Suburban Diversity Aids Economy, Social Ills

For a rapidly diversifying America, a hidden success story is unfolding in places like Oak Park, Ill., the suburbs of Portland, Ore., and Wake County, N.C.

These are among the growing number of suburban communities defined by high levels of racial diversity. In an eye-opening paper released this week, Myron Orfield and Thomas Luce of the University of Minnesota Law School's Institute on Metropolitan Opportunity calculate that in just the 50 largest metropolitan areas, nearly 53 million Americans live in suburbs that qualify as racially diverse, with populations between 20 percent and 60 percent nonwhite. That's nearly one-third of all metropolitan residents.

These diverse suburbs, they argue, offer America's "great hope" to expand opportunity in education and employment, and to minimize the risk of cultural collisions as minorities (who now represent nearly 40 percent of the population) become the nation's majority sometime after 2040. But this opportunity is fragile, because the record shows that many of the diverse suburbs fall into a downward spiral of white flight that ends with segregation, economic decline, and racial isolation just as profound as in inner cities.

This analysis explodes our traditional cultural image of suburbia as the playground of affluent whites, which was fixed around the time Don and Betty Draper bickered over martinis in Westchester, N.Y. In fact, the authors conclude, upscale, preponderantly white suburbs now house less than one-fifth of the total metropolitan population. Less affluent but still predominantly white exurbs on the metropolitan fringe and segregated, mostly minority suburbs each house about one in 10 metropolitan residents. Just under three in 10 live in center cities, some heavily segregated. In these major metros, the biggest group of residents — 31 percent — live in these integrated suburbs, some 1,359 in all.

These diverse suburbs are politically inclusive (they split 50-50 between President Obama and John McCain in 2008) and economically competitive (with housing values and income levels that trail only the upscale white suburbs). Research has shown that these integrated communities are more likely than segregated places to produce broadly shared opportunity — an achievement that will become even more critical as minorities grow into a majority. "Most of the good things that are happening to nonwhite people are happening in these suburban areas," Orfield says. "Nonwhite kids in racially integrated schools [and communities] do better in test scores, are way more likely to graduate and go to college, and are more comfortable living and working with whites." Meanwhile, he adds, studies show that "whites who grow up in these places are much more comfortable living with nonwhites."

The propulsive growth of the minority population is swelling the number and size of these diverse suburbs; just from 2000 to 2010, their population increased by 31 percent. But that overall growth masks another, more troubling trend: the large number of once-diverse suburbs losing their white population and tipping back into racial segregation.

In perhaps their most important finding, Orfield and Luce calculate that fully 56 percent of the neighborhoods (measured at the level of census tracts) that qualified as diverse in 1980 had become predominantly nonwhite by 2009. Neighborhoods that were diverse in 1990 and 2000 are sliding into segregation at a comparable pace, Orfield says. And once neighborhoods cross the line from diverse to preponderantly minority, they almost never return: 93 percent of the tracts that were mostly nonwhite in 1980 remained that way 25 years later, the study found.

This process of decline burdens once-thriving communities with enormous social and economic costs, from crime and reduced graduation rates to blighted housing. For that reason alone, Orfield argues, local and national leaders ought to focus on preserving these diverse suburbs. But communities facing resegregation typically "have no idea" how to reverse the process — or any real support in doing so, the authors conclude.

Places that have remained diverse, not surprisingly, generally are more affluent and physically attractive. But more important, Orfield says, they consciously defend diversity. Oak Park, just west of Chicago, has maintained racial balance through a diligent program to avoid racial steering in housing (led by a pioneering nonprofit called the Oak Park Regional Housing Center) and a strong commitment to ensuring equal distribution of city resources across all neighborhoods. "We are an intentionally diverse community," says Rob Breymaier, the center's executive director. In Wake County, the key to maintaining diversity has been a region-wide school-integration program. In Portland, the fulcrum has been a rigorous zoning strategy that ensures affordable housing in all neighborhoods. "That creates more complete communities," says the University of Oregon's Robert Liberty. "It eliminates some of the strong forces that create slums, barrios, and ghettos."

Orfield puts at the top of his own list tougher enforcement of fair-housing laws to discourage racial steering. No single strategy ensures success in preserving racial balance. But the need to maintain communities where Americans of all backgrounds can live, learn, and advance together will only increase as unstinting demographic change threatens to widen the divide between the shrinking white majority and the Next America that's rising beside it.