Date of Award

2019

Degree Type

Dissertation

Degree Name

Doctor of Philosophy (PhD)

Graduate Group

Sociology

First Advisor

Chenoa Flippen

Abstract

Blacks’ incorporation into United States (U.S.) society with life chances commensurate with Whites is a centuries-old social challenge. Black-White inequality research from the 1970s forward focused on skills gaps—Blacks’ inability to access educational and employment opportunities—and spatial mismatches—Blacks’ concentration in cities isolating them from opportunity-rich suburbs. The contemporary suburban Black middle class has, in theory, overcome these challenges. To investigate the extent to which this is the case, I asked: Do decisionmakers and residents in a majority Black suburban county have the same experiences as those in majority-White suburban counties? I answer this question through an ethnography of the U.S. local jurisdiction with the largest concentration of middle class African Americans, Prince George’s County (PGC), Maryland, a suburb of Washington, D.C. Based on direct observation of policy and budget development processes and 58 interviews with county leaders and residents, I find that while nearly all U.S. locales experience certain constraints, largely stemming from federal and state funding retrenchment and pro-economic-growth imperatives, PGC contends with additional barriers due to its racial composition and because it is the most affordable county contiguous with D.C. PGC’s “affordability” is tied to its role as the D.C. area’s “sink” for negative regional economic development effects. Most consequentially for PGC’s fiscal health, it absorbs a disproportionate share of low-income populations. In addition, Whites stigmatize Blacks, as demonstrated through persistent racial residential segregation and developers’ reluctance to invest in high-end amenities in middle class Black areas—both of which dampen tax base growth. As a result, PGC faces budget “structural precarity and peril” because county services demand exceeds budget expansion. PGC officials make hard tradeoffs between vital public services nearby jurisdictions do not. I conclude the suburban Black middle class encounters unique barriers, and thus identify how regional market and government processes contribute to Blacks’ “cumulative disadvantage.”

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Sociology Commons

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