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Disillusioned

Using research and personal stories, Benjamin Herold posits that the portrait of suburban America as a place of upward mobility for all is an illusion. — Amy Pagliarella

Benjamin Herold
Penguin Press, 496 pages
Published January 23, 2024

I grew up in the suburbs. We moved multiple times; my parents simply choosing another middle-class suburb based on the quality of the public schools and proximity to a shopping mall (I was, after all, a teenager in the ‘80s). I took all of this for granted in the way that children often do, assuming that my experiences were the norm. Journalist Benjamin Herold’s new work dispels this myth.

Most books that cross my desk focus on the challenges of urban and rural communities; Disillusioned describes how similar issues play out in suburban communities that grew up around major cities. Herold posits that the portrait of suburban America as a place of upward mobility for all is an illusion. He offers a well-researched perspective on how national issues around race, class, education and more are alive and (not) well in suburban areas.

Herold deftly combines historical factors (e.g. housing discrimination/redlining, the impact of legal and legislative decisions), with contemporary depictions of race, class and the American education system. This look back is essential, but it’s the modern stories that make Disillusioned compelling. The five families Herold follows are diverse including Black, White, Hispanic and mixed-race families that fall into the middle and upper class with children in public or private schools. Yet, all the families seek a school where their children can thrive. Unsurprisingly, the families who can afford to relocate to farther and more homogenous suburbs have better options. And the COVID pandemic hits them all — hard.

Herold treats his subjects with compassion. Whether describing a Black mom advocating for her child against a disproportionately punitive school system or a White mom relocating her family into a more homogeneous (i.e. White) school system, Herold withholds judgment. He does not, however, let us off the hook. Herold returns to his hometown outside Pittsburgh, where he confronts his own complicity in the system — first through the ways families like his fled communities when Black neighbors moved in and then, more powerfully, as he responds to being called out for his own, more nuanced racism.

I won’t spoil the ending here, but Herold writes, “I’d seen in the experiences of other people’s children how my own comfortable middle-class life was built on a series of injustices large and small … I’d still assumed someone else would clean up the mess that my family had left behind, still assumed someone else would shoulder the burden of repairing America while I kept reaping its riches.” Disillusioned is not prescriptive, yet this clear call to action motivates.

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