Ferguson, a Symbol of the Shifting Urban Suburbs

In some ways the scenes from Ferguson, Mo., this week are very familiar to Americans – police in tactical gear facing off against tense and angry citizenry. But in some of the videos and photos there is an unfamiliar backdrop: residential suburbia.

There are many stories out of the small Missouri town this week, but a big one is that it’s not just about Ferguson. It’s also about the changing face of the towns that sit near the nation’s biggest cities, the inner-ring Urban Suburbs. The American Communities Project at American University puts 107 counties into this Urban Suburb category, and those counties look very different than they did in the year 2000.

St. Louis County, where Ferguson sits, is classified as an Urban Suburb in the American Communities Project. The Urban Suburbs are in dark orange on the map below.

In 2000, the Urban Suburbs were 67% non-Hispanic white, 12% African American and 13% Hispanic. By 2012, the non-Hispanic white population had dropped to 59%, the African-American population had climbed to 13% and the Hispanic population was roughly 18%.

Here’s how these suburbs looked in 2000:

The chart above suggests that, on the whole, the increasing racial and ethnic diversity in these counties was due to a sharp rise in the Hispanic population. That’s been true across the country, of course, as the Hispanic population has grown nationally – from about 12.5% in 2000 to about 17.1% in 2012.

But the Urban Suburbs didn’t just lose whites as a percentage of the whole; they lost them in real terms. There were some 41 million whites in those counties in 2000 and about 39 million in 2012. That’s while the U.S. non-Hispanic white population grew by about nine million nationally.

And in some places, like St. Louis County (west of the city of St. Louis), the shifts were more about growing African American populations than Hispanics. (We wrote more about the town of Ferguson’s shifting demographics earlier this week.) In all the Urban Suburb counties in the table below, the percentage of African Americans grew as the number of white residents declined.

Urban Suburb Counties with Large Growth in African American Populations

County % African American 2000 % African American 2012 African American Population Change
Baltimore County, MD 20% 26% +57,334
St. Louis County, MO 19% 23% +37,729
Delaware County, PA 14% 19% +29,712
Oakland County, MI 10% 13% +40,273

The numbers are all signs of how the suburbs are changing, particularly those closest to the country’s biggest cities. The Urban Suburbs, as a group, have also seen increases in poverty – more than 12% of their population live in poverty now, compared to less than 9% in 2000.

To be clear, all these changes are not making the suburbs “poor.” The Urban Suburb counties, as a group, still have the highest average median household income of any of the types in the American Communities Project and the highest percentage of households earning more than $200,000, more than 7% do. The changes moving through the suburbs are remaking them in a more fundamental way.

Much has been made in recent years of the how the country is witnessing “the end of the suburbs.” But the other way to think about the changes in the suburbs is they represent the triumph of the cities. The suburbs are becoming more like the big cities they sit near – more diverse with a combination of rich and poor residents, and in some cases that is creating tensions.

None of this means that the confrontations that we have seen in Ferguson this week are going to start appearing in other suburbs around the country – it was the shooting of unarmed teen Michael Brown last weekend that was the catalyst to the town’s troubles. But it does mean the elements that sit underneath those tensions may be present in more suburbs today than they have been previously.

This post originally ran on the Wall Street Journal’s Washington Wire blog.

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