Suburbs usually remain vibrant and thriving as they become more racially integrated. But eventually a tipping point is reached, and the corrosive effects of racial isolation and segregation begin to be felt. When this happens, middle-class residents—mostly white, but not entirely—begin to leave in large numbers. Since 2000, Brooklyn Center has lost 42 percent of its white population; Ferguson has lost 49 percent. Economic opportunity has vanished too. Adjusted for inflation, the median income in Brooklyn Center has fallen by about $9,000 since 2000, and the city has lost a sixth of its middle- and upper-income residents. In Ferguson, median incomes have dropped by nearly $15,000 during the same period.
The suburbs that these dynamics leave behind replicate many of the same conditions that existed in segregated center-city neighborhoods in the 20th century. As in those enclaves, certain aspects of the relationship between residents and the powerful institutions with which they interact—police, elected officials, school systems, landlords, employers—appear colonial in nature. At the time of Brown’s killing, Ferguson’s mayor and almost all of its city council were white. Many police forces in resegregated suburbs are staffed with a large number of nonresidents, who also may be disproportionately white. Even private economic arrangements in segregated places can be extractive in nature. Before the 2008 financial crisis, Brooklyn Center was the largest suburban hub of subprime lending in the Twin Cities area. Tragically, the residents of resegregated suburbs face the same obstacles that many had attempted to escape by leaving major cities: struggling schools, unemployment, poverty, and police violence.
The Fergusonization of suburbs is a nationwide problem, uniting many far-flung communities whose residents and leaders may not even realize they have anything in common. Census data show that in 2010, more than 20 percent of the suburban population in major American metros lived in a predominantly nonwhite suburb reminiscent of Brooklyn Center or Ferguson, and that share has grown every year since. Because the forces causing resegregation are larger than any one municipality, individual suburbs are unable to solve this problem by acting alone. But solutions do exist.
Resegregation can be slowed by ensuring that affordable housing is available in all communities, not clustered in older suburbs. If schools are stably integrated and given the support they need to thrive, families are less likely to leave their current neighborhood in search of better education. Economic aid can be directed to already-resegregated communities, ameliorating the decline of services and schools.
Such measures are best implemented at a regional scale, usually by state or federal government. Ideally, metropolitan governing structures would be created to administer regional policies. This isn’t sufficient in and of itself; the Minneapolis–St. Paul region has a more robust regional government than most metro areas, and it has badly shirked its role in preventing resegregation. Yet individual suburban municipalities elsewhere in the country are even more alone, forced to compete with neighboring cities when what they really need is help protecting their residents’ civil rights and their own future.
These left-behind communities—the country’s Fergusons and Brooklyn Centers—do not vanish or dissolve. People still live in them. Their suffering is real, and the injustices their residents face become a flash point for conflict, violence, and protest that spans the nation.