Professor Ernest McGowen in his office.

No, President Trump, suburbia is no longer all white - and Black suburbanites are more politically active than their neighbors

October 28, 2020

The Conversation

Political science professor Ernest McGowen authored this piece.

By: Ernest B. McGowen III, University of Richmond

President Donald Trump has tweeted up a storm about how his Democratic challenger Joe Biden wants to “abolish suburbs” and institute programs that would bring impoverished criminals into the suburbs, where they will destroy the “suburban lifestyle dream.”

In the final stages of his campaign, Trump has made an explicit appeal to suburban women: “So can I ask you to do me a favor? Suburban women, will you please like me? I saved your damn neighborhood,” the president said at a rally in Johnstown, Pennsylvania, in mid-October.

I am a political scientist who studies race in America’s suburbs; my book “African Americans in White Suburbia: Social Networks and Political Behavior” was published in 2017. I contend that Trump’s tweets are not about the actual suburbs.

Instead, they are meant to evoke an archetypal identity for a place historically rooted in the maintenance of racial segregation and white supremacy.

Trump’s image of the suburbs is filled with white people; his tweets are aimed at getting them to vote for him. But there is another contingent of suburban residents – African Americans – who may experience his tweets as provocation to participate in the election in a different direction.

My research indicates that Trump’s appeals may spark an unintended countermobilization. Half of African Americans in the U.S. live in the suburbs. These voters, typically of higher socioeconomic status when compared with their white neighbors, are more likely to mobilize others who – in the face of Trump’s unsubtle racist signals – may now be motivated to vote for Democrats, particularly in races lower down on the ballot.

What is a suburb?

Ask an American to describe the suburbs and they will likely paint a picture of single-family houses, manicured lawns and minivans. They may also speak of the suburbs as a symbol of socioeconomic achievement.

Those things constitute the mythology of the suburbs. They’re not the empirical measurements that social scientists use to measure life in the suburbs. Those include income levels, crime rates and racial makeup.

In practice, the federal government’s definition of a suburb is any place surrounding an urban area that is neither urban nor rural. For instance, the Census Bureau’s Philadelphia-Camden-Wilmington Metropolitan Statistical Area includes the urban centers of those cities and a suburban area between them that crosses three states – Pennsylvania, New Jersey and Delaware.

Trump’s tweets speak to an imagined and well-to-do stereotypical suburban resident who fears the bogeymen of poverty and crime. That combination of threats has historically had a Black or Latino face.

Who really is a suburbanite?

Trump is likely not referring to the actual suburbs in his tweets. According to data from Pew, while suburban residents are still predominantly white, their share declined between 2000 and 2016, from 76% to 68% of all suburban residents.

Poverty is increasing in the suburbs because of job sprawl. Trump has charged that low-income people are moving to the suburbs because they’re attracting to its low-income housing. But he’s wrong: The suburbs are in flux because of the new geography of jobs.

In a 2010 study whose revealing title was “Job Sprawl and the Suburbanization of Poverty,” Brookings Institution researchers attributed the rise in the number of poor suburbanites to the availability of low-skilled jobs, like service or manufacturing, that have moved to the suburbs. In findings using data from 1999 to 2015, urban planning scholar Andrew Schouten notes that the number of suburban residents in poverty is increasing at double the rate of the central cities.

Four voters who are Black casting ballots.
Residents cast their votes at a polling place on Nov. 4, 2014, near Ferguson, Missouri, a suburb of St. Louis that is now majority Black. Scott Olson/Getty Images

The suburbs’ racial history

During the period between 1932 and 1964, the suburbs served as a government-subsidized path to the middle class that was designed to exclude Blacks and other “minority” groups such as Irish and Jewish Americans.

At the beginning of suburban development, buyers and sellers had to sign restrictive housing covenants stating that they would not sell their house to a person of color.

At the same time, the federal government would not extend housing loans to citizens who lived in nonwhite neighborhoods and would lower the assessment of a home’s value (the most valuable asset) if Black people lived nearby.

So Trump’s invocation of “suburbs” as an achievement of the American dream is rooted in the fact that the dream was realized through the explicit racialization of home ownership and opportunity.

Suburban African American countermobilization

My research suggests that Trump’s racially coded tweets may produce a countermobilization from suburban African Americans.

In 2008 and 2016 these voters, who are often of higher socioeconomic status than their white neighbors, were statistically more likely than white suburbanites to get involved in politics, even outside their home communities. This includes distributing political or interest group information, sharing information on social media, signing petitions and attending protests. For example, 11% of suburban African Americans are likely to attend a protest as opposed to 0.07% of their white neighbors.

