School & District Management

Race and Schools Are at the Core of Trump’s ‘Suburban Lifestyle Dream’

By Andrew Ujifusa — August 10, 2020 7 min read
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Over the last few weeks, President Donald Trump has ramped up his election-year pitch to the suburbs, and it has drawn criticism for being a racist and dated appeal to voters. His focus on a supposed suburban ideal also draws attention to the longstanding connections between housing and schools, and what those connections mean for educational inequities.

Last month, Trump highlighted a New York Post column by Betsy McCaughey, the former lieutenant governor of New York state, deploring presumptive Democratic presidential nominee Joe Biden’s support for high-density, affordable housing. In doing so, he declared to the “Suburban Housewives of America” that he would save their communities from destruction at the former vice president’s hands. He also made similar remarks at a White House event.

His rhetoric is linked to policy. On July 23, two days after the Post published McCaughey’s column, Trump’s Department of Housing and Urban Development announced it would significantly scale back obligations for state and local governments to show that they are using federal dollars under the Affirmatively Furthering Fair Housing requirements to combat discrimination.

“I am happy to inform all of the people living their Suburban Lifestyle Dream that you will no longer be bothered or financially hurt by having low income housing built in your neighborhood,” Trump tweeted July 29 to highlight the new HUD rule, which was effectively a repeal of an Obama administration directive. “Your housing prices will go up based on the market, and crime will go down.”

Trump did not mention education directly in those comments about “suburban housewives” and the suburbs, which Trump won by 5 percentage points, according to a 2016 New York Times exit poll. But they also serve to highlight how “school policy is housing policy, and vice versa,” said Peter Piazza, a researcher at the Massachusetts Consortium for Innovative Education Assessment who supports school integration efforts.

“That rhetoric is just an age-old device to signal to white people that, ‘I’m just going to protect you from poor, violent black people,’” said Andre Perry, a fellow at the Brookings Institution’s Metropolitan Policy Program, about Trump’s comments. “He’s trying to get reelected by appealing to not just white people, but racist white people.”

That sentiment draws on a growing body of research about how education and other local officials have responded to the increasing diversity of their suburban communities. And clashes about school integration and rezoning in suburbs have drawn significant media coverage.

Yet Piazza said he was concerned that even “people that I’m not even sure will necessarily vote for Trump” might sympathize with support for what they see as key characteristics of suburbs.

Ultimately, the impact of Trump’s rhetoric on the election could be quite limited either way, in part because of how ostensibly liberal suburbanites say they favor diversity and integration but often resist concrete local school integration plans, said Max Eden, a senior fellow at the Manhattan Institute. He pointed to a major dispute over school integration in Howard County, Md., as one such example.

“Any effort to change the composition of their schools [they would see as] a threat to their community. And they would become defensive against that. And they would never admit that there is a racial component to that. And I don’t want to accuse them of harboring secret racist or racialist ideas,” he said. But many outside of those communities would see such motivations at work nevertheless, he added.

‘Makes Our Work Harder’

The rule Trump brought into the public arena last month isn’t his administration’s only significant initiative that highlights the connection between housing and education.

Last year, the administration introduced a proposal that essentially would make it more difficult for people to sue developers, banks, and others for racial discrimination under the Fair Housing Act. Several groups criticized the proposal at the time because, they said, it would make it more difficult to address the root causes of housing discrimination that create a “disparate impact” for people of color, regardless of whether such discrimination is intentional.

Among such negative effects, they said, are racially segregated schools that often lack the same financial resources as their majority white counterparts.

“Every time we see standards used under the Fair Housing Act, in this case disparate impact, weakened ... it also makes our work harder on the education integration side,” said Sherrilyn Ifill, the president and director-counsel of the NAACP Legal Defense and Educational Fund, when discussing the proposal last year. (The proposed rule has not been finalized by HUD.)

Regardless of how much these and similar shifts in policy have affected Trump’s overall political standing, there’s growing evidence that with the presidential election less than three months away, Trump’s support among suburban voters has sharply declined. That clearly hasn’t gone unnoticed by the president and his supporters. In her New York Post column, for example, McCaughey noted the increasing diversity of suburbs and that Trump’s comments should appeal to people who live in them regardless of their race.

While it’s fair for suburbanites to have certain expectations for their communities including their schools, another factor limiting the political impact of Trump’s rhetoric either way is that the issue remains abstract for many people, Eden noted. It’s not as if, for example, Hillary Clinton was elected in 2016 and implemented aggressive housing rules and school integration schemes that Trump could now promise to tear down as a challenger in 2020, Eden explained.

“The argument that Trump is making would appeal to them if they actually had to see the effects of what they’re saying,” Eden said.

Demographics, Data, and Opinion

It’s not clear how much recent suburban demographic change itself might affect Trump’s vote share in November. But for years, think tanks and others have focused on how, even as the suburbs are growing less white in many instances, this demographic shift does not necessarily translate into similar educational experiences for different racial groups.

A recent study of 50 families in Cleveland from two researchers published by the MacArthur Foundation, for example, followed 24 Black families looking for the “package deal” of moving to a good neighborhood with a good school. They found that just 13 were able to make the move to the suburbs, and just three were ultimately satisfied with the quality of their suburban school.

By contrast, of 12 white families studied, eight made the move to the suburbs and all eight were satisfied with their suburban school. Yet for all that, Piazza said, he works with districts in Massachusetts where educators have worked hard to support nonwhite students and make integrated schools work.

A recent study published by Piazza and two other researchers conducted in the state found a precipitous drop in the number of “intensely segregated” schools where at least 90 percent of students were white, but a simultaneous if not equivalent rise in intensely segregated nonwhite schools, over the past dozen years.

If the federal government were to exercise more aggressive legal oversight of school segregation, use the bully pulpit and share important data to focus attention on the issue, and direct voluntary grants to communities interested in desegregation efforts like those created at the tail end of the Obama administration, according to Piazza, the collective weight of those actions could affect everyday conversations among many suburban white parents.

“Oftentimes, once those policies are in place, people’s attitudes change,” he said.

Language and Self-Reflection

Just how consistent Trump’s “Suburban Housewives of America” rhetoric is with his approach to education issues in recent months is up for debate.

In June, Trump’s campaign called attention to former vice president Joe Biden’s “troubling” 1979 vote in the Senate that ultimately helped protect the tax-exempt status of private schools accused of barring black students.

The Trump administration has highlighted its support for school choice in several public events recently, amid increased outreach by his campaign to the Black community; some polling shows support for school choice measures among Black voters. Trump said that “school choice is the civil rights statement of the year” at a White House event in June.

But Trump’s pitch to the suburbs not only underestimates suburban voters’ support for diverse communities and schools, but uses prejudice to pit people against each other, said Liz King, the program director for education at the Leadership Conference on Civil and Human Rights. “The fallacy that white children will succeed only at the expense of black children is just that. It is a fallacy,” she said.

The president’s unsubtle rhetoric might also lead to some self-reflection and make it very clear to suburban voters where they should stand and what actions they should take, King said.

“You have euphemisms and you have jargon as a way of avoiding the underlying agenda,” King said. “What Trump is doing is sidestepping the jargon and the euphemisms.”

A version of this article appeared in the August 26, 2020 edition of Education Week as Race and Schools Are at the Center of Trump’s ‘Suburban Lifestyle Dream’

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