Suburbs see shifting racial mix

Playground fun
First-graders on the playground at Red Oak Elementary School in Shakopee, Minn. Wednesday, April 6, 2011. Most of the region's population growth over the last decade occurred in second- and third-ring suburbs, led by Shakopee, which added 16,508 people.
MPR Photo/Jeffrey Thompson

The Twin Cities suburbs are more diverse than you might think. A study released today shows communities in the first and second rings surrounding Minneapolis and St. Paul are seeing rapid changes in their racial makeup.

But the report from the University of Minnesota Law School cautions it will take hard work to keep these integrated suburbs racially balanced.

The two most racially diverse cities in the state are not the twin cities you might expect. They're the western suburbs of Brooklyn Park and Brooklyn Center, where racial minorities now make up about half of the cities' populations.

And it's not just the two Brooklyns that have grown more diverse. Places like Bloomington, Richfield, Columbia Heights, Maplewood have sizable minority communities. The study shows that in the east-metro suburbs of Woodbury and Eagan, about one in five residents is a person of color.

Myron Orfield is one of the study's authors and directs the university's Institute on Metropolitan Opportunity. He defines these diverse suburbs as places where 20 to 60 percent of its population is not white. Orfield sees that as a kind of sweet spot for racial integration.

"These racially diverse suburbs are wonderful places. They do the best job at reducing the achievement gap. In these places, race relations are the best," Orfield said. "They're bipartisan places, where people of different parties have to cope. They're a model for what a multiracial metropolitan America should be like."

"These racially diverse suburbs are wonderful places... They're a model for what a multiracial metropolitan America should be like."

Orfield said some of these suburbs are even more integrated than core cities. He refers to schools in Minneapolis and St. Paul that he contends are moving sharply toward segregation.

Yet, some diverse suburbs are at risk of losing their racial and social stability, Orfield said. In metropolitan areas across the country, integrated communities struggle to remain that way. Orfield said discriminatory lending practices and real-estate agents who steer white families away from these cities are part of the problem.

These suburbs become re-segregated when they turn predominantly non-white. Orfield says that leads to isolation and disinvestment.

"One of the things that is very clear in the U.S. is that as you move to non-white communities, you lose middle-class families as well," Orfield said.

"Once a destination for whites avoiding city neighborhoods, many of these areas now struggle to maintain racial and economic diversity while competing against newer, whiter, and richer suburban communities that are often resistant to affordable housing and racial diversity," the report says.

In Minnesota, no suburb has yet to reach the point where more than 60 percent of its population is not white. But Orfield says it is important for policy makers to make sure diverse communities stay integrated. He says a strategy of placing more affordable housing in more affluent, solidly white suburbs on the region's outer edge can help.

Myron Orfield
Myron Orfield, director of the Institute on Metropolitan Opportunity, co-authored a study showing the nation's racially diverse suburbs are growing at a faster rate than predominately white suburbs. Orfield is seated at his office at the University of Minnesota Law School on July 18, 2012.
MPR Photo/Laura Yuen

Places in rapid transition, like Brooklyn Park, are starting to talk about the changes.

Elizabeth Tolzmann is in charge of the city's community engagement efforts. As a Southeast Asian-American who is representative of the area's changing demographics, Tolzmann has been bringing residents together to talk about diversity as an asset. She said one concern is that longtime white residents will leave the city.

"I don't think we sense that yet, but I think we're cognizant and don't want that to happen. That's the whole point of why we're trying to have this community engagement initiative, because we don't want to scare people or instill that image of moving away from the community."

In the meantime, cities like Brooklyn Park continue to attract more residents. The study finds that diverse suburbs across the nation are growing faster than their predominantly white counterparts.

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