Beyond 'white flight'

August 30, 1994

On any summer evening, this is the scene in Baltimore County's Sudbrook neighborhood: Dads mowing the lawn. Moms chatting over the fence or planting a flower bed. A couple of teen-age girls walking a dog. Kids playing basketball on the driveway. A typical suburban tableau. And every person described above is African-American.

Such scenes are becoming ever more common in the suburbs. The white population in U.S. suburbs grew by 9 percent during the 1980s, compared to growth rates of 34 percent for blacks, 69 percent for Hispanics and 126 percent for Asians.

The trend has been particularly striking in Maryland: Prince George's and Howard counties have among the greatest concentrations of upper-income black families in the nation. In Baltimore County, the migration of black residents from the city necessitated the creation of a new legislative district for the coming election. In 1970, one of every 15 inhabitants of Baltimore's suburbs was non-white. Twenty years later, that ratio had closed to one of every seven residents.

To be sure, the road to the suburbs for blacks remains difficult. Discrimination in housing is a persistent boil. Black children often attend "majority minority" schools in the suburbs just as in the city. In fact, The number of Maryland suburban schools dominated by minorities grew by two-thirds in the past five years alone. On top of that, a recent study done for the New York Times concluded that black suburbanites bear a heavier property tax load than whites, in part because they are the latest immigrants to the suburbs so their property assessments more closely match their homes' true value.

Negatives aside, the non-white migration to the suburbs belies some of the tired assumptions about inner city flight. If the outmigration of the 1950s and '60s was all about "white flight," the movement in the '90s is about quality of life. Black, white, red, yellow -- most everyone wants the same things: secure housing, safety for their families, a sense of belonging in a community. Now into their third generation, the suburbs still get ridiculed as escapist, elitist, unsophisticated bastions of cul de sacs and aluminum siding, but non-whites are finding as much appeal in them as whites as places to call home.

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