Disillusioned Five families and the unraveling of America's suburbs

Benjamin Herold

Book - 2024

"Through the stories of five American families, a masterful and timely exploration of how hope, history, and racial denial collide in the suburbs and their schools Outside Atlanta, a middle-class Black family faces off with a school system seemingly bent on punishing their teenage son. North of Dallas, a conservative white family relocates to an affluent suburban enclave, but can't escape the changes sweeping the country. On Chicago's North Shore, a multiracial mom throws herself into an ultra-progressive challenge to the town's liberal status quo. In Compton, California, whose suburban roots are now barely recognizable, undocumented Hispanic parents place their gifted son's future in the hands of educators at a rem...arkable elementary school. And outside Pittsburgh, a Black mother buys a home on the same street where the author grew up, then confronts the destructive legacy left behind by white families like his. Education journalist Benjamin Herold's ability to braid these compelling human stories together with local and national history makes Disillusioned an astonishing reading experience, along with an urgent argument that America's suburbs and their schools are locked into a destructive cycle that has brought the country to a point of crisis. For generations, white families have reaped the benefits of massive federal investment in suburbia, then moved on as social and political infrastructure began to fail, leaving the mostly Black and brown families who follow to clean up the ensuing mess. Now, though, the suburbs are caught between rapidly shifting demographics and the reality that endless expansion is no longer feasible. Forced to confront truths that their communities were built to avoid, everyday suburban families find themselves at the center of the nation's most pressing debates: How do we repair America's divided communities? How do we build a future for all our children? In exploring these questions, Herold pulls back the curtain on suburban public schools and school boards, which he persuasively argues are the new ground zero in the fight for the country's future. Herold brings together research on the effects of racism on everyone with empathetic portrayals of families of wildly different backgrounds and perspectives. Nothing short of a journalistic masterpiece, Disillusioned brings readers face-to-face with the roots of America's discontent. Then, alongside the Black mother from his old neighborhood, who contributes a powerful epilogue to the book, Herold offers a hopeful path toward renewal"--

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Case studies
New York : Penguin Press 2024.
Main Author
Benjamin Herold (author)
Physical Description
483 pages : illustrations ; 25 cm
Includes bibliographical references and index.
Contents unavailable.
Review by Booklist Review

This is a book about suburbia, a utopia first imagined in the mid-twentieth century as a land of peace, safety, and unlimited upward mobility; it's also about the lies and deceptions fueled by post-WWII financial incentives that led to the flight of middle-class white people from cities, bolstered by suburbs' restrictive subdivision zoning laws and evolving school district boundaries designed to keep out "urbanites," code for people of color. Investigative journalist Herold, raised in a Pittsburgh suburb, relates the contemporary suburban experiences of five families in Texas, Georgia, Illinois, Pennsylvania, and California: a series of thoughtful, informative, and very disturbing accounts of once-hopeful individuals continually encountering institutional racism, embedded school system exclusivity, and crumbling community infrastructures. Herold's subjects cite better education and equal opportunity as reasons for making the move to the suburbs, and it's painful to see how often teachers, school administrators and counselors, city officials, and lending institutions mired in barely disguised racial discrimination fail them. This testimony from the Becker, Robinson, Adesina, Smith, and Hernandez families deserves a wide audience.

From Booklist, Copyright (c) American Library Association. Used with permission.
Review by Publisher's Weekly Review

Education journalist Herold reveals in his eye-opening debut how suburban public schools are failing an increasingly poor student population, and argues that the suburban American Dream is now an entrapping myth. In the early postwar decades, Herold explains, white families and their children thrived in the suburbs, thanks to supportive government policies. When these suburbs ceased growing, however, residents aged, tax bases shrank, and school funding declined. As poorer families and families of color took up residence, they encountered deteriorating schools and rising taxes. Drawing on three years spent following five families as the parents worked to assure quality education for their children, Herold highlights how interactions with teachers, school administrators, and school boards were integral to the parents' hands-on approach. His subjects include well-off families, such as the Beckers in Lucas, Tex., who were able to abandon the local schools when they failed to meet expectations, as well as low-income families like the Hernandezes in Compton, Calif., who struggled to advance their children through an inadequate school system. Herold's portrayals are fine-grained and attentive to the conflicts that pervade interactions between parents and educators, though some readers may be skeptical that, in Herold's telling, the parents are always right, while teachers and school administrators fall short. Still, this is an illuminating account of a poorly understood crisis currently facing America's public schools. (Jan.)

