If the 2020 census told us anything, it is that the nation is becoming more racially diverse and that diversity has dispersed widely across the country. Yet perhaps most eye-opening from this once-in-a-decade data drop is the increased diversity in the nation’s suburbs—areas once thought of as far whiter than most of the nation.
This analysis of suburban and primary city portions of the nation’s major metropolitan areas shows that these big suburbs are more racially diverse than the country as a whole. Moreover, in contrast to how white flight fueled growth there in the past, most big suburbs have shown declines in their white populations over the 2010-20 decade. Their greatest growth came from Latino or Hispanic Americans, Asian Americans, persons identifying as two or more races, as well as Black Americans—continuing the “Black flight” to the suburbs that was already evident the 2000-10 decade.
Today, a majority of major metro area residents in each race and ethnic group now lives in the suburbs. And for the first time, a majority of youth (under age 18) in these combined suburban areas is comprised of people of color.1
This analysis of suburban diversity draws from the 2020 census and previous censuses as an extension of an earlier study of the nation’s 56 metro areas with populations exceeding 1 million (or “major metro areas”). Suburbs are defined as the territory located outside of the primary cities of these major metro areas. Primary cities can include up to three cities with large populations in the metro area.2
All major racial groups are more likely to live in suburbs than cities
The classic image of the post-World War II American metropolis— a polyglot city surrounded by mostly white suburbs—has gradually shifted as racial and ethnic minorities grew in size and dispersed into the suburbs. Because of their head start, white residents in the nation’s major metro areas are still more likely than minority groups to call the suburbs their home—since 1990, approximately three-quarters of white Americans live in the suburbs.
However, over the past 30 years, other race and ethnic groups increased their presence in the suburbs. For Asian Americans and Latino or Hispanic Americans—many whose immigrant or second-generation families grew up in cities—the shift to suburban residence was gradual. Asian Americans were barely more likely to live in suburbs than cities in 1990, while Latino or Hispanic Americans were about evenly split between city and suburban residence. Since then, both groups gravitated to a more suburban residence, with more than six in 10 of each group now residing in the suburbs.
The high concentration of Black Americans in cities follows a long history of discriminatory housing practices on the part of realtors and lenders, which kept them from living in growing suburban neighborhoods. In 1990, less than four in 10 Black residents of major metro areas resided in the suburbs, with a small increase in 2000. It was only in 2010 when slightly more Black residents lived in suburbs than in cities, rising to 54% in 2020.
Thus, despite variations across racial groups, the trend toward greater suburban residence among people of color accelerated in the first two decades of this century.
Big suburbs’ populations are more diverse than the total U.S. population
Minority groups’ suburban shift has changed the demographic profiles of the broad suburban communities within the nation’s major metro areas. While there is still a distinct city-suburban disparity in racial demographic make-up, suburbs have become much more diverse over the past three decades. In 1990, roughly two out of 10 suburbanites were people of color. This rose to 30% in 2000 and 45% in 2020.
In fact, big suburbs have higher shares than the national average of Latino or Hispanic Americans (20.2% versus 18.7 %) and Asian Americans (8.2% versus 5.9 %), with a smaller share of white Americans (55.4% versus 57.8%). Compared with the nation as a whole, these suburbs house slightly smaller shares of Black Americans (11.2% versus 12.1%) and American Indians or Alaska Natives (0.3% versus 0.7%), and the same share of persons identifying as two or more races (4.1%).
The 2020 census showed that people of color comprised more than half the suburban populations in 15 of the nation’s 56 major metro areas, compared to 10 in 2010 and five in 2000. The newest metro areas to display “minority-white” suburbs are Atlanta, Orlando, Fla., Dallas, San Antonio, and San Diego.
Moreover, minorities represent more than one-third of the suburban population in 31 of the 56 major metro areas. This is more than double the number in 2000 and nearly four times the number in 1990. And suburban populations of all 56 major metro areas became more racially and ethnically diverse over each of the past three decades (see downloadable Table A). An extreme case is suburban Las Vegas, where the minority share of its suburbs rose from 26% in 1990 to 66% in 2020.
Of course, primary cities have been more diverse than suburbs for decades. As Figure 2 shows, people of color have comprised more than half of combined major metro areas’ primary city populations since 2000, and nearly three-quarters of their combined city populations in 2020. Among primary cities of the 56 individual major metro areas, more than half (29) were minority-white in 2000, increasing to 43 in 2020. By 2020, people of color comprised more than one-third of primary city populations in each major metro area.
