What Happens to the Suburbs When Black People Move In?

By Karyn Lacy

Trump’s significant losses in Rustbelt and Sunbelt suburbs suggest his claim that Biden would “destroy the suburbs” went over like a lead balloon. Meant to rouse white suburban voters, Trump promised only he could protect against declining property values and escalating crime if black homeowners were to move in. To Trump’s way of thinking, the most desirable neighborhoods are the ones that exclude blacks. But most suburban voters didn’t take the bait.

Realtors, lenders, and the Federal Housing Administration helped to promote the belief that black people make a neighborhood undesirable. Too many suburbs remained segregated long after the Fair Housing Act outlawed racial discrimination, in part because when blacks moved into an established white community, white homeowners would abandon it, and it would become all-black.

But what happens when blacks are among the people moving into a newly constructed suburb, one that no racial group has claimed yet?

I stumbled across a posh, upper-middle class suburb in majority-black Prince George’s County containing black and white homeowners when I was working on a book about middle-class suburbanites. At the time of construction, the average price of the imposing four and five-bedroom homes was $350,000, the equivalent of about $734,000 today. Many people I talked to had entered the community on the ground floor, long before its racial composition was settled.

There is no doubt that developers had white homeowners in mind when they began construction of Sherwood Park. Every last one of the development’s sales staff was white, a clear signal that the development was being marketed to white homeseekers, As John, a black resident told me, “You don’t put a black real estate [agent] in a neighborhood…that you’re selling to white people.” Sure enough, the first people to buy homes in the community were white.

But before long, black people began to inquire about homes scheduled for construction, prompting developers to revise their original marketing plan. They replaced the white sales staff with an all-black sales group, a move developers knew would attract black people while repelling the average white homeseeker. And just like that, the racial composition of Sherwood Park tilted toward black.

Andrew, a white resident who moved in before the community transitioned from all-white to predominantly black, was enraged by the developers’ changing course. “The entire sales staff…became black,” he told me. “Everyone…it was just an unwritten signal.” White people “would walk in [to the model home] and there wasn’t a white face in sight. They would get back into the car, and sayonara.” The developers “made a marketing decision [and]…it became a black development.”

Despite his anger, Andrew did not move out like some white residents did. And because the value of the community to black residents was never conditioned on a white presence, they did not panic when some whites fled. “My policy is that if you don’t want to be someplace, then you should move,” Michael, a black resident reasoned. New white residents replaced some who fled. Older white couples, like Luke and Clarissa, told me they were drawn to Sherwood Park in part because, “We realized when we saw the sales people…obviously the community would be diverse.”

White residents who flee may believe the falsehood Trump peddled: the mere presence of black neighbors causes property values to plummet. They may not realize it is the rapid selloff as white homeowners act on their fears that creates neighborhood instability.

Want to read this story later? Save it in Journal.

How did Sherwood Park avoid this fate? First, a return migration from the north to the south, coupled with marked expansion of the black middle class generated demand for what I call “clean slate suburbs,” middle-class, newly constructed communities where no racial group has established a sense of entitlement. Second, the demographics of black residents mirrors that of white residents who bought first. Both groups are college graduates working in white-collar occupations. Finally, the overall appearance of Sherwood Park does not fit the stereotype of a deteriorating, black suburb.

Because he focused on the prototype — homogeneous, white suburbs — Trump could not envision a more diverse group of suburban voters and it cost him. Far from thinking of their subdivision as undesirable, Sherwood Park residents believe they are privy to a well-kept secret. John surmised: “You get a lot of value in my neighborhood. Every house is on an acre. They are big houses, they are pretty houses, and they were cheaper than comparable houses you could get across town. Anybody with half a brain would want that.”

📝 Save this story in Journal.

Sociology professor. Author of Zora Canon selection, Blue-Chip Black. Public writings appear in NYT, The Chronicle, and Public Seminar. Twitter: @KarynLacy