What’s Driving the Anti-Immigrant Angst

In The New Republic, William Frey takes a look at how demographic changes are affecting the makeup of our suburbs. This is the context within which our debate over immigration reform is taking place.

The first decade of the twenty-first century has set the table for a very different city-suburban racial dynamic, one that stands in stark contrast to what existed in the past. Hispanics, Asians, blacks and other groups are becoming primary engines of growth in the nation’s suburbs in an era when the aging white population will be barely holding its own. As demographic forces continue to diversify those communities, leaders and policy makers at all levels will be challenged to understand and keep pace with rising demand for the services needed by new populations, particularly those of different economic circumstances and cultural and linguistic backgrounds. Increasing suburban diversity may cause suburbs to become more “purple” than their traditional red in local and national elections, making them unreliable bases for either Republicans or Democrats, who have depended on demographically homogeneous voting blocs.

There will be other hurdles to overcome. While Hispanics, Asians and blacks are now main players in suburbanization, they do not yet have a substantial presence in the outer suburbs and show some clustering in same-race communities, in many cases as a result of quasi-legal exclusionary practices.

But for the first time, more of the minority population in the nation’s largest metropolitan areas lives in the suburbs than in the city. That is surely an important marker on the road toward a more inclusive American mainstream.

We’ve already seen this change in the Philadelphia area. The suburban counties were dominated by the Republican Party for so long that it isn’t hard to find people around here who are still registered as Republicans for the sole reason that this was traditionally a prerequisite to getting any kind of responsiveness from local government. But, Barack Obama easily carried these counties in both of his presidential election campaigns.

Yet, these counties are still purple, as they vote for Republicans in low-turnout midterm elections.

The racial makeup is changing rapidly, however, which is easy for me to see whether I am looking at the other kids in my son’s pre-school class, or the kids getting off the local school buses or I am visiting the food court at the local mall. Indian and Asian-Americans are the most visible newcomers to my community, but it isn’t hard to find a large and growing Latino influx, either. All you have to do is visit one of our local parks during the weekend to find picnickers and pick-up soccer matches.

This is the new normal, and the kids growing up here are used to being in racially and religiously diverse classrooms. They don’t see anything untoward about this, but it is definitely causing a lot of angst among some people.

While white population losses in cities are not new, what is new and likely to be a long-term trend is the slowdown in white population gains in the suburbs. From 2000 to 2010, whites contributed only 9 percent to total suburban population growth, with nearly one-third of large metropolitan areas experiencing absolute declines in their white suburban populations. As the white population ages and the childbearing population increasingly consists of minorities, the traditional attraction to the suburbs will be felt more by the latter groups. In addition, a “new white flight” has directed whites away from the cities and the suburbs of many large metropolitan areas in both coastal areas and interior metropolitan areas, especially in the Heartland.

We’re obviously in a transitional period, and we’re seeing a passionate backlash. The Obama coalition is based on this new reality and it keeps looking over its shoulder at these folks who just don’t want to get with the program and wondering what the hell all the fuss is about.

Well, there’s going to be a big fuss. We just have to ride it out.

Martin Longman

Martin Longman is the web editor for the Washington Monthly and the main blogger at Booman Tribune.