The most racially diverse suburbs are in the South and West
Because the most rapidly growing suburbs are in the nation’s South and West, these suburbs also show the greatest minority representation due to the rising diversity of movers. Map 1 depicts the 31 major metro areas where minorities comprise at least one-third of the suburban population.
With the exception of New York and Chicago, most highly diverse big suburbs are located in the Sun Belt—particularly California, Texas, and Florida. These include suburbs where more than half of population are people of color, such as Honolulu, Los Angeles, and Miami, where more than seven in 10 suburbanites are members of minority groups.
Among the 31 areas depicted in Map 1, Latino or Hispanic residents are the largest suburban minority group in 17, including five in California, four in Texas, and three in Florida, along with Mountain West metro areas Las Vegas, Phoenix, and Tucson, Ariz. as well as the nation’s largest suburbs around New York and Los Angeles.
Black residents comprise the biggest minority share of suburbanites in nine of the 31 areas. These are heavily located in the Southeast; a prominent example is Atlanta, where Black residents make up roughly one-third of the suburban population. In four western metro areas (Honolulu, San Francisco, San Jose, Calif., and Seattle), Asian Americans constitute the greatest minority share of suburbanites.3
Although a particular group may comprise a large share of a suburb’s minority population, most suburban populations are broadly diverse (see downloadable Table B). This is clearly the case in the suburbs of the nation’s three largest metro areas: New York, Los Angeles, and Chicago. While Latino or Hispanic residents comprise the largest suburban minority in each, Black and Asian Americans maintain a notable presence in New York and Chicago. In Los Angeles, Latino or Hispanic residents comprise more than two-fifths of the suburban population, and Asian Americans constitute another fifth. Similarly, in suburban Atlanta, Black residents make up the greatest minority share of the population, but there is also a notable presence of Latino or Hispanic and Asian American residents.
Still, it is important to note that the city-suburb disparity in nonwhite representation tends to be smaller in South and West regions than in the Northeast and Midwest. This is because the former regions sustained higher levels of suburban population growth in recent decades, bringing with them increased gains in “new minorities”—Asian American and Latino or Hispanic residents and, in much of the South, a reemergence of Black migration.
An instructive comparison is between Atlanta and Detroit—both metropolitan areas where Black Americans have a large presence (see Figure 3). In metropolitan Atlanta, Black residents have been a considerable part of suburban growth, such that the city-suburb disparity in Atlanta’s Black population shares (42% versus 32%) is not very large. In contrast, metropolitan Detroit’s Black growth and suburban growth have been more tepid in recent years, leaving a much larger city-suburb disparity in Black shares of the population (59% versus 12%).
To be sure, most North and Midwest suburbs have experienced increased suburban diversity over time. However, the relative volumes of metropolitan and suburban growth have generally been smaller than those in the South and West, leading to sharper city-suburb disparities in population diversity (see downloadable Table B).
All of the past decade’s growth in big suburbs is attributable to people of color
Much more so than in the past, the increased diversity of the nation’s suburban population is due to the growth of racial minorities. In fact, for the first time, all of the decade-long growth in the suburban populations of the combined major metro areas is due to people of color, with the white population in these big suburbs declining over the 2010-20 period by 2.2 million.
Latino or Hispanic residents accounted for the greatest numeric gains (5.7 million), followed by Asian American residents and residents identifying as two or more racial groups (each nearly 3 million), then Black residents (2 million), and persons of other nonwhite races (450,000).
These shifts, aggregated for suburbs across all 56 major metro areas, reflect different gains or losses for suburbs of individual metro areas (see downloadable Table C). Latino or Hispanic Americans contributed most of any racial group in half of these suburban areas, especially in the South and West, with huge gains in Miami, Houston, Dallas, Riverside, Calif., Washington, D.C., and Orlando, Fla., as well as the New York and Chicago suburbs. Black residents contributed the most to suburban gains in Atlanta, Baltimore, Memphis, Tenn., and Birmingham, Ala., and made substantial contributions to suburban gains in many other areas as well. Asian American residents contributed most to five areas: Los Angeles, San Francisco, Seattle, San Jose, Calif., and Honolulu. Persons identifying as two or more races also made up the largest contributions in 15 areas.
