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Suburbs are now the most diverse areas in America

ARI SHAPIRO, HOST:

For a long time, the phrase suburban voter has been code for white voter. But suburbs are now among the most diverse spaces in American life, and tension is growing over who belongs in suburbia as NPR's Sandhya Dirks reports.

SANDHYA DIRKS, BYLINE: Just after Trayvon Martin was killed in 2012, a lot of Black folks started putting hoodies on themselves and their children in solidarity. Whytni Kernodle remembers her family asking why she hadn't done it too.

WHYTNI KERNODLE: We lived in a bubble, and I was mindful of the fact that my sons' white friends didn't have to put on hoodies and have conversations about police brutality.

DIRKS: The bubble they lived in was the D.C. suburb of Arlington, Va., and she wanted to keep both her kids safe inside it a little longer.

KERNODLE: To give them time to be children, to give them time to be just little, suburban boys - right? - in Arlington, as opposed to little, Black boys in Arlington.

DIRKS: Kernodle is the president of Black Parents of Arlington, a group she co-founded in order to use her privilege as an affluent Black mother to help address disparities. The schools are great for white kids, for wealthy kids, for healthy kids, she says, but not as much for other kids. And there are more and more of those other kids because in a lot of ways, no bubble has burst more than the one surrounding the idea of white suburbia.

JASMINE CLARK: I grew up in the suburbs my whole life. Even I used to equate the word suburb with white.

DIRKS: That's Jasmine Clark. She represents Gwinnett County as a Democrat in the Georgia Legislature.

CLARK: I've been in the suburbs all this time, and I'm not white.

DIRKS: In 2000, Gwinnett County was about 70% white, 30% Black, Asian and Latino. By 2020, those demographic numbers had completely flipped. Suburbs have always been more diverse than we imagined, but now it's supercharged.

WILLOW LUNG-AMAM: I think it has been, really, a great migration in terms of the location of people of color and immigrants.

DIRKS: Willow Lung-Amam is a professor at the University of Maryland who studies the suburbs. She says this great migration of people of color has been happening over decades for a lot of different reasons. Many people go to the suburbs for the American dream. Some are pushed out by gentrification in cities. But whatever the reason...

LUNG-AMAM: You're seeing majority Black and brown suburbs that just a decade ago were majority white.

DIRKS: Suburbs have also been thought of as middle-class enclaves. But as the middle has been squeezed, there's also more suburban poverty. Our idea of suburbia just hasn't caught up. Jasmine Clark says, in Gwinnett County, most people love living in the most diverse place in Georgia, but...

CLARK: The diversity doesn't make the racism go away. It didn't erase the racism.

DIRKS: In some cases, the fact that these places are no longer majority white brings it all to the surface.

CLARK: But there are other people that are lamenting it. They are hating it because they feel like something is being taken away from them. For them, it's zero-sum.

DIRKS: They feel like they're losing something. The suburbs have persisted as white space in the white imagination for so long. But it's not just an idea that's being lost. It's also a loss of real power, says Whytni Kernodle.

KERNODLE: When people say to me, you know, it's not like pie. There's enough for everyone. I'm like, hmm. It is like pie (laughter) because power is, to a certain extent, absolute. And if you expected all of it and then you only got 90%...

DIRKS: Last year, white parents and some white folks who weren't parents screamed at local school board meetings over teaching kids about racism or having diversity and inclusion programs. Most of the places where those fights flared were suburbs, and they were suburbs that are changing, suburbs that have grown more diverse. In some cases, like in Gwinnett County, they are also suburbs where Black people have started to get elected to local seats, like school boards.

KERNODLE: The difference between now and then is that we have power too.

DIRKS: Because as suburbs change, so does the power of the suburban vote. Sandhya Dirks, NPR News. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

Sandhya Dirks is the race and equity reporter at KQED and the lead producer of On Our Watch, a new podcast from NPR and KQED about the shadow world of police discipline. She approaches race and equity not as a beat, but as a fundamental lens for all investigative and explanatory reporting.