American Dream or Apartheid? Race and Wealth in US Suburbs

Whilst property ownership remains central to the “American Dream”, suburban segregation by race and wealth presents US policymakers with a serious problem

Since the 1950s, a hallmark of American life has been the presence of the suburbs. Rows of nearly identical houses, white picket fences, smiling families and perhaps even a dog or two comprise the image of suburbia and have become part of the “American dream.” Yet while a manicured lawn, large home, and open air seem at first to be harmless and even a valuable part of living in the United States, the reality is that we must more closely examine what the prioritization of the suburbs has done for the economic condition of many American citizens.

In their book American Apartheid, Douglass Massey and Nancy Denton analyze the pervasive segregation lingering in American suburbs. Massey and Denton find that African Americans have experienced high, sustained levels of segregation in the suburbs over the past 50 years that cannot be explained by socioeconomic circumstances alone. This has led to communities segregated by race throughout American suburbs. Many of the African American suburbs are poorer and have worse living conditions than those of their white counterparts, and it is extremely difficult for African Americans to move into predominantly white communities due to lingering, institutionalized racism throughout the home buying process.

The discussion of homeownership and suburban segregation is important today because of the importance of a house in the United States. Houses are the primary asset of many American families, and as the wealth gap widens, as shown in a recent Pew Research Center report, the consequences are magnified. Minorities were disproportionately affected by foreclosure in the Great Recession, and the wealth gap has widened even further in the last decade. Suburban segregation means a negative impact on family wealth for many minority families.

Family wealth affects more than just economic security. Wealth, not income, is a predictor of health outcomes and educational attainment among other social factors, as detailed by Camille Zubrinsky Charles in her study The Dynamics of Racial Residential Segregation. Thus, housing continues to perpetuate a cycle of inequality that has been the norm in the United States for over three centuries.

Policy-makers must seek to address both the prioritization of homeownership as a primary mode of wealth accumulation and continue to work on enforcing strict anti-discriminatory policies in the housing process. Tax incentives are heavily weighted towards those who buy homes, instead of those who rent, and these incentives may need to be changed so that those unable to purchase a home in the neighborhood of their choice are not unfairly punished for that decision. The government must continue to practice oversight of private industry in areas such as real estate, construction, and in government itself through zoning code to ensure that lingering discriminatory views have no impact.

Lastly, as gentrification continues to occur, suburbs may become havens for the less well-off. Gentrification can benefit cities by providing a larger tax base, residents who previously could not buy homes in the suburbs may be forced out of the city center into areas where transportation to jobs is less accessible. As the suburbs are abandoned by some of the most wealthy, policymakers must examine who is left out by the geographic shift.

There is no easy way to determine housing policy. Suburban housing is rife with issues and remains an imperfect part of the “American dream” to this day. We must consider the implications of housing segregation and how changing trends in geographic distribution affect the most marginalized in society.

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Grace Feenstra

US Blog Editor for OxPolicy. I got involved with OxPolicy during my time abroad, where I was a student at New College. Back in the United States, I’m currently finishing my last year at Washington University in St Louis, double majoring in economics and urban studies.

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