Most notable was the decade-long decline in the white populations in 35 of the suburban areas. This is consistent with the national decline in the white population due to the aging of this population (leading to fewer births and more deaths), low white immigration, and some increase in the number of white Americans newly identifying with two or more races. It also reflects domestic migration patterns, including shifts away from both cities and suburbs of costly metro areas and areas with poorer job prospects. White suburban declines occurred in all regions of the country and were especially prevalent in the Northeast and coastal metro areas. Suburbs with the largest white losses were those in New York, Chicago, Los Angeles, Philadelphia, Miami, Riverside, Calif., and San Francisco (see downloadable Table C).
Black flight overtakes white flight
A noteworthy aspect of recent city-suburb population shifts is a reversal of the dynamics of white and Black flight. The traditional pattern of suburbanization motored by “white flight” from cities to suburbs for much of the postwar period has now mostly disappeared. Not only was there a 2010-20 white suburban population loss in 35 of the 56 major metro areas, but white gains outpaced other racial groups in just five suburban areas: Nashville, Tenn., Charlotte, N.C., Raleigh, N.C., Jacksonville, Fla., and Columbus, Ohio.
As Table 2 indicates, only 12 major metro area suburbs experienced white population losses in the 1990s. This rose to 20 major metro area suburbs in the 2000s and 35 in the 2010s. At the same time, cumulative white suburban population change moderated, from a 3.4 million increase in the 1990s to a first-ever decade loss of 2.2 million in the 2010s.
As white suburban population losses have risen over time, white city population losses have moderated over the past three decades. In the 1990s and 2000s, 42 and 40 primary cities, respectively, experienced white population losses. This number fell to 25 in the 2010s, as more primary cities saw white population gains due to gentrification or urban attractions. Primary cities with the largest white population gains were Denver; Austin, Texas; Washington, D.C.; Nashville, Tenn.; Atlanta; Raleigh, N.C.; Seattle; and San Francisco. Among these, Washington, D.C. and Austin flipped from negative to positive white growth in the past two decades. Others that also flipped included Los Angeles, Dallas, Houston, Boston, Phoenix, and Tampa, Fla.
Just as white flight from primary cities was moderating, Black flight picked up. As Table 2 shows, only 13 primary cities lost Black residents in the 1990s, rising to 24 in the 2000s and 30 in the 2010s. Moreover, all 56 cities, in aggregate, shifted from a 652,000 Black gain in the 1990s to losses in the following two decades. The 2000-10 decade was notable for the beginning of widespread Black flight—a pattern that continued in the 2010s, with Chicago, Detroit, New York, Baltimore, Cleveland, Philadelphia, and Los Angeles seeing the greatest Black population losses.
While the growth of “new minorities”—Latino or Hispanic Americans, Asian Americans, and persons identifying as two or more races—has made a profound impact on both suburban and primary city growth in the last decade, the reversal of white and Black flight is another important story arising from the 2020 census.
White suburban youth are in the minority
National findings from the 2020 census show that, for the first time, more than half of America’s youth (persons younger than age 18) identify as people of color. This has important implications for education and community services that affect children and teens. While youth in primary cities of the nation’s major metro areas have long been more racially diverse than the nation as a whole, the new census data shows a widespread diversity among suburban youth as well.
Figure 5 makes plain that in both the aggregated primary city and suburban populations of the nation’s major metro areas, the youth population is more racially diverse than adults. In primary cities, both white adult and white youth population shares are in the minority, at 40.6% for adults and 25.6% for youth.
But for the first time, the share of white youth in these suburbs is in the minority as well, at 45.3%—smaller than the national share of white youth (47.3%) and the share of suburban white adults (58.3%). More than one-quarter of these suburban youth identify as Latino or Hispanic and 12% as Black, with Asian American youth and youth identifying as two or more races together accounting for another 15%.
While there are variations across all 56 major metro areas, in 28 of these suburbs, white youth are in the minority, and in 44, at least one-third of the youth population is comprised of people in color. Such is the case for all major metro areas in the West and most in the South, and about half in the Northeast and Midwest. (The white youth of all of these metro areas’ primary cities are in the minority except for Portland, Ore., where the white youth share is 50.1%.) (See downloadable Table D.)
