Disillusioned: Five Families and the Unraveling of America's Suburbs (Hardcover)

Disillusioned: Five Families and the Unraveling of America's Suburbs By Benjamin Herold Cover Image
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"Astonishingly important.” —Alex Kotlowitz, The Atlantic

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 joins an ultraprogressive 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 remarkable elementary school. And outside Pittsburgh, a Black mother moves to the same street where author Benjamin Herold grew up, then confronts the destructive legacy left behind by white families like his.

Disillusioned braids these human stories together with penetrating local and national history to reveal a vicious cycle undermining the dreams upon which American suburbia was built. For generations, upwardly mobile white families have extracted opportunity from the nation’s heavily subsidized suburbs, then moved on before the bills for maintenance and repair came due, leaving the mostly Black and Brown families who followed to clean up the ensuing mess. But now, sweeping demographic shifts and the dawning realization that endless expansion is no longer feasible are disrupting this pattern, forcing everyday families to confront a truth their communities were designed to avoid: The suburban lifestyle dream is a Ponzi scheme whose unraveling threatens us all.

How do we come to terms with this troubled history? How do we build a future in which all children can thrive?  Drawing upon his decorated career as an education journalist, Herold explores these pressing debates with expertise and perspective. Then, alongside Bethany Smith—the mother from his old neighborhood, who contributes a powerful epilogue to the book—he offers a hopeful path toward renewal. The result is nothing short of a journalistic masterpiece.

About the Author

Benjamin Herold explores America’s beautiful and busted public education system. His award-winning beat reporting, feature writing, and investigative exposés have appeared in Education Week, PBS NewsHour, NPR, the Hechinger Report, Huffington Post, and the Public School Notebook. Herold has a master’s degree in urban education from Temple University in Philadelphia, where he lives with his family. Learn more at www.benjaminherold.com.

Praise For…

“An important, cleareyed account of suburban boom and bust, and the challenges facing the country today. . . . each suburb’s history is engrossing, and Herold, a journalist who has frequently reported on public education, delivers an up-close, intimate account of life there that resounds with broader meaning. The families also reflect the expanding range of people who now call American suburbs home.” The New York Times Book Review
“This intrepid inquiry into the unfulfilled promise of America’s suburbs posits that a ‘deep-seated history of white control, racial exclusion, and systematic forgetting’ has poisoned the great postwar residential experiment. . . . Herold, a white journalist raised in Penn Hills, a Pittsburgh suburb, peels back layers of structural racism, granting that ‘the abundant opportunities my family extracted from Penn Hills a generation earlier were linked to the cratering fortunes of the families who lived there now.’” The New Yorker

“Powerful . . . In a timely narrative, Herold draws attention to a morally urgent problem while offering a possible route toward revival.” The Washington Post, Best New Books for January

“A blistering indictment of how American suburbs were built on racism and unsustainable development that ‘functioned like a Ponzi scheme’ . . . [Herold’s] portraits of families are nuanced and moving . . . The patterns are clear and continuing.”  —The Minneapolis Star-Tribune

“Through beautifully layered reporting, Herold argues that time and demographic change have created a novel disenchantment. The suburbs are now a trap.” New Republic

“Thoughtful, informative, and very disturbing . . . deserves a wide audience.” Booklist

Disillusioned breaks open the quiet racial injustice eating away at the heart of American suburbs. Shattering the myth of upward class mobility through meritocracy, Disillusioned shows us how white supremacy disenfranchises POCs even as they fulfill the requirements of the American suburban middle class dream—and how even white people, the intended beneficiaries of that dream, are starting to wonder if it’s a dream they can still afford to believe in. But whether the suburbs are integrated or predominantly white, people  of color still face the legacy of segregationist violence as they seek to provide their children with the suburban educations that a middle class income has for so long promised Americans. A necessary read for everyone in an American suburb today.” —Michael Eric Dyson, New York Times-bestselling author of Tears We Cannot Stop

“Not only is Disillusioned engaging—riveting, really—it strikes at the very heart of the geography and emotional economy of race in the United States. ‘The suburbs’ are such a potent symbol and reality of the nation, and race is at the very center of their meaning, creation, and transformation. For decades now, we have lived with the myth that the suburbs are the centerpiece of the American Dream and that school integration is a simple matter of putting different races of children in the same well-maintained building in a bucolic setting. Disillusioned challenges us to be far more rigorous and honest in our accounts of race, place and community. An essential text in a challenging time.” —Imani Perry, New York Times-bestselling author of South to America, winner of the National Book Award

