White suburbanites painted as heroes & victims

Matthew Lassiter

During the final months of the U.S. race for the presidency, both major candidates claimed the “middle class” for their own, but what either meant by the term itself was left for voters to puzzle out.

Confusion about the middle class—specifically, white suburban families—is nothing new, says Matthew Lassiter, a Research Fellow and associate professor of history at the University of Michigan.

“For more than half a century, American political culture has celebrated white middle-class suburban families as the heart and soul of the nation, the hard-working, tax-paying heroes of Middle America, who safeguard traditional family values and maintain a utopian faith in the American Dream.”

For just as long, said Lassiter, “popular culture has taken a much darker view of what goes on behind the white picket fences and inside the private suburban homes—a pathological landscape of sexual repression and miserable marriages and dysfunctional children, the continuous collapse of the sunny American Dream into a dystopian nightmare.”

His current book project, The Suburban Crisis: The Pursuit and Defense of the American Dream, explores the history of American suburbs from World War II through the turn of the century.

“Examining the cultural politics of American suburbia is essential to explaining persistent patterns of white spatial privilege, urban-suburban inequalities, racialized policy distinctions in areas such as welfare and crime, and the hidden history/selective memory of the civil rights movement.”

Within the mythology of the American Dream, said Lassiter, “the utopian and dystopian visions of American suburbia are really flip sides of the same coin.” Popular culture recasts “white flight” and “urban crisis” in such a way that the affluent white suburbanites who have benefited from public policies that subsidized racial and class segregation emerge as victims of consumer privilege and cookie-cutter conformity.

“At the same time, a bipartisan political culture from the grassroots to the top-down has consistently deflected civil rights challenges and defended suburban patterns of racial and class inequality by por-traying white middle-class families as innocent victims of external threats, from Nixon’s ‘Silent Majority’ to Clinton’s ‘forgotten middle class.’”

Lassiter’s book has grown out of an unusual course,“History of American Suburbia,” that he developed at Michigan, and his attention to suburbs--the habit of bicycling through them and taking pictures--landed him in the Detroit News, Boston Globe, Christian Science Monitor, plus in several spots on National Public Radio.

What are the consequences when affluent white suburban families become the nation’s heroes and victims at the same time? Lassiter’s attempt to answer this fundamental question will take an interdisciplinary approach that draws on “the ‘new political history’ linking grassroots activism and popular ideologies to the role of the state, the ‘new urban history’ that moves beyond the city-suburban dichotomy to a comp-rehensive assessment of metro-politan regions, and the insights of cultural studies in tracing the discursive politics of films, novels, television shows, and news media coverage.”

Lassiter’s 2006 book The Silent Majority: Suburban Politics in the Sunbelt South (Princeton UP) won the 2007 Lillian Smith Book Award presented by the Southern Regional Council.