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Behind tension over Texas pool party, a seismic shift in American suburbs (+video)

A police crackdown at a pool party in suburban Dallas points to how tensions can arise as diversity spreads into even predominantly white suburbs.

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.

“They kept on giving us a hard time, I think personally because there was a bunch of African-Americans in that neighborhood who all came to the pool on the same day,” said Brandon Brooks, who is white. 

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. Last year, the fatal shooting of an unarmed black teen by a white police officer in Ferguson launched the current turmoil over police violence.

Recommended: How many 'other Fergusons' are there?

“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.

"Diverse suburbs represent some of the nation's greatest hopes and its gravest challenges," wrote co-author Myron Orfield.

He argues that integrated communities have become crucial laboratories for the advance of racial and economic prosperity in America.

“Integrated communities have the greatest success eliminating racial disparities in education and economic opportunity,” he writes. “While non-whites in integrated communities have seen improvements in education and employment, non-white residents of segregated urban communities are further behind than ever. In integrated communities, whites and non-whites have the most positive perceptions of one another.”

But the study also suggested that the trend of suburban resegregation, seen in Ferguson decades ago, is continuing. Once a suburb hit a certain level of diversity (23 percent nonwhite), it was more likely to become predominantly nonwhite than to remain diverse. McKinney is now poised on that threshold.

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.

But while the city is still overwhelmingly white, the diversity of the student body points to changes ahead.

“School-aged populations are an excellent barometer for demographic trends more broadly in any place,” says David Troutt, a professor at Rutgers University School of Law and a Building One America board member. “Particularly in suburbs, people tend to move for schools.”

Because the schools draw students from a number of different neighborhoods, the schools themselves can be diverse while neighborhoods often remain more segregated.

“You’re going to see a much higher level of low income and minority children in the schools” than in the surrounding neighborhoods, says Scully.

A descent into resegregation, with white families again moving out, is not inevitable. When the Chicago suburb of Oak Park, Ill., faced the same migration trends as Ferguson in the 1980s, community organizers worked with real estate agents to welcome minorities while reassuring whites, according to a report by The Atlantic’s CityLab.

“In Oak Park, the community chose to embrace diversity and more importantly to embrace integration and inclusion,” Rob Breymaier of the nonprofit Oak Park Regional Housing Center told CityLab. “As a result, Oak Park has prospered and our diversity is an asset, while Ferguson appears to be struggling.”

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.

Eventually, that interaction will happen naturally in a place like McKinney, as economic growth attracts all sorts of people, says Professor Troutt. But it needs to be embraced. 

“I really see places like [McKinney] as sites of opportunity for many more Americans,” says Troutt.

“There’s nothing wrong, per se, with the dynamic of the movement of jobs further into the suburban periphery,” he adds. “This is part of the ebb and flow of capitalism. What you hope is everybody has access to those new opportunities.”

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