African American Studies Suburbanization
Nadirah Farah Foley, R. L’Heureux Lewis-McCoy
  • LAST MODIFIED: 21 February 2023
  • DOI: 10.1093/obo/9780190280024-0114


For over half a century, scholars have studied the processes by which Black people come to live in the suburbs, what they experience in those communities, and the complex interplay of race, class, and place. That scholarship, however, reveals that processes of Black suburbanization began earlier than often envisioned in the scholarly or popular imagination, reaching back to the prewar period. The study of Black suburbanization crosses disciplines, ranging from sociology to history to political science, and traverses domains, ranging from housing to education to policing and the criminal legal system. To understand the Black suburban experience, it must remain in conversation with other spatial categories like the city and the country (also known as rural areas) as well as in conversation with the suburbanizing experiences of other ethnic groups. As is often the case, what happens to Black people is both classically Americana, as well as uniquely Black. In the study of Black suburbanization, one finds a microcosm of Black life in the United States: a history of discrimination and exclusion, a contemporary landscape that is varied and resists being characterized in monolithic ways, and a consistent thread of resilience and community in the face of marginalization. This means that Black suburbanization is a topic of import not just for scholars of African American history and contemporary life, or those studying metropolitan America, but for scholars studying topics as varied as inequality, segregation, politics, education, housing, and policing. The suburbs are, in many ways, America. And as the suburbs are increasingly home to the majority of Americans, including the majority of Black Americans in the one hundred largest metropolitan areas, the study of Black suburbanization is not simply the study of one demographic group, but a window into the contemporary landscape of this country. What the suburbs meant in 1970 is not what they mean in the 2020s, but the strands of the past that feed the present will also shape the future. An emerging set of conversations on immigration, real estate practices, legal and policy interventions is coming into critical focus now. Importantly, in the last twenty years scholarship that centers the voices of Black residents in suburbia and scholarship by Black scholars is now just beginning to emerge in reshaping the study of suburbs and the rich tapestry of life that exists within it. In this entry, we synthesize the literature on Black suburbanization as a means of underscoring the importance of the suburbs and establishing that understanding Black suburban experiences—which have too often been erased from the suburban narrative—is central to understanding this quintessentially American landscape.

General Overview

The suburbs are often regarded as spaces of affluence, uniformity, and Whiteness, according to Jackson 1985, in large part due to policies, practices, and laws enacted in post–World War II America. Suburbanization is a process that happens unequally along race and class lines, and there have been attempts to desegregate suburbs, as Bonastia 2006 shows, but they have often fallen short or helped reinforce the line between cities and suburbs as one based on class and race, which Taylor 2019 details. Despite that, it is also true that, as Frey 2018 demonstrates, the suburbs today are now the most diverse housing sector in the United States. The story of Black suburbanization is a multi-decade process that is based not simply on Black people’s desire to move out of the urban core, but also the realities of market-based racial discrimination and segregation (see Rose 1976). A new wave of scholarship has begun to interrogate not only how the suburbs formed, but who lives there and what their experiences are (Lacy 2016). With more than 50 percent of African Americans in the one hundred largest cities living in suburbs we must ask if these suburbs will birth new opportunities or will they simply rearticulate old patterns of inequity (Johnson 2014). As Black families have rushed to the suburbs to find opportunities, they have simultaneously been confronted with the reality that they cannot escape the grasp of racism in schools (according to Lewis-McCoy 2014) or policing (which Lewis-McCoy 2018 discusses). Nonetheless, there are many prospects that we are beginning to explore in Black suburban spaces from immigrant incorporation to political participation; Smith and Greer 2018 addresses this.

  • Bonastia, C. Knocking on the Door: The Federal Government’s Attempt to Desegregate the Suburbs. Princeton, NJ: Princeton University Press, 2006.

    Bonastia examines housing equity, federal policy, and suburbia. Through in-depth analysis of documents from the US Department of Housing and Urban Development (HUD), comparisons to other federal policies, and varied archival sources he builds out the case for why housing desegregation began to impact the suburbs, but soon was stopped in its tracks. With comparisons to other policy domains like health care, the book helps capture how federal action and inaction shaped suburbs that were segregated racially and economically.

  • Frey, W. Diversity Explosion: How New Racial Demographics Are Remaking America. Rev. ed. Washington, DC: Brookings Institution Press, 2018.

