LISTEN: In his new book, "Disillusioned: Five Families and the Unraveling of America's Suburbs," Benjamin Herold explores why the suburbs have failed to provide the upward mobility so many Americans dream of. GPB's Peter Biello speaks with the author.

Benjamin Herold is the author of "Disillusioned: Five Families and the Unraveling of America's Suburbs."

Benjamin Herold is the author of "Disillusioned: Five Families and the Unraveling of America's Suburbs."

Credit: Naomieh Jovin

American suburbs are often seen as the keeper of a particular version of the American Dream: good schools, solid infrastructure, and responsive and responsible government. But for many Americans, that promise goes unfulfilled. According to author Benjamin Harold, post-World War II suburbia has become something of a Ponzi scheme. He describes that scheme in his new book, Disillusioned: Five Families and the Unraveling of America's Suburbs. One of those families in the book is from Gwinnett County. Herold spoke with GPB's Peter Biello.

Peter Biello: You write here in this book, Disillusioned, that there has been, over the last century or so, a series of life stages for some suburban communities. And that life cycle has primarily benefited white people, who are often the first residents of a new suburban community. Can you talk to us a little bit about those life stages?

Benjamin Herold: ... What we've seen again and again in America's postwar suburbs in particular is you had communities that were built up really almost overnight. So you had farmland that was turned into subdivisions and became bustling suburban communities in the span of five, 10 years in many places. Really quick development. And those early suburbs, there's two things that are important to remember about them. One is that they were racially segregated by design. That was a matter of both policy and informal practice and really designed for middle class and upwardly mobile white families and really gave families like mine a really tremendous deal. It was a very generous social contract. You got not only cheap mortgage loans and massive tax breaks but also all of this brand-new infrastructure and public school systems that really had a chance to create in our own image. And so there's a reason people were so drawn to the suburbs. Like, it's a great deal. But part of what made that deal possible was putting the true costs of not only building the infrastructure, but maintaining, repairing and renewing, all of that ... Putting it off onto the future. Just on to some future generation. And what we've seen again and again — in particularly, Atlanta suburbs are a great example of this — is that as other communities, Black and brown families, immigrant families, etc., fought to get into suburbia, to get that same deal, right as they're starting to get in, many of these communities are starting to experience a lot of problems. You start to see the bills start to come due for repairing roads, sewers and sidewalks that are all in need of repairs all of a sudden, because they were all built almost overnight. For school systems that are slow to change. All of this kind of comes at once. And so the families that have means, historically, have just left right before the bills come due. And what that results in is that the families who come in behind end up not only not getting that same generous social contract, but also, in effect, paying for the opportunities that somebody else has already extracted.

Peter Biello: You profiled one family from Gwinnett County here, the Robinsons. At what stage was their community?

Benjamin Herold: So, the Robinsons are an upwardly mobile African American family. Middle class family. Multiple advanced degrees, both professional jobs, super-invested in their kids education. And so they moved out to Buford, in northern Gwinnett County, in 2012. And their sense was really like, "Hey, this is a place where we think we can kind of buy into that suburban dream. We'll get the nice house. It's in a good neighborhood. It's attached to highly regarded public schools. We can kind of set it and forget it." And so what they actually ended up experiencing, though, was that the first signs that something were off started when their oldest son, Corey, an African-American boy, started middle school. And all of these kind of disciplinary issues started happening all of a sudden. So instead of the opportunities and grace that I received when I grew up white in suburbia in the '70s and '80s, all of a sudden their child is starting to receive these kind of really harsh punishments and messaging around things like tapping his pencil too loudly in class or being too rough with his friends and just kind of normal teenage boy stuff. And it starts to really escalate. And so with the Robinsons' family really had to contend with is like, "Hey, we've organized our whole life around being in this community and having access to these public schools, and now they're actually a threat to our child. We see them kind of dimming his light and kind of telling him that who he is is not okay." And so they're forced to kind of make this decision about temporarily pulling him out of Gwinnett County Public Schools, considering private schools, just going through all this angst because the community is changing on the ground. The families who live in Gwinnett, the families who send their kids to Gwinnett County Public Schools have changed. But the leadership, policy, culture and practices of Gwinnett County Public Schools had not. And we saw that big picture around the same time period with, you know, really contentious fights around the control of the Gwinnett County School Board in 2020 and '22.

Peter Biello: Race was a factor, not just in Gwinnett County, but in all five communities that you've profiled for this book and some of the decisions involved in living in or moving to or moving on from a suburban community relied on what you described repeatedly as a racial "need not to know." Can you describe what you meant by that?

Benjamin Herold: Yeah. ... There's a philosopher named Charles Mills, and he — he talked about this. And it's kind of —The way I've come to think of it is it's almost like a willful ignorance that white Americans in particular have a habit, have a tendency of really embracing so that we don't have to reckon with the realities of race in America. Like, we're not blind.  When we're children, we have these moments and experiences and encounters where we realize, "Oh, wait. What's actually happening in the world around us, particularly for the Black and brown people we may go to school with or live in the same neighborhood with, or share a community with, they're receiving very different treatment and experiences than we're receiving. And it kind of goes against these ideals of America that we've been taught.".

And so we try and reconcile that. And often it's very hard to do, because doing that means acknowledging the racial advantages that we've received. Acknowledging the injustices upon which suburbia, for example, was founded — that history of racial exclusion we were talking about. We don't really have a very good way of systemically incorporating that into our sense of how a community should work and operate. And as a result, we end up, y'know, missing a lot of these dynamics. And I think that's part of why this moment suburbia is in now is so fraught, is because all of a sudden, white Americans are really being forced to confront these truths and realities that we've needed not to know and chosen not to know for a really long time.

Peter Biello: Lots of people profiled here, in particular the white family from Texas, approached their choices by thinking about what was best for their family, not necessarily for the community as a whole. And many of these people, when possible, would simply move their family out of a school system that wasn't working for them, rather than fix the system. And this kind of mentality, this kind of just move on when it's no longer a good fit for you or working out the way you want it to work out — it strikes me as rational, but not particularly hopeful for the well-being of the suburbs. I was wondering what you thought.

Benjamin Herold: I agree with that, absolutely. I think that part of the challenge with us recognizing this as many of these decisions that we make as families on kind of a day-to-day level, they make sense. Everyone wants what's best for their kids. They want the best future. They want a safe place to live. They want good schools. It's understandable that we want all of those things. The problem is that we have designed communities that are predicated on giving as much of that as possible to just a couple generations of families without paying for it, and without having a plan for how to extend and renew it in the future. And so it's hard because that is really deep-rooted in our national psyche, this idea that we have to do what's best for our own families. What we have to figure out is not only how do we do what's best for our own families, but how do we create communities that sustain and maintain that kind of social contract across generations?