Promising News from the Post-Civil Rights Suburbs

The passage of the 1968 Fair Housing Act promised greater suburban housing opportunities for people of color in the U.S. Yet, progress has been slow. Over half of African Americans, Latinos, and Asians live in the suburbs, but the typical middle-income African American household still lives in a neighborhood with a higher poverty rate than the typical low-income White household.

There is concern that the Great Recession widened these gaps, since minorities were more likely to have risky loans and undergo foreclosure.

A problem with existing research on the outcomes of the Fair Housing Act is that it reports conditions experienced by people of color across places that matured prior to and after the legislation. It is reasonable to expect that gains in racial equity will occur slowly in older central cities and suburbs, where there is an engrained history of who lives where based on race. The places that should exhibit greater racial equity are the post-Civil Rights suburbs—places that matured after the passage of the 1960s Civil Rights legislation.

To test this theory, I examined how the neighborhood conditions of similar income households by race differed among central cities, older suburbs, and post-Civil Rights suburbs in 88 regions nationwide in 2000 and 2012. I defined post-Civil Rights suburbs as places that 1) had 75 percent or more of their housing built in 1970 or after and 2) were located within commuting distance of one large city but were not the largest cities in their regions. Central cities were the largest city in the region, and older suburbs were all remaining places after subtracting the central city and post-Civil Rights suburbs. I collected data on neighborhood indicators associated with a host of social, economic, health, environmental and other conditions: the percent of families in poverty, the percent of adults with college degrees, and the homeownership rate.
The news is promising. Households across race and income living in the post-Civil Rights suburbs were in neighborhoods with lower poverty rates and higher college educated and homeownership rates on average than their counterparts in the central cities and older suburbs, with few exceptions (see Table 2). Minorities in the post-Civil Rights suburbs also tended to live in neighborhoods with poverty and college educated rates more comparable to similar income Whites than their counterparts in the central city and older suburbs (see Table 3). Gains in neighborhood conditions and racial equity typically were larger for African American and low-income households and compared to the central city. For instance, in 2000 the typical low-income African American household in a central city lived in a neighborhood with a poverty rate 10 percentage points greater than the typical low-income White household, compared to only two percentage points greater in the post-Civil Rights suburbs. This amounted to a gain of about eight percentage points in racial equity in neighborhood poverty in the post-Civil Rights suburbs (-1(2-10)=8).












Copyright: Urban Studies










Copyright: Urban Studies


Contrary to concerns about minority suburbanites’ downward mobility in the wake of the Great Recession, gains in racial equity in the post-Civil Rights suburbs did not fluctuate consistently from 2000 to 2012. Although they tended to fall slightly for African Americans and high-income Latinos, they remained the same or increased for Asians and low- and middle-income Latinos (see Tables 2 and 3). Finally, neighborhood conditions were more racially equitable for households of color in the post-Civil Rights suburbs in most regions the majority of the time as compared to the central city and older suburbs, and across the three indicators and two time periods. In nine regions, conditions were more racially equitable in the post-Civil Rights suburbs close to or fully 100 percent of the time. These included Houston for African Americans and Latinos and Minneapolis for Latinos and Asians.

A key takeaway from this research is that the post-Civil Rights suburbs warrant our attention. Their conditions are promising, but they may need stronger community organization and social services to remain and become places where people of color can thrive over time. Another lesson is that communities reflect the time in which they were built. Suburbs that came of age following the Civil Rights era may better reflect its gains. Realizing the goals of the 1968 Fair Housing Act may depend in part on continued large scale housing construction in former farmland and open space areas, where there is less of a history of who lives where based on race.

(Photo credit: Flickr user Scorpions and Centaurs, CC BY-NC-SA 2.0)


Deirdre Pfeiffer is an Assistant Professor in the School of Geographical Sciences and Urban Planning at Arizona State University. Her research interests include housing strategies to meet the needs of America’s aging and diversifying population, the outcomes of the recent U.S. Great Recession and foreclosure crisis, and the relationship between urban growth and racial equity. Her current research appears in Urban Studies, Housing Policy Debate, and Journal of Urbanism.


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