    This book examines contemporary demographics of US suburbs. In particular, the author advances a theory of melting pot suburbs which are racially and ethnically diverse. The volume is heavy on Census-based statistics which are used to paint a picture of suburbs as increasingly racially diverse and declining in segregation despite suburban origin stories rooted in segregation. This revised and updated edition adds a section on political divides across geographies and generations.

  • Jackson, K. Crabgrass Frontier: The Suburbanization of the United States. New York: Oxford University Press, 1985.

    Crabgrass Frontier is often regarded as canon in the study of suburbs. This history traces the development of the idea of suburbs, their development patterns, and how they relate to central cities. In narrating the proliferation of postwar suburban boom, there are discussions of the use of racially exclusionary practices in lending and steering which blocked the access of Black families to many emerging suburbs.

  • Johnson, K. S. “‘Black’ Suburbanization: American Dream or the New Banlieue?The Cities Papers (2014).

    This paper explores the increasing suburbanization of African Americans with an eye toward what this new spatial arrangement may mean for political engagement. Johnson astutely points out that racial and ethnic minorities at the periphery of cities is globally the norm, so lessons may be drawn from international contexts. Johnson raises questions about the role of suburban fragmentation and class divisions within the Black community as areas of future study.

  • Lacy, K. R. The New Sociology of Suburbs: A Research Agenda for Analysis of Emerging Trends. Annual Review of Sociology 42.1 (2016): 369–384.

    DOI: 10.1146/annurev-soc-071312-145657

    In this review piece, sociologist Karyn Lacy calls attention to the dearth of contemporary research on suburban contexts. In particular, Lacy highlights three trends, the last of which is especially relevant: the increase in poverty in suburban communities; the increase in racial diversity, especially due to immigration; and the migratory patterns of Black people returning to southern suburbs.

  • Lewis-McCoy, R. L. Inequality in the Promised Land: Race, Resources and Suburban Schooling. Stanford, CA: Stanford University Press, 2014.

    This book examines a set of schools in an idyllic “liberal” suburban city in the Midwest. Using qualitative and archival evidence, Lewis-McCoy explores how opportunity hoarding shapes the chances and experiences of both White and Black families. The author finds middle classness and suburban access does not shield Black families from the harms of racism in schools and common approaches to addressing school inequality are ill-fitted for the suburban front.

  • Lewis-McCoy, R. L. Suburban Black Lives Matter. Urban Education 53.2 (2018): 145–161.

    DOI: 10.1177/0042085917747116

    In this article, Lewis-McCoy discusses the ways kindling of the Black Lives Matter movement were born in suburban areas and the necessity for scholarship to look at the suburbs. Through a discussion of majority-minority suburbs, gateway suburbs, and exclusive enclaves the author suggests more specificity is needed in scholarship on the Black suburban experience, given the majority of Black people now reside in the suburbs.

  • Rose, H. Black Suburbanization: Access to Improved Quality of Life or Maintenance of the Status Quo? Cambridge, MA: Ballinger, 1976.

    Drawing on a field survey and secondary data, Rose investigates the extent to which the trend toward Black suburbanization represented promising developments or a continuation of patterns of segregation and ghettoization Black people experienced in central cities. Exploring the topics of housing, education, work, and other social and economic factors, he concludes that much of the growth of Black suburbia is best understood as an expansion of distressed urban areas.

  • Smith, C. W., and C. M. Greer, eds. Black Politics in Transition: Immigration, Suburbanization, and Gentrification. New York: Routledge, 2018.

    This edited volume takes up questions of Black politics, thought, and political power in the suburbs and select cities. The authors take a deeply intersectional approach to thinking about how race, ethnicity, and place matter among Black people. Discussions of immigration, ethnic Black communities, and potential shifts in the political attitudes of suburban Black residents lay a foundation for future inquiries into the political life of Black suburban residents.

  • Taylor, K.-Y. Race for Profit: How Banks and the Real Estate Industry Undermined Black Homeownership. Chapel Hill: University of North Carolina Press, 2019.

    DOI: 10.5149/northcarolina/9781469653662.001.0001

    Taylor looks at the practice of predatory inclusion in homebuying. In the 1970s the federal government’s exclusionary practices changed due to a public-private partnership. This new partnership targeted low-income Black women for homebuying programs with unfavorable terms. The result was the solidification of White middle-class access to the suburban periphery and a deeper financial crippling of Black families in the urban core.

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