It's Time for Suburbs to Talk About Race

They face a growing list of challenges as they diversify.

Ranch-style homes in black and white.
There’s been endless discussion on the impact of new residents in core cities, but we’re not talking enough about what’s happening in the suburbs and whether those peripheral areas are ready for the accelerating changes taking place there. Growing numbers of African-Americans, Latinos and Asians are finding new homes on the metro periphery -- contributing to the diversification of American suburbia but also to its difficult problems. 

South Cook County, immediately south of Chicago, is an area with nearly a half million residents, comparable in size to the city of Atlanta. It has long been an affordable bedroom destination for people who worked in factories on Chicago’s South Side, or later at factories that relocated to the suburbs. 

Racial change in south Cook County began in earnest in the 1980s. In 1970, 89 percent of its residents were white and 7 percent black. By 1990, blacks made up 30 percent of residents; by 2010, 54 percent. Today, 26 out of south Cook’s 36 municipalities are majority black. The area has become one of the nation’s largest concentrations of black suburbanites. Meanwhile, south Cook’s much smaller Latino population has begun a recent uptick. 

South Cook has seen more of the downsides of contemporary suburbia than the benefits. Its residents were impacted heavily by manufacturing job loss, and the area was especially vulnerable to the run-up of subprime mortgages that helped cause the Great Recession. As a result, incomes and property values have stagnated. In 2017, the city of Chicago surpassed suburban south Cook overall in median household income for the first time since 1980. Median home values in south Cook remain about half as much as for the metro area. 

Other factors contributed to south Cook’s present status. As a cluster of bedroom communities, the area developed few of the village centers that thrive elsewhere in suburbia today. South Cook is also surrounded by low property tax jurisdictions -- Will County, Ill., to the south and west, and Lake County, Ind., to the east -- and this has put considerable pressure on businesses to leave. It also appears that south Cook has inherited many of the old segregation patterns of Chicago’s South Side. 

If you think south Cook is a special case, think again. Analogs in the Washington, D.C., area (Prince George’s County, Md.), Atlanta (DeKalb County, Ga.) and St. Louis (north St. Louis County, Mo.) immediately come to mind. All have become or are becoming havens for poorer residents and for immigrants newly arrived in the United States. These areas often escape the view of those examining metro area trends. But they are dealing with seemingly intractable issues and require policy strategies that speak to their needs. 

One such approach is a reimagining of the physical environment. Many suburban regions like south Cook have been wedded to the model of single-family homes dependent on highway access. But today’s successful suburbs are prospering in part by offering a wider range of housing options. 

Another is sharing services with other jurisdictions, or possibly consolidating special districts overseeing things like firefighting and, in some places, school systems. Yesterday’s suburbs were rarely burdened with increasing costs because they enjoyed continued growth. As growth has slowed, costs have increased, straining budgets. Today’s suburban municipalities will have to find ways to increase efficiency. 

Finally, they must make racial equity a priority. Cities have a considerable head start in addressing the race gap, even if they haven’t always been successful in working to close it. Today’s diversifying suburbs must make themselves comfortable with the language of current discussions of racial justice. 

Increasing diversity may be the development that bridges the longtime gap between city and suburb. Let’s take advantage of the transformations.

A writer and researcher on urbanism and public policy