent residents with children will leave if they feel that the percentage of minority students and poor students is too high.

Suburbs usually remain vibrant and thriving as they become more racially integrated. But eventually a tipping point is reached, and the corrosive effects of racial isolation and segregation begin to be felt. When this happens, middle-class residents—mostly white, but not entirely—begin to leave in large numbers. Since 2000, Brooklyn Center has lost 42 percent of its white population; Ferguson has lost 49 percent. Economic opportunity has vanished too. Adjusted for inflation, the median income in Brooklyn Center has fallen by about $9,000 since 2000, and the city has lost a sixth of its middle- and upper-income residents. In Ferguson, median incomes have dropped by nearly $15,000 during the same period.

The suburbs that these dynamics leave behind replicate many of the same conditions that existed in segregated center-city neighborhoods in the 20th century. As in those enclaves, certain aspects of the relationship between residents and the powerful institutions with which they interact—police, elected officials, school systems, landlords, employers—appear colonial in nature. At the time of Brown’s killing, Ferguson’s mayor and almost all of its city council were white. Many police forces in resegregated suburbs are staffed with a large number of nonresidents, who also may be disproportionately white. Even private economic arrangements in segregated places can be extractive in nature. Before the 2008 financial crisis, Brooklyn Center was the largest suburban hub of subprime lending in the Twin Cities area. Tragically, the residents of resegregated suburbs face the same obstacles that many had attempted to escape by leaving major cities: struggling schools, unemployment, poverty, and police violence.

The Fergusonization of suburbs is a nationwide problem, uniting many far-flung communities whose residents and leaders may not even realize they have anything in common. Census data show that in 2010, more than 20 percent of the suburban population in major American metros lived in a predominantly nonwhite suburb reminiscent of Brooklyn Center or Ferguson, and that share has grown every year since. Because the forces causing resegregation are larger than any one municipality, individual suburbs are unable to solve this problem by acting alone. But solutions do exist.

Resegregation can be slowed by ensuring that affordable housing is available in all communities, not clustered in older suburbs. If schools are stably integrated and given the support they need to thrive, families are less likely to leave their current neighborhood in search of better education. Economic aid can be directed to already-resegregated communities, ameliorating the decline of services and schools.  

Such measures are best implemented at a regional scale, usually by state or federal government. Ideally, metropolitan governing structures would be created to administer regional policies. This isn’t sufficient in and of itself; the Minneapolis–St. Paul region has a more robust regional government than most metro areas, and it has badly shirked its role in preventing resegregation. Yet individual suburban municipalities elsewhere in the country are even more alone, forced to compete with neighboring cities when what they really need is help protecting their residents’ civil rights and their own future.

These left-behind communities—the country’s Fergusons and Brooklyn Centers—do not vanish or dissolve. People still live in them. Their suffering is real, and the injustices their residents face become a flash point for conflict, violence, and protest that spans the nation.