Identity and Diversity in Public Service: Race, Segregation, and Black Suburbia

On December 9, NYU Wagner and the Urban Initiative hosted a conversation about the politics, sociology, and economics of Black suburbs featuring Orly Clerge, Assistant Professor of Sociology at UC Davis; Kimberley Johnson, Professor of Social and Cultural Analysis and Affiliate Faculty Member of NYU Wagner; and Ingrid Gould Ellen, NYU Wagner’s Paulette Goddard Professor of Urban Policy and Planning and Faculty Director at the NYU Furman Center for Real Estate and Urban Policy. This program was in conjunction with Wagner’s Identity and Diversity in Public Service programming series. Orly Clerge began the conversation with a brief discussion on her book The New Noir: Race, Identity, and Diaspora in Black Suburbia, which explores the negotiations of nationality, citizenship, and cultural identity by the Black middle class through an ethnographic study of Black suburban communities in Queens and Nassau County.

Both Johnson and Ellen commended Clerge for adding visibility and nuance to Black suburbs within the existing scholarship on suburban politics and identities. In her book, Clerge reflects on the experiences of Black families from a mix of diasporic origins, focusing specifically on Black Americans and immigrants from Jamaica and Haiti. The dialogue between Clerge and Johnson shed light on the heterogeneity of the Black suburban experience. From suburbs with longstanding populations of working-class Black families to high-income suburbs where the demographic shift has been more rapid and recent, Black suburbia reveals a myriad of governance structures, spatial inheritances, and histories of political engagement, racial coding, and exclusion. 

Clerge and Johnson reflected on how the record turnout among Black suburban voters in the 2020 presidential election also challenged the political imagination of American suburbia. Donald Trump premised his suburban election strategy on the outdated assumption that suburban voters are homogenous and white. Trump’s rhetoric insinuated a false dichotomy between urban and suburban issues as he failed to acknowledge both the emergence of Black suburbs and the reality that issues such as policing, housing, and education impact suburbia. 

Clerge’s research exposes that the expansion of Black suburbia does not resolve the historic design of suburbs as technologies of white supremacy, or as tools to facilitate economic prosperity solely to white families. In fact, Black spaces are subject to racialization, and disinvestment often follows places with Black population growth. Additionally, residential integration cannot extend opportunities for Black families without buy-in from white neighboring families because new patterns and forms of exclusion are created and practiced within suburbs with growing populations of black families and other communities of color. Comprehensive policies, not simply integration, are needed to address the racial wealth gap and achieve racial progress.