(c) Copyright PWxyz, LLC. All rights reserved
Review by Kirkus Book Review

A well-informed, ambitious narrative about the simmering inequities in American suburbs. Though Herold grew up in "a middle-class white family that passively accepted suburbia's bounty," he convincingly argues that numerous factors, including "sweeping demographic changes, rising housing costs, and the vanishing heart of America's middle class," alongside the troubling history of segregation enforced by structural racism, have created a systemic crisis: "Suburbia is now home to a collision of competing dreams, each of which seems to be crumbling." In his energetic debut, Herold chronicles how he "traveled the country, immersing [himself] in the lives of families on the front lines of suburban change," tracking several families' arcs amid the mostly declining fortunes of representational suburbs, including communities outside Atlanta and Dallas, progressive Evanston, Illinois, and the notoriously troubled city of Compton, California, arguing that these locales each demonstrate a "larger pattern of racialized development and decline." Indeed, he discovers a disturbingly pervasive entropy in areas across the U.S., including Penn Hills, located outside an increasingly gentrifying Pittsburgh. Contrastingly, the author portrays the "anxiety about the erosion of long-standing privileges" of a conservative white family who moved to a new Texas exurb where they encountered similar strife concerning finances, infrastructure, and education budgets. Herold ably navigates these issues, particularly the divisive role played by school board politics ("public education in America had become a hot-button issue") and sets the dreams of these diverse families against regional history. The author was still conducting interviews during the onset of the Covid-19 pandemic, which further fractured each community's social cohesion. As he writes, "conflicts over masks, vaccines, and racial equality were all raging anew." Herold adeptly manages the sprawling storytelling and subtopics (albeit frequently focused on bureaucratic minutiae) with empathy, varied scenes, and well-rounded characterizations. A deeply valuable study of the decline of suburbia. Copyright (c) Kirkus Reviews, used with permission.

Copyright (c) Kirkus Reviews, used with permission.