Suburban Blacks are in a unique position compared to their neighbors, co-workers, and even the majority of their coethnics. Following my book’s publication, I analyzed the 2016 Collaborative Multiracial Post-Election Survey, focusing on Americans in ZIP codes that are less than 20% Black, encompassing the very areas that Trump and residents may consider suburbs.

A familiar story emerges. Most Americans believe political participation is primarily designed to affect their immediate community.

But suburban African Americans do not believe their neighbors share their political views. Politically, this means these African American voters are in a position where they are surrounded by people with similar incomes, education and occupations. Yet on their primary identity, race, they are very different.

Political interests not in their backyard

Evidence from 2008 and 2016 shows that suburban African Americans are less likely to vote in their local congressional races, but are more likely to engage in alternative forms of political participation such as donating to minority candidates, writing letters to newspapers and attending protests.

Unlike voting, these behaviors are not tied to a geographic jurisdiction. They include donating to legal challenges to statue removal in a state where they do not live or to a PTA in another community that conducts voter registration drives. Their opinions suggest that they devote their political resources to particular racial interests.

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The data show that these mostly suburban African Americans are in fact more likely to participate in behaviors like distributing political or interest group information, sharing information on social media, signing petitions and attending protests when compared with their white neighbors.

Trump’s pleas to suburbanites may spur these African American residents to work in swing states and competitive races lower down on the ballot.

So while Trump’s racialized pleas toward “suburban” voters could have the desired effect – gaining the support of white women in those communities – they could also spur other suburbanites to mobilize the very people he vilifies.The Conversation


Ernest B. McGowen III, Associate Professor of Political Science, University of Richmond

This article is republished from The Conversation under a Creative Commons license. Read the original article.

Associate Professor of Music Joanna Love studies popular music and how it influences a range of areas including advertising, video, and film. She also researches the use of popular music by politicians to influence voters, which has a long history in the American political landscape.

How long has music been used for political campaigning? Was it always done?

The short answer is yes. Music is a powerful tool for both communicating specific messages and uniting people. As early as 1789, a song titled “Follow Washington” was created to celebrate the coronation of the first U.S. president. From then on, songs have been written, performed, published, and recorded for many candidates. Although many have positive messages that rally support for certain candidates, others like “Turn the Rascals Out” (1892), admonish those in office. Two wonderful online public resources for learning more about music in presidential campaigns are the websites: The Living Room Candidate and Trax on the Trail.

Music is tricky since it is understood differently by each listener, and using the wrong track can potentially alienate certain constituents.
headshot of Joanna Love
Joanna Love

Associate Professor of Music

How is popular music and culture used in modern presidential campaigns? 

Presidential candidates use popular music on the campaign trail in many ways, including rallies, conventions, and commercials. In the 21st century, candidates have created public playlists and there has been a proliferation of non-official, user-generated YouTube videos that use pop music to praise or denounce certain politicians. In some cases, famous musicians have even written songs to support specific candidates or policies.

Music is used to attract voters and communicate a candidate’s values and tastes. But as I discuss in my research, choosing popular music is tricky since it is understood differently by each listener, and using the wrong track can potentially alienate certain constituents. When popular music is used, especially familiar tracks, it has the potential to overtake the political message. This is why many political commercials continue to favor the sounds of Western classical music over popular music.

Many times campaigns that use popular music choose a more generic pop-rock sound that will allow audiences to recognize it as contemporary, while still falling into the background to support the candidate’s spoken message.

How have you seen music strategically used in this year’s presidential election?

This year’s election has been unusual for many reasons, including the COVID-19 pandemic. I still see a lot of spots using classical sounds. But there are a few notable and unusual ways that music and sound, or the lack thereof, has been deployed thus far. The first is a commercial that aired during the 2020 MTV Video Music Awards, on which the program itself deployed countless artists and spots to encourage young people to vote. One in particular stood out: Pepsi-Cola’s “Unmute your Voice”. The commercial was created through a partnership with MTV’s long-running “Rock the Vote” campaign and engages with our current dependency on video calling culture (Zoom, Skype, Facetime, Google Hangouts, etc.). Although Pepsi has been a long-time purveyor of popular music in its ads, this commercial is notable for its absence of music, “muting” its protagonists as they speak, and using only environmental sounds to drive home the point that the worries of the younger generations — rising college tuition costs, unemployment, and inclusive communities — will go “unheard” if they don’t vote.

Sometimes musicians object to the way their music is used in campaigns. Do they have much say in how their songs are employed in this way?

This is a complicated question. In legal terms, candidates must technically license any songs they use in a public forum, although there are some loopholes. It is also important to realize that some artists do not own exclusive rights to the songs they record, so their objections may not have any legal basis. I would say, however, in terms of preserving a candidate’s cultural capital and integrity with voters, it is in their best interests to stop using any songs to which its artists object.

