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Professor Kevin M. Kruse on "suburban secession"
"White flight was not just a physical phenomenon."
Suburbs in swing states will play a pivotal role in deciding the upcoming midterm elections. To learn how the ‘burbs developed in Georgia, I spoke to Professor Kevin M. Kruse at Princeton. Professor Kruse is a specialist in modern American political, social, and urban/suburban history. He's the author and editor of several books, including White Flight: Atlanta and the Making of Modern Conservatism.
We talked about the role of transportation in cementing “the secession” of suburbs from Atlanta, and how this transformation, which occurred all over the country, changed conservative politics. Carnivorous fish also made an appearance in our conversation.
A condensed transcript edited for clarity is below. Paying subscribers can access audio of the full conversation here. To sign up for free and paid content, click below:
Ben: Professor Kruse, thank you so much for joining us.
KK: My pleasure.
Ben: Today I’d like to focus a bit on transportation, the growth of the suburbs, and their centrality to US elections, particularly in the Atlanta area. I suppose a good place to begin is by talking about traffic. For the uninitiated, is traffic bad in Atlanta?
KK: Traffic is legendarily bad in Atlanta. It’s funny, my sister was up visiting a week ago and when I lived in Atlanta doing research for White Flight, she lived just over the city limit line in Gwinnett County. We were wondering why we didn't see each other more. And then we were like, Oh, right, the traffic.
It would be an hour, two-hour trip sometimes to get just from the city to the suburbs, and there are people who do that for their daily commute.
Ben: A convenient excuse for not visiting your loved ones. Can we go back in time to explore how the traffic got so bad, and what traffic has to do with the ‘burbs?
KK: Yeah. So the City of Atlanta has often thought of itself as incredibly progressive. Mayor Bill Hartsfield, in office from 1942–1962, called Atlanta “the city too busy to hate.” But the story’s a little more complicated than that.
As the Civil Rights Movement broke down the walls of segregation and discrimination, Atlanta’s population exploded. It hit a population of one million with much hullabaloo. Suddenly, the city had to think about new systems of transportation to make that metropolis work, like the interstate highways. It also had to consider public transportation, which hadn’t really been a thing in the South, especially not in Atlanta.
When the city was first considering where new interstate highways would go in the early 1960s, the mayor was quite explicit in wanting the highways to go between the white and Black communities. Legally, you couldn't formally segregate the races. You couldn't say this neighborhood is zoned white. This neighborhood is zoned Black. But you could certainly lay a major infrastructure project down between historically segregated neighborhoods to keep them separated, and that’s what Atlanta did.
Ben: Right, in White Flight, you say the federal government shouldered much of the financial burden of the highways, but local planners got to decide where they went. And the explanation they often gave was something like, Erm, the highways just happen to run through predominantly Black neighborhoods.
KK: Yeah, and it's no surprise, right? When we think about the highways built in the 50s and 60s, they weren’t laid down on a blank canvas. They went through 100- or 200-year-old cities. And if you were going to lay down a major road, you’d have to wipe out certain neighborhoods.
So the calculus for any mayor had to be, which neighborhood do we sacrifice? Well, they naturally picked the neighborhoods they regarded as slums. Which neighborhoods did they regard as slums? Usually poor minority neighborhoods. This logic appeared across the country, to the point that if you want to know where the poor Black neighborhoods were in any major city in say, 1940 or 1950—and I'm talking, Kansas City, Cleveland, wherever—go look at where the highways are today. Because they almost always ran through those neighborhoods, displacing people of color in the process.
Ben: So the highways were constructed, and they ran through these so-called “blighted” neighborhoods. Who used the new roads and how did drivers feel about public transportation?
KK: As cities built highways to bring those people in and out of the city for work, a question arose: what do you do for the people who don't have a car? And this is where the story of MARTA (the Metropolitan Atlanta Rapid Transit Authority) comes in because obviously, one way to relieve congestion on highways is to get people to take trains.
I live in New Jersey. You're in New York. Between us, New Jersey Transit does a lot of the heavy lifting. The New Jersey Turnpike and the Garden State Parkway are still pretty packed, but they'd be a lot more packed without those trains bringing in commuters.
Ben: Don't forget about the Dinky.
KK: The Dinky, yes. For those who don't know, the Dinky is the vital train that links Princeton to Princeton Junction. It’s a local institution. [Editor’s note: the Dinky is the shortest commuter rail line in the country.]
