White America Facing Its Ghosts: The Slow Unraveling of a Nation’s Suburbs

“In the suburb, one might live and die without marring the image of an innocent world, except when some shadow of evil fell over a column in the newspaper. Thus the suburb served as an asylum for the preservation of illusion.”
–Lewis Mumford, The City in History, 1961

I was born into my American dream in a suburb called Penn Hills.

But growing up on a quiet street ten miles east of downtown Pittsburgh, in a middle-class white family that had no trouble accessing suburbia’s bounty, especially from public schools that delivered hundreds of kids like me to state colleges each year, I often found myself on the receiving end of a cryptic message.

I just don’t want you to end up stuck like me, my father might blurt out during a commercial or while I was helping him in the garage.

Then his attention would snap back to the Steelers game or whatever backyard do-it-yourself project he was fixated on that month, leaving me alone to puzzle over his words. Were they an order to be followed? A secret to be kept? I remained paralyzed with uncertainty right up until the end of high school, when I decided my dad had been trying to warn me. Driven by a dread I didn’t understand, I resolved to escape from suburbia as fast as possible.

It was in Philadelphia that I found work as a journalist, writing about the spaces between this country’s promises and its realities. Like so many others before me, I became obsessed with the ways our education system so often seemed to widen that gap, especially for families of color. Still blind to the suburbs’ role in that story, I struck out for everywhere else, reporting from the boarded-up blocks of North Philly and the wide-open ranges of western New Mexico, from weary tumble-down buildings on the South Side of Chicago and the rutted sweet potato farms of central Mississippi.

It never occurred to me that the heart of the problem might instead lie in the tidy ranch houses and solid SAT scores of places like my hometown.

It seemed obvious that the country’s social contract had been broken in the cities we’d abandoned and the rural outposts we’d forgotten. It never occurred to me that the heart of the problem might instead lie in the tidy ranch houses and solid SAT scores of places like my hometown.

But then, in 2015, a flood of devastating headlines began pouring out of Penn Hills. After running up a staggering $172 million debt, the same school district that had once served my family so well was on the verge of collapse. Teachers were being furloughed, services slashed, programs eliminated. Home values stagnated. Property taxes skyrocketed. The state auditor general described the district’s finances as the worst he’d ever seen. A grand jury concluded that the “catastrophic” fallout would cast a pall over my hometown for “literally decades to come.”

And underlying all the bad news, I soon learned, was a surprising demographic shift. The public schools in Penn Hills, seventy-two percent white when I’d graduated back in 1994, were now sixty-three percent Black. Thousands of families of color had come to suburbia in search of their own American dreams, only to discover they’d been left holding the bag.

Suddenly, the humdrum little town I’d fled a quarter century earlier seemed to be sounding a dire warning. The opening of suburbia was supposed to be the culmination of the greatest mass movement in our nation’s history, and experts were still pushing to move Black and Brown families into the suburbs and their “good” public schools. After all, that’s where the country’s foundational covenant—everyone is created equal, we all get a fair shot, success is determined by merit—was supposedly strongest.

But what if those families were discovering that their advanced degrees and carefully tended cul-de-sac lawns still didn’t grant them access to all the country’s benefits? That their children still weren’t safe, even in the nation’s most sought-after public schools? That they were now stuck, not just in some quiet personal crisis, but in a wider unraveling, one that threatened to undermine the civil-rights-era dreams of equal opportunity and harmonious integration that followed the deeply flawed vision upon which suburbia was built? America, with its long history of broken promises, might not hold.

It was this fear that ultimately drew me back home. On a blustery day in January 2020, I climbed into my station wagon and drove across the Pennsylvania Turnpike. I was forty-three, tired, with a to-do list already spilling off the page. But I desperately wanted to locate an American dream that wouldn’t leave my own two children stuck, financially or emotionally or morally. And now, the path forward seemed clear: I first had to understand how the abundant opportunities my family extracted from Penn Hills a generation earlier were linked to the cratering fortunes of the families who lived there now.

My search for answers would eventually lead me on a journey across America’s rapidly changing suburbs, from the McMansion-filled subdivisions sprouting up north of Dallas to the bungalow-lined blocks of long-blighted South Central Los Angeles. Connecting these far ends of the suburban spectrum, I learned, was a relentless cycle of racialized development and decline that took root after World War II, then sucked huge swaths of the country into a pattern of slash-and-burn development that functioned like a Ponzi scheme.

