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Diversity and privilege in Newton, Massachusetts: how young people make sense of their suburban community

This dissertation draws on the context of an elite suburb in order to understand the transmission of privilege and how an elite space – and its residents – respond to inequality. The suburbs occupy a complicated role in the narrative of U.S. inequality and racial residential segregation. While many of the first suburbs were explicitly upper class retreats, and later government-funded communities for white, middle-class families, today there are many kinds of suburbs – some poor, some rich, some racially heterogeneous, and others not. Urban scholars often ignore the relationship between cities and their surrounding suburbs, and while community scholars provide us with an understanding that “place matters,” few studies investigate this ethos in suburbia. I use ethnographic fieldwork and in-depth interviews to highlight the community of Newton, MA in order to build a greater understanding of U.S. inequality and the transmission of privilege. For the purpose of this dissertation, Newton can be rightfully classified as an elite suburb given its subjective distinction among residents (e.g. as a “bubble”), as well as its objective characteristics as elite regarding its typology, scholarship, history, geography, and demography.

Adult residents, the City, and the schools all offer distinct responses to inequality. While these actors position themselves differently towards Newton, I posit that each attempt to whitewash inequality – a disposition towards inequality that attempts to eschew responsibility while simultaneously maintaining a privileged position. Whitewashing inequality is accomplished, in part, through an adherence to the tenets of the diversity ideology – a racial ideology that centers an understanding of race based on the experiences of Whites and their ability to diffuse the meaning of difference. Youth growing up in the “bubble” of Newton, are faced with the task of sorting through the adult responses to inequality in order to find their own sense of self within the community. The task of weighing the pros and cons of the community is most evident in youth response to the question of returning to the community, or not, as adults. Even for those desiring to return, there is a normative sense of first needing to flee the homogeneity of Newton, in order to experience life “outside of the bubble.” In the second empirical chapter I explore in depth the ubiquity of privilege within Newton. Adults and youth define privilege in ambiguous ways that often point to the “super rich” as responsible for perceptions of the community as a wealthy place.

While privilege is defined ambiguously, it most often refers to socioeconomic status, thus avoiding racial privilege and taking for granted educational privilege. The ambiguity and ubiquity of privilege fuel important tensions that reinforce, rather than challenge the community’s privilege. In the second chapter I illustrate the “in but not of” experiences of people of color in Newton, and the “stress culture” students experience around academic achievement. Adults protect the community’s privilege through a prioritization of educational excellence and youth unconsciously learn to likewise maintain their privilege. These findings deepen understandings of how privilege is transmitted (and protected), while helping to explore responses towards inequality from the top of the economic, social, and political hierarchy. Elite suburbs in general, and Newton specifically, play an important role within their region, utilizing and hoarding public resources to their advantage. How communities like Newton conceptualize and maintain privilege fundamentally aids in the perpetuation of economic inequality and residential segregation.
Date29 October 2020
CreatorsGecker, Whitney
ContributorsAugsberger, Astraea
Source SetsBoston University
Detected LanguageEnglish

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