Behind Tension over Texas Pool Party, a Seismic Shift in American Suburbs

Henry Gass, Christian Science-Monitor, June 9, 2015

The video of a white police officer roughly wrestling a 14-year-old, bikini-clad black girl to the ground–then drawing his gun at another group of teens–has taken the national debate over excessive police violence to a new setting: white suburbs.

That setting is significant. The spread of the controversy over race and policing into a Dallas suburb that is 75 percent white suggests that diversity is in some cases catching up with “white flight.”

Suburbs like McKinney, Texas, that grew as white Americans left urban areas and inner suburbs behind are now becoming more diverse themselves. Minority enrollment in the six public high schools in the McKinney school district ranges from 36 percent to more than 70 percent, according to analysis by U.S. News & World Report.

That new dynamic might have played a role in fueling the conflict at the end-of-school pool party last weekend, according to some reports. Details are still fragmented, but the reports suggest that police were called after an argument broke out between a white woman and an African-American girl. The teens may have been breaking pool rules and jumping over the fence to get in. Other reports suggest a deejay may have been playing explicit music at the pool.

Some of the adults were telling the black children to “go back to your Section 8 [public] housing,” according to BuzzFeed News. The teen who shot the video of the police officer told a reporter that some of the adults at the pool seemed disturbed at the number of African-American teens at the pool.

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The scene points to the evolving reality of suburban America, some say. In a country as diverse and dynamic as America, attempts to keep problems and people out are unsustainable in the long term. McKinney is now what Ferguson, Mo., was 30 years ago, says Paul Scully, executive director for Building One America, a group that advocates for policies that support diverse suburban communities.

In 1980, Ferguson was 85 percent white; now it is 67 percent black. {snip}

“This kind of very rapid change–with people running away from each other from one city to another, from one school district to another–is part of our American problem,” says Mr. Scully.

Data suggest that suburbs nationwide are growing more diverse. Some 44 percent of America’s suburbanites live in racially diverse communities–defined as being 20 to 60 percent nonwhite–according to a 2012 study by the Institute on Metropolitan Opportunity at the University of Minnesota Law School.

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The population of McKinney has exploded from 21,000 in 1990 to 131,000 in 2010, according to census data. “Consistently ranked as one of America’s fastest-growing cities, McKinney retains its hometown charm and boasts incomparable quality of life,” the town says on its website.

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Private communities in suburbs can exacerbate tensions. The incident in McKinney, which took place at a private community called Craig Ranch, “is not new or rare in the changing economic demographics of black and white America,” writes Edward Blakely, a professor of urban policy at the United States Studies Centre in Sydney, Australia, in an e-mail to the Monitor.

“Gated communities, private communities, and private pools are a continuation of an attempt at racial division,” says Professor Blakely, who has written extensively on gated and private communities. “But as blacks climb the [economic] ladder, race-space wars will heat up because no gates or fences will work anymore.”

Dealing with such division means finding ways to promote more contact among groups, says Robin Wright, a research associate at the Kirwan Institute for the Study of Race and Ethnicity at Ohio State University in Columbus.

Living in a homogeneous community “allows your biases to go on unnoticed, and so when you do have [interactions] with someone of a different culture and race, the possibility is you’re not even aware you have biases,” she says.

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