As with the overall population discussed earlier, different groups dominate the youth suburban populations across different areas. Latino or Hispanic youth populations constitute the largest minority share in 33 suburbs, led by Fresno, Calif., Riverside, Calif., Los Angeles, and San Antonio, where more than half of suburban children identify as such. Black youth constitute the largest minority share in 14 suburbs, led by Memphis, Tenn. and Atlanta, where more than one-third of suburban children identify as African American. And roughly one-third of youth in suburban San Francisco and Honolulu identify as Asian American, Native Hawaiian, or other Pacific Islanders.
Both inner and outer suburbs became more diverse
The focus of the above analysis has been on the changing racial make-up of overall suburban territory that lies outside of primary cities of major metro areas. But it is also possible to look at change for different portions of the suburbs, defined by their density. To do that, this section employs a classification scheme developed by Brookings Metro that classifies suburban counties according to their density and, by extension, their proximity to primary cities. These suburban categories are: high-density suburbs, mature suburbs, emerging suburbs, and exurbs.4
Figure 6 displays decade changes in the racial profiles within these four suburban classes. (Additional information is available in downloadable Table E.) Each differs in population size: high-density “inner” suburbs house 60.2 million people; mature suburbs are home to 47.6 million; and emerging suburbs and exurbs house 14.7 million and 6.4 million, respectively.
While these suburban categories differ in their diversity, each category became more diverse over time. High-density suburbs remain the most diverse, changing from 62.4% white in 2000 to 45.6% white in 2020. Examples of such counties are Nassau County, N.Y. and Delaware County, Penn. Mature suburbs (e.g., Stafford County, Va., Henry County, Ga.) shifted from 76.9% white to 59.6% white. Emerging suburbs (e.g., Sussex County, N.Y., Newton County, Ga.) and exurbs (e.g., Pike County, Penn., Spotsylvania County, Va.) are the “whitest” part of the suburbs, but each also became more diverse over the 20-year period from 2000 to 2020.
It is the larger high-density and mature suburbs that embody the major demographic shifts discussed above. Both groups of counties lost white residents in the aggregate over the most recent decade and relied on minorities for all of their gains, especially Latino or Hispanic and Asian Americans.
The two outer suburban categories do attract white residents, but these gains are overwhelmed by those of minorities, especially Latino or Hispanic residents. Emerging suburbs gained 220,000 white residents in 2010-20 and 546,000 Latino or Hispanic residents. The respective gains for exurban counties were 73,000 white residents and 293,000 Latino or Hispanic residents. Thus, even for the whiter outer suburbs, people of color dominate recent population growth.
The suburbs are symbolic of America’s rising diversity
Among those of a certain age, the term “suburban America” conjures up the image of mostly white, middle-class, politically conservative developments, differing sharply from a more racially diverse urban America. But the 2020 census places an exclamation point on the fact that suburbs now reflect the nation’s demographics, with respect to racial make-up and most likely on related dimensions of class and politics.
The growth of America’s suburbs embodies the nation’s population growth, accompanied by greater diversity due to the in-migration of new and long-standing minorities from nearby cities, from other parts of the country, and from abroad, as well as a rising multicultural youth population as families of color—like their earlier white counterparts—find the suburbs an ideal destination for raising children and forming new communities. From this perspective, the suburbs, perhaps more than anywhere else, are symbolic of America’s rising diversity.
- The terms “people of color” or “minorities” refer to persons who identify as Latino or Hispanic, Black, Asian American, Native Hawaiian and Other Pacific Islander, American Indian and Alaska Native, some other nonwhite race, or as two or more races. Except for Latino or Hispanic, all other groups refer to persons who do not identify as Latino of Hispanic (e.g., Black refers to non-Hispanic Black). White persons are those who identify as white and no other racial or ethnic group.
- Brookings Metro defines “primary cities” as one or more cities in the official metropolitan area name with populations exceeding 100,000 (see appendix tables A through D for the list of metro area names).
- Here and elsewhere, “Asian American” pertains to persons who identify as Asian American or Native Hawaiian and Other Pacific Islander, and not as Latino or Hispanic.
- This classification of metropolitan area counties or county parts that lie outside primary cites is based on the percent of the county population that lies within census-defined urbanized areas: high-density suburbs (95% residing in urbanized area); mature suburbs (75% to 95% residing in urbanized area), emerging suburbs (25% to 75% residing in urbanized area), and exurbs (less than 25% residing in urbanized area).