“With Disillusioned, Benjamin Herold delivers a powerful account of the intersection of race, housing, education, and injustice in America. Through the moving stories of five American families, Herold illuminates how segregation, white flight, and chronic underinvestment conspire to deny a new, diverse generation of suburbanites the brass rings of financial prosperity and emotional security. What’s more, he weaves in his family’s suburban journey and his personal reckoning with the impact of race and class in his own life and his perceptions of the lives of others to craft an invaluable, irreplaceable report. Honest, nuanced, and searing, Disillusioned is a book educators, parents, school board members, researchers, and anyone concerned with racial equity in America's schools should read.” John B. King, Jr., former U.S. Secretary of Education and Chancellor of the State University of New York (SUNY)

“Equal parts compelling, revealing, disquieting, and necessary, Disillusioned challenges us to update our mythologies about suburbs as enchanted utopias with magical schools eagerly waiting to ably educate all who walk through their doors. Benjamin Herold reminds us that place and community mean, do, and become different things when refracted through the prisms of wealth, white supremacy, anti-Blackness, and racism. Necessary reading for all who want to understand the past and present as a starting point for forward progress, the insights, stories, and people in this book will stay with you long after you have turned the last page.” —Noliwe Rooks, chair of Africana Studies at Brown University and author of Cutting School
“A well-informed, ambitious narrative about the simmering inequities in American suburbs . . . Herold adeptly manages the sprawling storytelling . . . with empathy, varied scenes, and well-rounded characterizations. A deeply valuable study of the decline of suburbia.” Kirkus (starred review)

“Eye-opening . . . Herold’s portrayals are fine-grained and attentive to the conflicts that pervade interactions between parents and educators . . . An illuminating account of a poorly understood crisis currently facing America’s public schools.” Publishers Weekly

“In Disillusioned, Ben Herold meticulously rips open myths that lie at the heart of the American dream—that geography is destiny, and that the forces driving inequity in society can be escaped rather that engaged. In this brilliant, compelling, and highly moving work, Herold shows us how the paths to suburbia are too often paved in fool's gold, in as much as the drivers of unequal educational outcomes there also impact schools and economies here. Herold’s page-turning narrative empathically reveals the lengths to which parents go to assure better futures for their children—while at the same time exposing the precarity of the larger American educational system. And he teaches us, yet again, that the promise of America must be addressed everywhere for it to be realized anywhere. This book is required reading for anyone who cares about our children and their collective futures.” —Jonathan Metzl, author of Dying of Whiteness

“Every once in a while, a book reorients your perspective and sense of place and privilege. Disillusioned did that for me.” —Salamishah Tillet, Pulitzer Prize-winning critic and author of In Search of the Color Purple

“There have been many memorable books about America's cities. Yet this nation's suburbs have alternately been ignored or reduced to a cartoonish stereotype—lawnmowers, strip malls, social conformity—even by serious artists and intellectuals. So Ben Herold's Disillusioned arrives as a blast of incisive analysis and narrative force. His five families occupy the very real world where the exposed wires of race, class, development, and deterioration cross and set off crackling sparks. This is the definitive account of the promises and betrayals of the suburban dream.” Samuel G. Freedman, Columbia University professor of journalism and author of Small Victories

"It is such an odd thing, really, to be somewhere—and this 'somewhere' is the suburb both Ben and I lived in—without sidewalks. It felt alien when I was a 16 year old whose parents just moved out there from the city, in search of a better and safer future for their son. And it still feels, for lack of a better term, thoroughly f**ked up now. What Ben does, so passionately, so rigorously, and so personally, in Disillusioned, is make plain why. Like why would an entire municipality be engineered to be unwalkable? And after he asks, and answers, so many of the terrible and meticulous and intentional whys, he asks and answers 'Who?'
“I'm not telling you to immediately read this book. Instead, if you happen to be in Southwestern Pennsylvania, and you find yourself in Penn Hills, I want you to try to cross a street." Damon Young, author of What Doesn't Kill You Makes You Blacker and host of the "Stuck with Damon Young" podcast

“Benjamin Herold makes clear that our racially exclusionary past continues to contaminate the present and will do so until we can confront it with honesty. His sobering analysis of the disinvestment which follows the diversifying of American suburbs, enlivened by the compelling narratives of families in search of an elusive American dream, is a good place to start.” —Beverly Daniel Tatum, author of Why Are All the Black Kids Sitting Together in the Cafeteria? and Other Conversations About Race
Product Details
ISBN: 9780593298183
ISBN-10: 0593298187
Publisher: Penguin Press
Publication Date: January 23rd, 2024
Pages: 496
Language: English