INTRODUCTION I'm furious and disappointed. --Nika Robinson The Robinson Family Gwinnett COUNTY, Georgia Nika Robinson loaded her Nissan Altima with all the jeans and sweatshirts and toys her children had outgrown during the past year. It was the kind of bright August morning when you couldn't help but feel good, with a rising summer sun already warming her dark brown arms. For months, everything had been a struggle, leaving Nika drained and irritable, a shadow of her usual bubbly self. But a looming change of season whispered on the breeze. The 2019-20 school year had just begun. So far, things had unfolded smoothly. A few hours earlier, Nika's husband and teenage son had headed out the door for work and for school, sleepy and cute as they mumbled goodbye. Carter and Cassidy, suddenly second and fourth graders, were happy and laughing as they ate their cereal at the kitchen island. Now, with her schedule free for the first time in forever, Nika felt almost relaxed. The end-of-summer consignment sale at the Gwinnett County Fairgrounds was about to start. It would be like a little reward for keeping everyone intact. Nika climbed into the driver's seat and slid forward. At just over five feet tall, she stood a full twelve inches shorter than her husband, Anthony Robinson, once a lean and powerful high school linebacker, now built more like a bulky defensive tackle. The two had met in 2003, when they were in their early twenties, back when nearby Atlanta still had space for all the pent-up hopes of America's booming Black middle class. At the time, she had just earned her master's degree in public health. He was working as a network engineer. After they got married, there wasn't much debate. Upwardly mobile families like theirs lived in the suburbs. By 2012, the Robinsons had settled in a six-bedroom, three-bathroom, $223,000 house in one of the whitest parts of northern Gwinnett, forty-five minutes from downtown. Nika still wanted to believe it had been the right decision. Now in her early forties, it had become habit to push any nagging doubts about the life she'd built below the surface of her busy days, which were typically filled with work, parenting, and courses in the doctoral program she'd recently started at the University of Georgia. Just that morning, Nika had caught her self staring again at the dining-room walls, which remained the same neutral beige as the day they'd moved in. Weeks earlier, she and Anthony had bought several shades of blue paint in the small sample-size cans, then put a series of squares on the wall, one row running from Blueprint to Gentle- man's Gray, another from Van Cortland to Indigo Batik. But even after hiring a color consultant to offer advice, Nika felt unable to commit. It was a problem for another time, she thought as she backed her car out into the cul-de-sac, then passed her neighbors' homes, their still-skinny front-yard trees and empty concrete driveways spaced at regular intervals. The condominium complex for active adults scrolled by, followed by the community's gated pool and fenced-in tennis courts. Everything was calm. As they so often did, Nika's thoughts circled back to her oldest son, Corey. Now fourteen, he was a bowling ball of a boy, short and stout, with a complexion like hers. A running back. He'd just started ninth grade at Mill Creek High, widely regarded as one of the best schools in the county. It was a big reason she and Anthony had picked the house and neighborhood they did. A favorite daydream returned after a long absence. Where might her son go to college? What would he study? Where would he work, live, raise a family of his own? Nika let her mind roam over the possibilities. She'd grown up in Buffalo, New York, then gone to undergrad in Rochester before making the big jump to Emory University in Atlanta for her master's. Corey was more likely to go to a historically Black college, she figured. Just like his father, who studied math and physics at Clark Atlanta. Nika could already picture her baby boy in his gown, holding his degree, posing for pictures. It was good to feel such ease again. For much of the summer, the Backpack Incident had been replaying on an endless loop in her mind. Thanks to Corey's adolescent relationship with the truth and her own contentious relationship with the Gwinnett County Public Schools, Nika had limited visibility into the details of what had actually happened. But it clearly signaled a dangerous escalation. The trouble had started soon after Corey began seventh grade at Jones Middle School. First, it was a series of citations and detentions handed out by white teachers who complained that he was disrespectful and took too long in the bathroom. Nika and Anthony weren't the type of parents to kid themselves. They knew their son was loud and liked to clown around. They got on him about moderating his volume, watching his manners, regulating his tone, tempering his physicality. But then Jones staff classified an accidental collision between Corey and another boy as "Behav phys inj," a code that fell under the district's rules for assault and battery. It was while trying unsuccessfully to get that removed from her son's record that Nika heard about the Backpack Incident. By now, the spotty details she'd pieced together fell like dominos in her mind. The white boy who had reported a missing necklace. The school police officer who had searched the bags of Corey and another Black student. The teachers who didn't bother to call home. The lack of an apology after the necklace couldn't be found. Before things could get any worse, Nika had pulled Corey out of Jones Middle and sent him to live with Anthony's parents in neighboring DeKalb County for the rest of seventh grade. She also began researching a private Christian academy that reminded her of the private school she'd attended as a teenager back in Buffalo. But Anthony was cautious about money, and Corey wanted to be with his friends for eighth grade, so Nika had let the matter drop. During those first few months back at Jones, her daydreams of college were crowded out by fears that Corey might end up in Gwinnett County's notorious disciplinary school, the GIVE Center. If that happened, what would be next? Dropping out? Prison? But the call never came. Still, for much of the past summer, the family had argued again about private school. Nika wanted to make the transition for ninth grade, before Corey became attached to a new group of friends. She scheduled interviews with the school's academic adviser, even arranged for her son to work out with the football team. But Anthony was torn. They were already paying al- most $4,000 a year in property taxes so they could send their children to the best public schools in Gwinnett County. How did paying more than $12,000 a year in tuition on top of that make sense? And what about Cassidy and Carter? Would they have to go to private school too? Grudgingly, Nika had relented, again. Mill Creek High enrolled nearly 3,700 students. Three fourths scored proficient or advanced in both reading and math. The morning of Corey's first day, Nika had been worried sick. To her relief, though, things seemed to be going great. Corey had already made the JV football team. He was also taking Geometry, putting him ahead of most other freshmen in the state. And he had quickly become Mr. Popularity, attracting a wide cross section of friends with his constant jokes. When her son came home from those first few days of school smiling and relaxed, Nika finally exhaled. Now she began to chastise herself just a bit. Perhaps she was being overprotective, Nika thought as she neared the turn-off for the Gwinnett County Fairgrounds. Too focused on the negative, ungrateful for the blessings her family enjoyed. Maybe the dots she'd been connecting into the shape of some systemic problem really were just a series of unrelated incidents. She parked the Altima and climbed out of her seat. The midday sun wrapped her in a warm embrace. Back when Gwinnett was mostly rural and white, the sprawling fairgrounds complex had been home to rodeos and livestock competitions. Now it hosted a steady stream of craft fairs and dog shows. Nika gathered her things and headed inside, joining a throng of middle- class moms who were African American and Korean American and Nigerian American and Mexican American and multiracial and white. She drifted through 9,600 square feet of floor space that filled up each year with Spider-Man T-shirts and Lego bins and a small army of Frozen snowmen who stared goofily at passersby. Nika found the smartly organized totems of childhood soothing. Everything where it belonged. Smiling, she began hanging her family's old clothing on the for-sale racks. Then her phone buzzed in her purse. It was one of Mill Creek's assistant principals. He'd just handed Corey a long suspension. Nika would later learn that her son had been slap-boxing in the locker room with a teammate, more horsing around than trying to hurt each other. But someone had recorded the boys jumping around, and a bunch of laughing students had crowded around a cell phone to watch, drawing the attention of administrators who classified what happened as a fight. Nika heard the assistant principal say the harsh punishment he'd meted out was partly a result of her son's past disciplinary record, which included the prior "assault" charge she'd been unable to get expunged from his record. Everything mooring Nika to the present moment seemed to dissolve. Inside the Gwinnett County Fairgrounds, surrounded by sneakers and strollers and exersaucers, she began to shake. A wave of anger crashed over her, then receded, only to be replaced by something like grief. She burst into tears. A stranger had to help her back to her car. Nika forgot all about the clothes and toys she'd come to sell, leaving them in a pile on the floor. "I'm furious and disappointed," she told me later. "I should have sucked it up and paid to send him to the school I thought would be a better fit." Excerpted from Disillusioned: Five Families and the Unraveling of America's Suburbs by Benjamin Herold All rights reserved by the original copyright owners. Excerpts are provided for display purposes only and may not be reproduced, reprinted or distributed without the written permission of the publisher.