Ferguson and Long Island populations highlight demographic shifts in 'urban suburbs'

Protesters hold up signs during a rally in Protesters hold up signs during a rally in Ferguson, Mo., on Monday, Aug. 11, 2014. The protest was in response to the deadly police shooting of 18-year-old Michael Brown, who police said was shot multiple times Saturday after being confronted by an officer in Ferguson. Photo Credit: Getty Images / Michael B. Thomas

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Dan Janison Melville. N.Y. Tuesday January 26, 2010. Daniel Janison,

Dan Janison has been a reporter at Newsday since 1997, initially as a staff writer for the New

If the summer's street clashes in Ferguson, Missouri, have any resonance on Long Island, it may be found in the broad demographic changes of the American suburb -- the kind of long-term shift that residents of a certain age are most likely to notice.

The Ferguson disturbances -- prompted by the shooting death of an African-American teenager by a white police officer -- generated instant images of what we'd have once called "urban riots" of a kind that occurred within New York City or Los Angeles or Chicago in previous decades.

But unlike those big urban backdrops, Ferguson is just a suburb of St. Louis with a population of 21,000.

Is it too obvious to note that suburbs, like cities, have undergone important demographic shifts?

Dante Chinni, who heads the American Communities Project at American University, doesn't seem to think so. He posted online in the wake of Ferguson: "The suburbs are becoming more like the big cities they sit near -- more diverse, with a combination of rich and poor residents, and in some cases that is creating tensions."

Of course this does not mean confrontations like Ferguson's are coming to other suburbs, he writes, "but it does mean that the elements that sit underneath those tensions may be present in more suburbs today then they have been previously."

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Nassau and Suffolk, as well as Westchester, Rockland and parts of northern New Jersey, are classified among 107 counties that Chinni's "communities project" calls the "inner-ring urban suburbs."

"On Long Island, I would say the likelihood of an explosion like the one in Ferguson -- although there are places that are isolated, poor and alienated -- is small," said Lawrence Levy, executive dean of the National Center for Suburban Studies at Hofstra University.

Over many years, for one thing, the political establishment has taken steps, sometimes with not-so-subtle nudging, to "enfranchise minority voters by creating districts that nonwhites could win," Levy said -- carefully adding this doesn't mean bias is eliminated.

Elizabeth Kneebone, a fellow at the nonprofit Brookings Institution, has pointed out that based on census figures, Ferguson's poor population doubled in the 10 to 12 years following 2000.

For Long Island as a whole, it may be a proper time to simply repeat some of the big 10-year trends turned up in the 2010 census (as cited by Newsday reporter Olivia Winslow).

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The Hispanic population grew 56 percent in that 10-year period to 441,594, totaling 15.55 percent of the total population for Nassau and Suffolk. The black population reached 260,273, totaling 9.2 percent of Long Island. Asians totaled 5.4 percent.

The minority population grew from 23.6 to 31.3 percent overall, and non-Hispanic whites declined to a current 68.7 percent of the two-county total.

Consider Newsday's recent reporting on the changes that an influx of immigrant poor bring to Hampton Bays. The details differ from Missouri in big and important ways, but both are notable for taking place far from the inner city.

For suburbs throughout the nation, the key economic questions continue to be affordable housing and jobs -- and what role they play given the comeback of the cities, which long ago lost the monopoly on diversity.

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