Diversifying suburbs and gentrifying cities: What pundits rushing to credit white voters for defeating Trump are missing


Photo: Joe Biden for President, Flickr. License.

In this election, the Biden-Harris ticket is poised to end up with over 80 million votes, the most of any candidate for president in history. Joe Biden's mandate will include 306 electoral votes, 51% or more of the popular vote, and five former Trump states, including two states that haven't gone blue in this century.

The data shows that Biden's impressive win is the continuation of a trend of suburban voters moving away from Trump, a trend that started in the 2018 midterms. Donald Trump, who admittedly turned out to be a turnout machine among key Republican demographics like white voters without a college degree, evangelical Christians, and rural voters, largely held his own among deep-blue urban population centers, and in some cases even made small gains even as Biden, as expected, dominated in those places.

The suburban movement toward Biden has caught the attention of analysts, but unfortunately, too much of the analysis clings onto a blind - and factually wrong - assumption that suburbs are essentially white America, and therefore, Biden's suburban dominance can only be credited to white voters, who were willing to take a chance on Trump in 2016, turning on him in 2020.

Nate Cohen and a few other journalists penned an analysis on how Georgia turned blue in the New York Times that falls victim to this exact fallacy. The bottom-line argument Cohen, et al, make is this: Black voter turnout in Georgia did not rise as much as others, and thus couldn't have been part of the coalition responsible for Biden's win. Since Biden made (over Clinton in 2016) "little to no gains" in "majority Black precincts" in and around Atlanta, but did make significant gains in "suburban rings around Atlanta", the analysis concludes that Black turnout did not help Joe Biden. Since metro Atlanta is more than 80% white or Black, and Biden didn't gain among "Black majority" precincts, it should be obvious just which voters Cohen et al think do deserve the lion's share of credit for Biden flipping the state.

This structuring of the data is not just racially biased, it's also factually faulty. There is a great deal of evidence to suggest that the blue shift in the suburbs - both those of Atlanta and nationwide - are in large part due to the changing demographics in those suburbs themselves. About 8 in 10 African Americans in metro Atlanta live in the suburbs, for example, a number comparable to the suburbs of other cities with significant Black populations. Nationwide, more than half of immigrants now live in the suburbs, more than half of voters of color live in the suburbs, and almost 4 in 10 suburbanites are non-white.

Aside from massive support for Joe Biden among Black voters, other significant racial demographic factor moving Georgia to Biden's column was Asian voters. Asian American turnout expanded by more than 50% in the state to more than 114,000, and more than a quarter of those voters were voting for the first time. Vice President-elect Kamala Harris is Black and Asian American.

Where do lots of Asian voters live? You guessed it: suburbs.

Along with their inability to factor in localized demographics of suburbs in their election analysis, pundits are also failing to account for a counterfactor when analyzing urban cores of many cities: gentrification. Gentrification has served to make cities - especially majority Black cities - more white (and in some cases, more Asian) but less Black and less Latino. Just in this century, Atlanta's African American population has fallen from 67% to barely half. Between 1990 and 2010, the Black population of Oakland, California, fell from 44% to 28%.

While gentrification pushes poor Black families out of the cities, more affluent Black families are diversifying the suburbs. Consider the combined effects of this, and it becomes clear why Trump did marginally "better" than four years ago among urban cores (though still being dominated by Biden) while Biden trounced Trump in the suburbs.

Suburbs are still 'majority' white even as they diversify, of course, just as urban cores of many cities are still Black and brown despite gentrification. But that does not mean that gentrification is not changing the demographics of urban cores, or that diversification isn't giving suburbs a makeover.

The preponderance of the evidence does not, in fact, point to the political battlefield moving from demographics to geography; instead, it points to changing geographical voting patterns because of how racial demographics are changing with specific geographic segments, specifically the suburbs. Suburbs did not go for Joe Biden because a great deal of white voters had an epiphany; they went for Biden because they are becoming less white.