The Changing Face of the U.S. Suburbs

Since the explosive growth of American suburbia following World War II, “the suburbs” have held a specific meaning in America’s popular culture. Wide streets. Large houses. Good schools. Nuclear families. And, of course, Leave It to Beaver whiteness.

According to UCLA political science professor Lorrie Frasure-Yokley (MPP’01), it is time to start leaving that idea behind. In her new book, Racial and Ethnic Politics in American Suburbs, she seeks to update theories about American suburbs that she says are stuck in the 1980s. 

“I want my research and this book to extend the way we think about race, ethnicity and politics in American suburbs,” says Frasure-Yokley. “We need to move beyond the central city versus suburbs binary, and move beyond a black-white binary.” 

With a mixed-method approach that combines statistical analysis and field research, Frasure-Yokley’s book tells the story of ethnic minorities and immigrants who are making the American suburbs their home and takes a close look at the local governments that are trying to fold these new residents into their communities. Far from being homogeneous and orderly, she found, today’s suburbs are often a hotbed of intercultural mingling and social service innovation. 

Frasure-Yokley points out that many new immigrants move directly to the suburbs, confounding the established phenomenon of “ethnic succession process,” in which immigrant groups spend one to two generations in urban settings before moving to the suburbs. Hailing largely from Asia, the Middle East and Latin America, today’s suburban immigrants bring with them a host of new challenges and social service needs, including support for limited-English-proficient (LEP) children and parents in suburban public schools; employment infrastructure for day laborers; and access to government services for LEP adults. Some local governments have responded quickly to the rising need for such services; others have been less welcoming or even hostile. Very few, however, have received help from the federal or state government.

Digging deep into the inner working of today’s diverse suburbs, Frasure-Yokley found that limited resources and political expediencies often inspire a spirit of collaboration between local governments and nonprofits. Dubbed “suburban institutional interdependency” (SII), these symbiotic relationships capitalize on each partner’s strengths and optimize scarce resources. 

“I wrote the book to be accessible to academics, students, and the everyday local official trying to figure out how to incorporate new groups into their communities when they don’t have the resources to do so,” explains Frasure-Yokley. “It’s a practical piece of scholarship that is useful both in the academic world and also in the public policy world. I use real-world examples to explain how public-nonprofit partnerships are formed to implement programs and policies to serve immigrants, racial/ethnic minorities and low-income groups.”

When asked what has equipped her to identify and challenge the out-of-date misconceptions about suburbia in academia, Frasure-Yokley points to the mixed-methodology approach she encountered while at Harris. She acknowledges her debt to the quantitative tools she picked up at Harris, but also cites her experience in the sociology department, where she worked with Professor Emeritus Richard P. Taub on a master’s thesis evaluating community-based organizations in Chicago’s Woodlawn neighborhood. 

“The Harris School introduced me to tools, concepts and frameworks, but being in the field doing in-depth interviews with community leaders, community-based organizations and elected officials—that was the eye-opening experience that led to mixed-method research and to who I am today,” she says. “Conducting those interviews helped me to see that the mixed-method approach for studying marginalized populations is the best approach to learning about their experiences.”

In order to get to the heart of the new suburban experience, Frasure-Yokley conducted interviews with over 100 suburban leaders and held focus groups with immigrants and minorities in their native languages—including Farsi, Mandarin, Korean and Spanish. During these conversations she often found her personal experience, and the stories she heard of her parents’ experience, to be a valuable resource. 

“I’m not from the suburbs, I’m from the South Side of Chicago—born and raised. The suburban experience was not something that I was a part of,” she explains. 

Like so many African-Americans of their era, Frasure-Yokley’s parents migrated to Chicago from the South, seeking work and prosperity. Careful to acknowledge that there are many differences between contemporary international immigration and the black migration of the past, Frasure-Yokley believes hearing about the challenges her parents faced helped her build a bridge to the immigrants she met.

“My parents’ migration story, and their reasons for moving—to look for better jobs and better opportunities for themselves and their families—is the American experience that new immigrants and ethnic minorities are looking for. I think it helped me to relate to my respondents, to gain a rapport and trust,” she explains.

The first African-American woman to be tenured in UCLA’s political science department, Frasure-Yokley is already immersed in a new project that will bring her insights to the upcoming presidential elections. Building on research she conducted on the 2008 and 2012 elections as co-principal investigator of the Collaborative Multi-Racial Post Election Survey (CMPS), she will focus on the political participation of immigrant and ethnic minority groups in the 2016 elections—with particular interest, of course, on those who live in America’s suburbs.

—Josh Fox