But commuter trains can bring anyone in, right? Not just the people who can afford a car. And there was real fear on the part of white suburbanites that trains would bring “certain people” away from the center city out into their suburbs. So from the onset, they opposed MARTA, even if it led to the kind of traffic we see today.
Ben: In White Flight, you quote Emmett Burton, a politician in Cobb County just outside of Atlanta, as saying he's so committed to preventing MARTA's growth that he promised to “stock the Chattahoochee [a local river] with piranha” if that were necessary to keep MARTA and Black Atlantians away.
Ben: Just to be clear, was the train supposed to go through the water and the piranha would stop the train? How was that supposed to work?
KK: I don't think he thought it through. I think the metaphor was that the river was a moat, right? They'd do anything to keep “those people” away. At the time, Cobb County was 96% white. Gwinnett County to the northeast was 95% white. A sliver of Fulton County between them was 99% white.
And there was a feeling in these counties that the civil rights struggle had overtaken the city. They wanted out, and the last thing they wanted was for minorities to follow them across the river.
Ben: How did the predominantly white counties/suburbs begin to play into conservative political strategy in the 1970s, 80s, and 90s?
KK: Well, what I argue in the book is that white flight was not just a physical phenomenon. It was also a political transformation. In the process of uprooting their lives, many white people changed their basic political assumptions and embraced a new sort of politics.
Think about the relationship new suburbanites had to, say, public places. When they lived in Atlanta, white residents had lots of public places that were available to them: public parks, public pools, public golf courses, and on and on. Most white Atlantians thought of them as their spaces, as spaces that were paid for by their taxes.
As those spaces opened up during the Civil Rights Movement, white citizens didn't see them as shared spaces. They saw them as lost spaces. This was a zero-sum game, and they perceived every gain by African Americans as a loss for white people, so they resolved to stop using these spaces. And if you don't want to use public spaces, if you opt for private spaces instead—well, that’s where we see the origins of a tax revolt.
In fact, although we associate a conservative move toward privatization with Reagan and the 80s and beyond, it actually began to take hold in the 50s and 60s. There was a trend toward private golf courses, private swimming pools, and private schools. White citizens sought private spaces as alternatives to integrated shared spaces.
This is what I call the politics of suburban secession, or what political economist Robert Reich dubbed the “secession of the successful.” In essence, it’s really just leave-me-alone politics. From the 50s onward, suburban conservatives didn’t want the government involved in their lives, which was a change from the attitude they held when living in cities before.
Ben: As you point out in your book, suburbs have diversified over the past few decades. And yet in 2019, Gwinnett County, one of the counties outside of Atlanta, still voted against MARTA's expansion. How do you reconcile changing demographics with continued resistance to public services?
KK: My hunch is that, as we’ve reviewed, suburbs were literally built around a certain set of assumptions. The physical environment of a suburb favors having a car. Again, in my sister's neighborhood in Gwinnett, there weren't sidewalks on the side of the street because who would walk there? It’s assumed that you have to have a car to get anywhere.
Ben: Or maybe a Razor Scooter.
KK: Well, yeah, or maybe a skateboard. But the built environment means that even if you come in and you don't have these racial attitudes about people in the cities, your assumption is I've got a car. Everyone's got a car. Why do we need public transportation?
So a place can get locked into a certain set of policy choices even as its population changes.
Ben: Heading into the 2022 midterms, many publications report that the suburbs are the most crucial voting bloc in swing states like Georgia. Should we be troubled that communities that formed around segregationist instincts hold so much influence today?
KK: Well, in some ways, sure. There are undoubtedly holdouts in swing state suburbs who still live outside of cities for racially motivated reasons.
But in other ways, this is just a demographic reality now. 1968 was the first election when there were more people in the suburbs than there were in cities or rural areas. By 1992, there were more people in the suburbs than anywhere else in the country combined.
So, increasingly, we’re a suburban nation, but not all suburbs are the same. The idea of having a Mad Men world where the suburbs are all uniformly white and upper/middle-class conservative was certainly the original model, but even back then, there were working-class and prominent Black suburbs. (Scholars like Becky Nicolaides and Andy Wiese have written great books on both.) And those kinds of suburbs have become more and more common today.
So I don't think there’s reason to fear that suburbs are all one kind, and our politics are therefore all one kind. We've seen the suburbs bounce back and forth between blue and red in recent elections. I think the simple fact that they're so hotly contested shows how much of suburbia and the US as a whole is contested now, too. So things are up in the air at the moment, and it'll take a future historian to decide where we landed.
Ben: Here’s hoping the landing isn’t too rough. Thanks so much for being here, Professor Kruse.
KK: My pleasure.