Connecting literature from sociology and urban planning, this dissertation tests two dominant assumptions about the relationship among urban growth, racial inequality, and black socioeconomic mobility. The first is that African Americans' neighborhood quality is best explained by place stratification theory, which argues that, due in part to the persistence of white racism and wealth inequalities, African Americans typically move to relatively disadvantaged communities that become more disadvantaged over time. The second is that exurban growth (often denigrated as urban sprawl) has an all-around negative effect on society, leading to environmental degradation, longer transportation commutes and greater racial segregation, among other ills.
Since most evidence supporting place stratification theory is drawn from inner cities and their nearby suburbs, it is unclear whether similar trends apply to the exurbs, places whose rapid, lower density development out of relatively racially unmarked countryside in the context of fair housing law may have led to diverse communities with more equal neighborhood conditions among racial groups. In turn, the persistence of racial wealth gaps and the reluctance to provide affordable housing on a widespread scale in high cost regions may render exurban growth increasingly important in enabling African Americans to live as homeowners in safe neighborhoods with high performing schools—conditions critical to attaining socioeconomic mobility.
The growth of California's Inland Empire, which encompasses Riverside and San Bernardino Counties on the Los Angeles region's eastern border, is an ideal case study for assessing the effect of exurban development on racial equity and black mobility. Between 1980 and 2007, there was a net migration of 130,000 African Americans into the area, with the vast majority moving from Los Angeles County. Through interviews with seventy people who moved to the region from Los Angeles County and forty-seven Inland Empire and Los Angeles County community leaders, an analysis of existing data from the U.S. Census, California Department of Education, and FBI Uniform Crime Reports among other sources, and a media content analysis, this research shows that, due to the Inland Empire's rapid new housing construction and relative lack of racial segmentation in the housing market, the exurbs were a new frontier for Los Angeles area African Americans—a place where they could become homeowners and live in lower poverty, more integrated and safer neighborhoods free from the oppression of inner city gangs.
Yet, unexpected costs accompanied families' gains. Homeowners' ability to accumulate equity was defined by a distinct window of opportunity that has since closed with the recent foreclosure crisis. Long commutes characterized most black professionals' first years in the Inland Empire, with a handful burdened by years of multiple-hour journeys to work. In turn, families' access to more integrated schools also has entailed dealing with the cultural inexperience of predominately white teachers and administrators. Most disturbing, however, is that their safety gains have been accompanied by an increased risk of police racial profiling, which threatens the wellbeing of young men.
Overall, this research provides evidence that exurban growth may be enabling African Americans' socioeconomic mobility and—contrary to place stratification theory—greater racial equity in neighborhood conditions. It also identifies some of the challenges that inner city families face in acclimatizing to and thriving in fast growing exurbs—an understudied topic worthy of policymakers' attention.