By: Tracy Roof, University of Richmond 

The government spent a record US$85.6 billion on the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program in the fiscal year ending in September. This sum, included in an October Treasury Department report, was about 35% higher than the $63.5 billion the federal government spent in 2019.

Spending on this state-administered program, which helps struggling families put food on the table, typically rises and falls in tandem with unemployment and poverty. Along with unemployment insurance, SNAP is one of the most responsive programs in a recession. The most vulnerable families can get benefits within seven days of applying.

Before the coronavirus pandemic, SNAP spending had been steadily declining since a 2013 peak of nearly $80 billion following the Great Recession. But as the COVID-19-triggered economic crisis hit, monthly spending more than doubled, from $4.9 billion in February to $10.6 billion in June, according to Treasury Department data.

The jump came from two factors. First, more people are getting benefits. Second, roughly 60% of the families who get them are eligible for more support than before.

Specifically, after the Families First Coronavirus Response Act relief package Congress passed in March 2020, the government temporarily offered the maximum benefit, typically given only to those with no income, to all families on SNAP. Following a 5.3% increase announced Oct. 1 in response to rising food costs, that maximum level stands at $680 a month for a family of four.

Despite this SNAP spending boost, lines at food banks have grown much longer during the pandemic.

To help both overwhelmed food banks and struggling farmers, the U.S. Department of Agriculture launched the Farmers to Families Food Box Program. The government had sent by mid-October 110 million boxes of fresh fruit, vegetables, dairy products and meat to food banks and other organizations assisting people facing economic hardship.

The USDA is spending about $4 billion to purchase the food. But the program has been criticized by lawmakers and anti-hunger groups as inefficient and poorly managed. Although food banks have appreciated the help, even people who run food banks see SNAP as the best way to help the hungry.

In fact, in researching the history of SNAP for an upcoming book, I found that the program long known as food stamps slowly replaced another program distributing surplus food to the needy in the 1960s. Government researchers found that giving families stamps to exchange for food in grocery stores was more efficient and effective.

In 2019, 92% of SNAP spending went directly to benefits. The program boosts the economy, leading to more consumer spending and jobs. SNAP also provides nine meals for every one meal supplied by Feeding America, the largest network of food banks.

Almost 2,500 organizations serving the poor are calling for increasing maximum SNAP benefits by 15%. This would help all families on SNAP – including the 40% with the lowest incomes who have not gotten additional help so far during the pandemic. The House passed relief legislation in May and October that called for this 15% increase. As of late October, the Senate had not taken this step even though food insecurity has grown substantially.The Conversation


Tracy Roof, Associate Professor of Political Science, University of Richmond

This article is republished from The Conversation under a Creative Commons license. Read the original article.

By: Todd Lookingbill, University of Richmond and Peter Smallwood, University of Richmond

The horrors of war are all too familiar: lives lost, homes destroyed, entire communities forced to flee. Yet as time passes, places that once were sites of death and destruction can become peaceful natural refuges.

One of the deadliest battles fought on U.S. soil, for example, was the Battle of Gettysburg. Tens of thousands of men were killed or wounded in three days of fighting. Over 150 years later, millions of visitors have toured Gettysburg Battlefield.

Across the U.S., 25 national battlefield and military parks have been established to protect battlefield landscapes and memorialize the past. Increasingly, visitors to these sites are attracted as much by their natural beauty as their historical legacy.

Our book, “Collateral Values: The Natural Capital Created by Landscapes of War,” describes the benefits to society when healthy natural habitats develop on former battlefields and other military landscapes, such as bases and security zones. Environmental scientist Gary Machlis coined the phrase “collateral values” – a spin on the military expression “collateral damage” – to describe the largely unintended and positive consequences of protecting these lands.

These benefits include opportunities for picnicking, hiking and bird watching. More importantly, former military lands can support wildlife conservation, reduce water and air pollution, enhance pollination of natural and agricultural areas and help regulate a warming climate.

Watershed adventure camp at Staunton River Battlefield State Park, Virginia. Virginia State Parks, CC BY

From battlefields to parks

In addition to federally protected sites, hundreds of battlefields in the U.S. are preserved by states, local governments and nonprofits like the American Battlefield Trust. Collectively, these sites represent an important contribution to the nation’s public lands.

Preserved battlefields include old fort sites, like the 33 that have been designated public lands in Oklahoma and Texas, marking wars fought between European settlers and Native Americans. They also include coastal defense forts built in the first half of the 1800s along the Atlantic and Pacific seaboards. While some battlefield parks are quite large, others are small sites in urban settings.

Internationally, the United Kingdom has an active program to preserve its battlefields, some centuries old. Other Western European countries have preserved World War I and World War II battlefields.

