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2 September 2020

US election 2020: What Donald Trump misunderstands about American suburbia

The suburbs are more diverse, more foreign and poorer than Republican hyperventilation allows.

By Emily Tamkin

Of the many archetypes of American society, few loom as large in the imagination as the suburban woman. Take Richard Yates’s 1961 debut novel Revolutionary Road. The book tells the story of April Wheeler, a woman with a seemingly perfect Connecticut family who is wholly dissatisfied with how life behind the white picket fence has turned out. That idea of suburban womanhood – white, blonde and conservative, and suffocating in its prim and proper mores – is decades old, but is still very much with us today. The book was made into a movie in 2008. April was played by Kate Winslet, who was nominated for a British Academy Film Award for her performance, so compelling to viewers was the story of one such woman’s interior life.

There are many other examples; from the highbrow, such as Daisy Buchanan in The Great Gatsby or Betty Draper in Mad Men, to the lowbrow, like Susan Mayer and Bree van de Kamp in Desperate Housewives. Judging by American culture, there are few sub-species more interesting than women living in the prosperous outskirts of our nation’s cities; the whiter and blonder, the primmer and more pristine they are, the more they deserve our fascination. The cities are gritty and dangerous, goes the traditional view, while the suburbs are pure and clean. And the women of the suburbs are the living symbols and guardians of that purity.

So for Donald Trump – keen to shift attention from his mismanagement of the Covid-19 pandemic and on to the more comfortable territory of law-and-order culture wars – supposed threats to the suburbs, and particularly suburban women, are ideal material. “Why would Suburban Women vote for Biden and the Democrats when Democrat-run cities are now rampant with crime… which could easily spread to the suburbs,” the president tweeted on 22 August, adding: “They will reconstitute, on steroids, their low-income suburbs plan!”

The subtext, which ran through various speeches at the Republican National Convention, is clear: the Democrats want to flood the rich, white, peaceful, picket-fence-and-apple-pie suburbs with poor, non-white, violent people.

But what Trump styles as the imperilled “suburban lifestyle dream” is just that: a dream. Never mind that the fears the president and his allies are whipping up are unfounded; ours is in any case no longer the America depicted in Revolutionary Road or Mad Men, and the suburbs are more diverse, more foreign and poorer than the current Republican hyperventilation allows.

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Some suburbs, it is true, conform to the old stereotypes; they were home to eight of the ten wealthiest postcodes in the United States in 2019. But new suburban realities are on the rise. More people living below the federal poverty line (one person earning less than $12,760, or $26,200 for a four-person household) now live in suburbs than in cities. This is in part because more people live in suburbs – the suburbs are, according to US Census Bureau estimates in 2019, growing more rapidly than cities – but also because poverty has, says the Brookings Institution, grown more quickly in suburbs than elsewhere. The long resurgence of inner cities, from no-go zones to hyper-productive centres of the knowledge economy, has pushed poorer Americans outwards into lower-density zones.

The suburbs are not only poorer than the Republicans think; they are less white too. According to a 2018 Pew Research Center report, 14 per cent of America’s suburbanites are black and 11 per cent are Hispanic. The trend of a growing non-white suburban population can be expected to continue. In the decade to 2010, reports Bloomberg CityLab, less than 10 per cent of the population growth of the 100 largest suburban areas in the US was white. The black American suburban population in particular has increased since the Noughties. That is partly a product of the shift in income profiles: gentrification pushes poorer black Americans out of cities as it does poorer white Americans. But it also speaks to the rise of black middle-class suburbia, particularly in the demographic boom zones of the urban south. To imagine the American suburb today, do not just think of Revolutionary Road and Connecticut; think of DeSoto outside Dallas in Texas, where median household incomes are almost $69,000 and nearly 60 per cent of businesses are owned by African Americans.

What Trump means when he says “suburban women” and what you, if you are a white reader of this piece, almost certainly imagined when you read the first line, is “white women”. It is a dog whistle in other words. But the president is not the only one to use this shorthand. The notion of the suburbs ingrained in our imagination – a white blonde sighing over a martini while gazing over a white picket fence as her two children and their dog play in the garden – dies hard. That is why the media uses it too. Consider all the commentary and analysis about “suburban women” who voted for Trump in the 2016 election and, significantly, backed Democrats in the 2018 mid-term elections. This, of course, refers to white women, as a glance at the negligible percentage of women of colour who voted for Trump in 2016 will show.

That we still imagine the suburbs as white and rich, as the territory of April Wheeler, Daisy Buchanan, Betty Draper and Bree Van de Kamp, does not make them so. They are more heterogeneous and fluid, or to put it another way, they look more like the rest of the US. Nor is the suburban woman, specifically, necessarily white or rich. Indeed, she does not necessarily want the president tweeting on her behalf. So: enough. We have given her so much space in our imagination; surely we can allow her the room in our debates to defy stereotypes about her demographics and opinions too. 

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