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Kiara Wyndham Douds on Racially Harmonious Suburbs


How do you get rid of racism?

Find some other way besides racism to allow people to feel that they are better than everyone else.

This is one of the implications of a wonderful article by Kiara Wyndham-Douds, a sociologist at Washington University in Saint Louis. They have done a wonderful study on low racial prejudice suburbs. Yes, racially harmonious suburbs really do exist. But these suburbs are not exactly all sweetness, harmonious, light and wonderfulness. They found attributes of low racial prejudice suburbs that are extremely attractive and attributes that are not so attractive. You can read the details of their study in the May 2021 American Journal of Sociology: “Diversity Contract: Constructing Racial Harmony in a Diverse American Suburb.” They cover both sides of the issue. Their article has implications about how to decrease racial discrimination overall, and is a substantively important piece of work.

Texas has several low racial prejudice suburbs and neighborhoods. I personally live near a racially harmonious suburb, Pflugerville, a suburb of Austin Texas. Bellaire is a racially harmonious neighborhood in Houston with an extremely positive reputation..

Douds writes about the largest example of a racially harmonious suburb in Texas – Fort Bend County. Fort Bend County, in terms of area, is almost ten times as large as Boston, and has a larger population than the city of Boston. Its largest city, Sugar Land, is about the size of Ann Arbor, Michigan. There are several other major towns in the county.

What distinguishes these racially harmonious places from the rest of America?

  • They are extremely ethnically diverse. They approximate being 25% White, 25% Black, 25% Asian and 25% Hispanic. No one ever hits these numbers exactly – but Fort Bend County in 2020 came close: 30% white, 20% black, 22% Asian and 24% Hispanic. (The remaining 6% were mixed identification or rarer groups such as Pacific Islander).

  • There are no separate ethnic neighborhoods or ethnic turfs. Everyone shares the same neighborhoods and the same public spaces. In my own city, Austin, there are clear White neighborhoods, clear Black neighborhoods and clear Hispanic neighborhoods. There are Asian neighborhoods which are either South Asian or East Asian, typically half or majority white. The same splits apply to restaurants, parks, and schools. In racially harmonious settings like Fort Bend County, neighborhoods, restaurants, parks and schools are all mixed with all four ethnicities physically present.

  • There is an explicit ideology of racial tolerance and appreciation. Ethnic diversity is consciously and conspicuously celebrated. Fort Bend residents are expected to buy into this inclusive ideology. Racial denigration and explicit expressions of ethnic superiority or inferiority are looked down on. Residents are expected to mix and have friends and associates from a wide variety of ethnic groups. People are expected to be knowledgeable and enthusiastic about the cultures of the other groups.

  • Ethnic diversity is matched by political diversity. The racially harmonious suburbs tend to support both Democratic and Republican candidates. They are purple rather than red or blue. Candidates have to run on their individual merits, rather than getting a free pass for being liberal or conservative.

Creating racial conflict is discouraged. Discouraging racial conflict is desirable if one is wants to reduce ethnic bullying or the use of ethnic slurs. It is more problematic if unequal racial or ethnic treatment is covered by a veneer of some king of race-neutral justification. For example, Fort Bend schools do have subtle racial inequalities in areas such as school discipline, school funding or tracking. These are very hard for victimized groups to redress because even raising these issues is considered to be inappropriate “playing the race card.” Douds is sympathetic to critical race theorists such as Eduardo Bonilla-Silva who argue that “color-blindness” is a form recreating racism – and argues that color-blind discrimination is widespread in Fort Bend.

There is a great deal that is attractive about racially harmonious suburbs. Obviously, hypocrisy about pre-existing ethnic inequalities is not good; neither is pre-emptively censoring attempts to rectify unequal treatment. However, genuine interaction between different social groups, mutual appreciation of those groups, and a deep-seated culture of civility and respect are all extremely desirable. The rest of America needs the positive behavior that is modelled by racially harmonious suburbs.

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Now for the million dollar question. Why are these places so racially and ethnically tolerant, when ethnic hostility and defense of turf are the rule rather than the exception in the rest of the United States?

Kiara Wyndham-Douds has an excellent answer to this question.

Fort Bend County is rich. Pflugerville and Bellaire are not quite as rich as Fort Bend County, but they are wealthy in their own way. All of these are expensive places to live. School quality is excellent. Crime rates are low. The houses themselves are large, well-appointed and beautiful. Moving into Fort Bend County means you have made it in life.

Financial exclusiveness has three obvious consequences.

  • One’s neighbors and the people one meets on the streets are unlikely to be dangerous. Nobody is a mugger, a car thief or an addict needing to rob someone to support their habit. Your neighbor might be a white-collar crook engaging in financial fraud. But no one has to worry about being attacked while they go about the business of normal living. This de-activates any ethnic stereotypes grounded in violent criminality. Tolerance has a solid basis in trust.

  • People who live in Fort Bend are richer and more successful than people in the neighborhoods around them. Superior status does not come from being white or being Asian. It comes from being a resident of Fort Bend, and the implied social class that comes with that. Part of enjoying the exclusiveness of being a Fort Bend resident, as opposed to being a resident of a lesser county, is the extension of automatic respect to all other Fort Bend residents regardless of color or ethnicity.

  • Since it is hard to become a resident of Fort Bend, residents are highly motivated to follow the rules. Ivy League schools have their own forms of culture, which students learn, and learn to accept, in their freshman year. Exclusive communities work in similar ways. I would argue (Douds does not) that homeowners associations and other forms of local governance help to perpetuate these norms. Intolerant communities have intolerant homeowner’s associations that perpetuate a culture of exclusion. Local facilities are marked as being for “Residents Only”. Non-white visitors are challenged by local police or by the residents themselves. The same forces that perpetuate “a defensive wall” mentality in intolerant community perpetuate an open tolerant mentality in racially harmonious suburbs. Both types of community can have intrusive, pushy neighbors, bolstered by neighborhood associations, who are not shy about complaining about behavior they do not like. In Fort Bend, however, nosy neighbors are a force for good.

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Does Fort Bend offer lessons for how to reduce ethnic prejudice in America as a whole or in the world?

Yes, it does, although we may not like the lessons that are implied.

  • Making everyone rich reduces ethnic prejudice because no one is worried about poverty-oriented crime. Unfortunately, turning everyone in America or the world into a zillionaire is not going to happen any time soon.

  • Prejudice against particular ethnic groups can be mitigated when someone with even lower status appears who can be a lightning rod for group hatred. Prejudice against Italians and Jews was widespread in northern American cities in the late 19th and early 20th centuries. The migration of large numbers of Negros from the South to Northern cities in the 1940’s and 1950’s made Italians and Jews seem like a much less pressing problem. Discriminatory hostility was refocused on Blacks. Discrimination against French people in 18th century America was made moot by the arrival of Germans. Discrimination against Germans in the 19thcentury was made moot by the arrival of Italians and Poles.

People don’t necessarily become non-discriminatory and open to all human beings. But the target of who receives hostile attention can change.

Plus, as Douds points out, even when people are playing “nice”, they can still have hidden subtle forms of discrimination that put “much beloved” and “much praised” minorities into structurally disadvantaged positions.

Still, racially harmonious suburbs offer very real improvements over normal ethnic interactions in the United States. The social dialogues that occur between people of different groups really can change attitudes in fundamental positive ways.

Human beings will never be perfect. They can be made better.

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