For example, one of the most brutal battles of WWI was fought in Verdun, France. That trench warfare site is now 25,000 acres of regenerated forest that attracts more than a quarter-million visitors annually. It protects a biologically rich landscape, including wetlands, orchids, birds, bats, newts, frogs, toads, insects, mushrooms and “survivor trees” that still bear scars of war.

Landscape in Verdun Forest. Lamiot, CC BY-SA

Borders: The Iron Curtain

The largest, most ambitious plan in Europe for transforming a military border centers on the Iron Curtain – a line of guard towers, walls, minefields and fences that stretched for thousands of miles, from Norway’s border with the Soviet Union above the Arctic Circle down to the Mediterranean coastal border between Greece and Albania.

Communist Russia and its allies claimed they had to build a system of military barriers to defend against the NATO alliance of Western European countries and the U.S. But keeping their own citizens in was equally as important. Hundreds died trying to escape.

The collapse of the USSR in 1991 ended the Cold War, and the utility of the Iron Curtain and associated military facilities. With the fall of the Berlin Wall that divided the city into halves, a reunified Germany began to develop its section of the Iron Curtain into a system of conservation areas and nature trails, known as the European Green Belt initiative.

One great challenge of this project was balancing the values of conserving nature while preserving the tragic historical legacy of conflict. Most efforts to build collateral values on former landscapes must grapple with this trade-off.

Iron Curtain Greenway: Europeans are creating a system of parks and natural areas stretching across the continent, all connected by the greenswards that have grown along the former Iron Curtain. European Green Belt Association, CC BY

Other militarized borders around the globe are also becoming conservation sites. For example, the Demilitarized Zone between North and South Korea has been strictly off-limits for people for decades, allowing it to grow into the most important, albeit unofficial, biodiversity reserve on the Korean peninsula.

Similarly, forests have grown up in the extensive minefield created along the Iran-Iraq border during those nations’ war in the 1980s. These forests support Asian leopards and other rare wildlife species. There are proposals to formally protect them as nature reserves.

Hope after tragedy

As open space becomes scarce in many parts of the U.S., Civil War battlefield parks have become havens for grassland birds like this grasshopper sparrow. NPS/Sasha Robinson

The ecosystems of protected areas, such as parks and preserves, provide vital benefits for humans and nature. Unfortunately, the world is in danger of losing at least one-third of its protected areas to development and other threats. Recognizing the collateral values that have developed on protected former battlefields and border zones may help reduce degradation and loss of these lands.

One recent study estimates that nearly 1 million square miles – 5% of the Earth’s dry land surface – is currently designated as military training areas. These zones could be protected with relatively little investment when combined with social, cultural and political goals, such as memorializing historical events, and could become ecologically valuable places.

No one should forget the brutality of the conflicts that gave rise to these landscapes. However, given the scale of threats to natural habitats around the world, conservationists cannot ignore opportunities to cultivate and preserve natural places – even those that arise from the horrors of war.


This article has been updated to provide the correct location of Antietam National Battlefield in Maryland

Todd Lookingbill is a member of the American Association of Geographers

The association is a funding partner of The Conversation US. 

This article is republished from The Conversation under a Creative Commons license. Read the original article.

Guest post by Erica Riesbeck, Associate Director of Admission

They’re creepy and they’re crawly
Eight-legged spooky bodies
They’re all together scary
The Spider Family*

October is our university mascot’s favorite month. Why? Halloween, of course! It’s the one time of the year when you can find spiders everywhere. Whether you’re buying decorations, costumes, or candy treat bags, our University is thrilled to see Spider Pride shared outside our community. (Parents: it’s also a great time to find spider-themed gear for those aspiring Richmond Spiders.)

October is also a big month for high school seniors. If you are applying under an Early Action or Early Decision plan, you’re focused on finishing essays and submitting applications. So here are our 5 tips and tricks to survive the dreaded November 1 deadline. 

  1. The last possible moment to submit your Early Action or Early Decision I application: November 1 at 11:59 p.m. for your local time zone.
  2. The credentials deadline is different than the application submission deadline. Supporting materials such as transcripts, recommendation letters, and standardized test scores can arrive after the application deadline. Check your specific application plan to find out the final credentials deadline.
  3. Self-report SAT or ACT scores (if applicable). Save time and money by uploading your SAT or ACT scores. Instructions are located in your Spider Portal, available after you submit your application. If you are opting into our test-optional pathway this year, you're good to go! No further action required.
  4. Verify that you submitted the Richmond Essay. Every year students forget to submit our supplemental essay, rendering their application incomplete.
  5. There is no perfect or preferred word count for your essay. It’s up to 650 words and we do not count. Just remember to be thoughtful and thorough for all essays.
*Apologies to Mr. Andrew Gold for butchering his TV theme song.