Commentary

Brooklyn Center and the dangers of suburban resegregation | Opinion

April 28, 2021 6:00 am

Police in riot gear stand guard outside the Brooklyn Center police station shortly after body camera footage was released of the fatal police shooting of a 20-year-old Black man. Photo by Max Nesterak/Minnesota Reformer.

Like most tragedies, the appalling police shooting of Daunte Wright in Brooklyn Center combines the predictable with the unpredictable. No one could guess in advance the exact time or place that Twin Cities police would take another Black man’s life. But no one who lived through the past year could doubt that it would happen eventually. And it’s not surprising that Brooklyn Center was where it happened, or that the city has become the center of revived unrest against police violence. More than any other place in the Twin Cities, Brooklyn Center represents a new and alarming development: The rise of suburban racial inequality.

Brooklyn Center is racially mixed and highly diverse — 38% white, 28% Black, 16% Asian, and 13% Latino. It has a higher share of residents of color than any other city in the region — including Minneapolis and Saint Paul — and the region’s largest share of Black residents. In part because it is demographically distinct from its neighbors, the city faces obstacles and discrimination that most of its neighboring communities do not fully share. 

The fundamental obstacle faced by Brooklyn Center is a process known to social scientists as “resegregation.” Resegregation is the product of large-scale demographic shifts within American metropolitan regions. The United States is becoming much more racially diverse. As it does so, the racial and economic composition of its communities are shifting.

The change is most striking in the suburbs. American suburbs were once overwhelmingly white communities — the endpoint for white flight. But today, predominantly white suburbs are the exception, not the rule. As families of color migrate from central cities into suburban homes, most suburbs have become at least moderately racially diverse.

Diverse suburbs are places to celebrate. Research shows they are often vibrant, growing and economically successful. In that sense, they represent Martin Luther King’s dream of an integrated “beloved community,” where people from many different backgrounds can live, work, and go to school together.

But many diverse suburbs struggle to stay integrated. Some have transitioned from being predominantly white, into a temporary and unstable integration — and then have continued to transition into high levels of nonwhite racial isolation. These suburbs are resegregating. 

More than any other Twin Cities suburb, Brooklyn Center is undergoing resegregation. Since 1990, its population has shifted from more than 90% white to less than 40% white, and there is no sign that the process will stop any time soon.

The chart below shows racial and economic changes since 2000 in Twin Cities suburbs with a population larger than 10,000. The changes in Brooklyn Center are the fastest of any community — although a number of other suburbs, like Brooklyn Park, Hopkins and Columbia Heights, are facing similar trends, albeit at slightly slower rate. 

The causes of resegregation are layered. First, resegregating suburbs are usually older, with large amounts of comparatively affordable housing, which makes them disproportionately attractive to working-class in-movers from the central cities. For instance, of all Twin Cities municipalities, Brooklyn Center has the second-highest number of housing units affordable at half of the region’s median income, and has the area’s lowest average home values. According to the Met Council, over 96% of housing in Brooklyn Center is at least moderately affordable — the highest share of any major suburb. 

Discrimination plays a role, too. Once a suburb becomes identifiably diverse, real estate agents are more likely to show families of color homes in that suburb, an illegal-but-pervasive practice called “steering.” 

Rapidly changing suburbs usually produce rapidly changing schools, with high and growing rates of poverty. Schools with a high proportion of low-income children typically suffer serious resource deficiencies, because the need at those schools is so much greater. This creates a potential spiral: as schools get poorer, families with the means to leave the district do so, and the loss of these families makes the schools even poorer still. In the Brooklyn Center school district, nearly 80 percent of students are now low-income — constituting the poorest district in the metro area —and the number is still rising. 

At some point, racial transition in resegregating communities is typically accelerated by white flight. Brooklyn Center is no exception: Since 2000, the city has lost about 9,000 white residents on net, or about half its white population. Meanwhile, it gained 4,500 black residents, 3,300 Latino residents and 2,700 Asian residents. 

But flight is not restricted to white families. In recent years, census data suggests the Black population of Brooklyn Center has begun to fall, too. Ultimately, middle-class and affluent families seem reluctant to live in segregated or resegregating places, regardless of their own race. Since 2000, after adjusting for inflation, Brooklyn Center’s median income has fallen nearly $10,000 dollars.

Resegregation poses tremendous challenges for any city. Social scientists have known for decades that nonwhite segregated communities in the United States face serious obstacles. 

First, race is heavily correlated with income and wealth in the United States, which means that nonwhite segregated areas tend to be very poor. The exodus of private wealth from an area can erode government services and devastate private businesses.

Second, places that are lower-income and heavily nonwhite are usually places with little political or economic capital, which makes them easy targets for discrimination and exploitation. Over time, nonwhite segregated communities usually face disinvestment, job loss and maltreatment from a variety of public and private institutions, including police. 

Historically, these problems have arisen in major cities, long the most segregated areas of the United States. But suburbs are not immune, and as they resegregate, many suburban cities have started to suffer similar trends. In fact, in some respects, declining household wealth is more harmful in suburbs than in major cities, because suburbs rely on residential property taxes for a greater share of their tax revenue.

In the Twin Cities, no major suburb is suffering economically as much as Brooklyn Center. Compared to 118 municipalities in the Twin Cities area, Brooklyn Center had the 16th largest decline in jobs between 2008 and 2015, and the 12th lowest median household incomes. It had the fourth highest poverty rate — second-highest among all suburbs, only lower than tiny Lauderdale. The city has experienced the region’s third-largest decline in the number of middle- and upper-income residents, losing about a sixth of such residents since 2000. And the city itself has the worst tax capacity per capita of any city in the whole region, and the largest decline in tax capacity between 2008 and 2015. As poverty and racial isolation in Brooklyn Center grow, so does the potential for abuses like Daunte Wright’s killing — and so does the capacity for community anger, as demonstrated in the protests that followed.  

Brooklyn Center cannot solve this problem alone, because the causes are not found within in its borders but across the entire Twin Cities region. But it does not face this problem alone, either. As the graph above suggests, many other Twin Cities suburbs are likely to encounter similar challenges within a few years. Coordinated regional action has the potential to address the root causes of growing inequality, including housing affordability and discrimination, and school change and segregation.

The Twin Cities are fortunate to be one of the few regions in the nation to have an effective mechanism to solve region-wide problems: The regional government of the Met Council. In the past, this agency has embraced its role ensuring that poorer communities did not face undue burdens — and wealthier communities did their fair share to provide opportunity to all Twin Cities residents. More recently, the Met Council has been reluctant to take an aggressive role in policymaking. 

But the Twin Cities can’t make the problem of resegregation vanish by avoiding it. It can only choose whether to address that problem, or not. Until it does, the inequality and suffering in the region’s suburbs is only likely to increase.

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Will Stancil
Will Stancil

Will Stancil is a research fellow at the University of Minnesota Law School Institute on Metropolitan Opportunity. His work focuses on civil rights law and policy in housing and education.

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