Still perceived as prosperous white enclaves, suburban communities are now at the cutting edge of racial, ethnic and even political change in America. Racially integrated suburbs are growing faster than their predominantly white counterparts. Fully 44 percent of suburban residents in the 50 largest U.S. metropolitan areas live in racially integrated communities -- places with populations between 20 and 60 percent nonwhite.
Integrated suburbs represent some of the nation's greatest hopes and its gravest challenges. The rapidly growing diversity of the United States, which is reflected in the rapid changes seen in suburban communities, suggests a degree of declining racial bias and at least the partial success of fair-housing laws.
Yet the fragile demographic stability in these newly integrated suburbs -- as well as the rise of poor, virtually nonwhite suburbs -- presents serious challenges for local, state and federal governments.
Locally, in 2000, 5 percent of the population of the Twin Cities region lived in diverse suburbs. By 2010, that number had jumped to 23 percent. There were 29 suburban municipalities in the Twin Cities that qualified as "diverse suburbs" in 2010. Many of these areas are in the midst of rapid racial change.
For instance, the nonwhite share of the population increased by more than 20 percentage points between 2000 and 2010 in Brooklyn Center, Columbia Heights and Brooklyn Park. The change was more than 15 points in Fridley, Richfield, Shakopee and Maplewood. Overall, the nonwhite share of the population in the Twin Cities' 29 diverse suburbs increased by more than 13 percentage points on average between 2000 and 2010, the fourth-highest rate among the country's 50 largest metropolitan areas.
By mid-century, the increasingly metropolitan nation that is the United States (almost 60 percent of U.S. population lives in the 50 largest regions), will have no racial majority.
Last year, a majority of the children born in the United States and nearly half of students in U.S. public schools were nonwhite. A growing number of central-city blacks and Latinos experience apartheid levels of segregation and civic dysfunction. By comparison, despite challenges, integrated suburbs are gaining in population and prosperity.
Given these trends, ensuring successful racially integrated communities represents the best policy path for the nation's educational, economic and political success.
Stably integrated suburbs are places where whites and nonwhites can grow up, study, work and govern together effectively. Integrated communities have the greatest success eliminating racial disparities in education and economic opportunity.
Meanwhile, nonwhite residents of segregated urban communities are further behind than ever. In integrated communities, whites and nonwhites have the most positive perceptions of one another. These communities are much more likely than are high-poverty, segregated areas to be politically balanced and functional places that provide high-quality government services at affordable tax rates.
In environmental terms, they are denser, more walkable, more energy-efficient and otherwise more sustainable than outer suburbs, and benefit from their proximity both to central cities and outer suburban destinations.
These communities also reflect America's political diversity. On average, they are evenly split between Democrats and Republicans, and are often the political battlegrounds that determine elections.
They are more likely than other suburbs to switch parties from one election to another and, as a result, often decide the balance of state legislatures and Congress as well as the outcomes of gubernatorial and presidential elections. Data indicates that policymakers could pay a political price for failing to connect with "swing" voters in these integrated suburban communities.
Yet while integrated suburbs represent great hope, they face serious challenges to their prosperity and stability. In America, integrated communities have a hard time staying integrated for extended periods.
Neighborhoods that were more than 23 percent nonwhite in 1980 were more likely to become predominately nonwhite (more than 60 percent nonwhite) during the next 25 years than to remain integrated. Illegal discrimination -- in the form of steering by real-estate agents, mortgage lending and insurance discrimination, subsidized housing placement, and racial gerrymandering of school-attendance boundaries -- is causing rapid racial change and economic decline.
By 2010, 17 percent of suburbanites lived in predominantly nonwhite suburbs, communities that were once integrated but are now more troubled than their central cities, with fewer prospects for renewal.
Resegregation (moving from a once all-white or stably integrated neighborhood to an all nonwhite neighborhood), while common, is not inevitable. Stable integration is possible. However, it does not happen by accident. It is the product of clear, race-conscious strategies; hard work, and political collaboration among local governments.
Critical to stabilizing these suburbs are the following strategies:
• Creation of local stable-integration plans, with fair-housing ordinances, incentives for pro-integrative home loans, cooperative efforts with local school districts and financial support of pro-integrative community-based organizations.
• Greater enforcement of existing civil-rights laws, including the Fair Housing Act, especially the sections related to racial steering, mortgage lending discrimination and location of publicly subsidized affordable housing.
• Adoption of regional strategies to limit exclusionary zoning and require affluent suburbs to accommodate their fair share of affordable housing.
• Adoption of metropolitan-scale strategies to promote more-integrated schools.
If racially diverse suburbs can become politically organized and exercise the power of their numbers, they can ensure both the stability of their communities and the future opportunity and prosperity of a multiracial metropolitan America.
Myron Orfield is the director of the Institute on Metropolitan Opportunity at the University of Minnesota Law School. This commentary is based a new report issued by the institute. More information is available at www.law.umn.edu/metro.html.