Through massive public subsidies, exclusionary local policies, and a nasty habit of pushing the true costs of new infrastructure off onto future generations, our government had essentially paid millions of white families to run away from Black America, then encouraged us to cycle through a series of disposable communities with shelf lives just long enough to extract a little more opportunity before we moved out, stuck someone else with the bill, and restarted the cycle somewhere new.

But even as this pattern became ubiquitous, it remained mostly invisible. One big reason was described by philosopher Charles Mills as a willful racial ignorance that allows white people to protect ourselves from the truths we’ve “needed not to know” since the country’s founding.

Even today, elected officials and everyday Americans alike remain deeply committed to forgetting about the government-sponsored white flight that fueled suburbia’s rise. To erasing from memory the burning crosses, racial real-estate covenants, and gerrymandered school boundaries that were used to keep everyone else out. To ignoring the scars left by the long-ago compromises of desegregation, and to dismissing the pain of whole neighborhoods that mass suburbanization helped undo.

When an aging suburb began to teeter, we turned a blind eye, leaving ourselves unable to reconcile the vacant businesses, declining test scores, and dwindling property values with our vision of what that place was supposed to be. And after the community’s tax base vanished, its school system capsized, and its residents were all Black and Brown, we promptly forgot that the hollowed-out place left behind had ever been a suburb at all.

Much attention has already been paid to how this cycle and its underlying ideology decimated America’s cities. In their classic book American Apartheid, sociologists Douglas Massey and Nancy Denton found that by the late 1970s, roughly two thirds of the white people in the nation’s major metropolises had already fled to suburbia, often on the strength of privileged access to cheap mortgage loans guaranteed by the Federal Housing Administration and Veterans Administration.

This exodus led to a profound concentration of poverty in the mostly Black and Brown urban areas they left behind. Thanks to rising home values and a dizzying array of tax breaks, white suburbanites then saw our advantages multiply and ripple across generations: By 1989, the typical white family held more than ten times the wealth of the typical Black family, and white Americans were four times as likely as our Black counterparts to inherit money.

“The advantage that FHA and VA loans gave the white lower-middle class in the 1940s and ’50s has become permanent,” concluded economist Richard Rothstein in his 2017 book, The Color of Law.

By then, however, America was already entering a perilous new stage. The same cycle that had already devastated our cities was now churning through suburbia itself. Hundreds of aging inner-ring suburbs like Penn Hills were falling into debt and disrepair. Thousands of newer suburban communities found themselves in the path of the same gathering storm. And two major societal shifts were making the problem increasingly difficult to ignore.

The first was demographic. The U.S. Census Bureau began projecting that America will be majority nonwhite before midcentury, the result of a white population that began aging and declining just as the nation experienced an explosion of youthful diversity. Nowhere did these trends diverge more sharply than in the suburbs, where white people went from seventy-nine percent of the population in 1990 to just 55 percent three decades later. Inside suburban public schools, white children are already a minority.

And all the while, the heart of America’s middle class kept disappearing. Home prices soared. Water supplies dwindled. Upper-middle-income families began hoarding an ever-larger share of the country’s opportunities.

Millions of other Americans found they could no longer escape demographic change by simply moving to a newer community farther out in the countryside. By 2019, a profound pessimism had taken root: half the country expected their children to experience a lower standard of living than they’d enjoyed.

Soon to be outnumbered, with no more away to escape to, white America is suddenly face-to-face with its ghosts. It is this confrontation that will define the next few decades of American life.

Soon to be outnumbered, with no more away to escape to, white America is suddenly face-to-face with its ghosts. It is this confrontation that will define the next few decades of American life.

And the early skirmishes are already under way. Pick a suburb. Go to a school board meeting. Sit through some high school math classes. Soon enough, you’ll see a painful truth being laid bare: The diversification of suburbia did not lead to a universal American dream, untethered from whiteness and extended equally to all. Instead, Black and Brown and white and Asian and rich and poor and immigrant and native born have all been left to craft separate variations on a theme.

As a result, many white families are now consumed with anxiety about the erosion of long-standing advantages. Countless families of color have grown disillusioned by the suburbs’ failure to deliver equally on America’s promises. And nearly seventy years after Brown v. Board of Education, many of the parents, educators, and activists who long carried the dream of integration are demoralized and retreating. Suburbia is now home to a collision of competing dreams, each of which seems to be crumbling.


An excerpt from Disillusioned: Five Families and the Unraveling of America’s Suburbs, published by Penguin Press, an imprint of Penguin Random House LLC. Copyright © 2024 by Benjamin Herold.

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