Equity & Diversity Opinion

Segregated Housing, Segregated Schools

By Richard Rothstein — March 25, 2014 7 min read
An aerial photograph shows a section of Levittown, N.Y., in 1948, shortly after construction of the mass-produced suburb was completed on Long Island farmland, 25 miles east of Manhattan in New York City.
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School reform alone cannot substantially raise performance of the poorest African-American students unless we also improve the conditions that leave too many children unprepared to take advantage of what schools have to offer.

Social and economic disadvantage depresses student performance; concentrating disadvantaged students in racially and economically homogeneous schools depresses it further.

Schools that most disadvantaged black children attend today are located in segregated neighborhoods far distant from middle-class suburbs. Our ability to desegregate is hobbled by historical ignorance. We’ve persuaded ourselves that residential isolation of low-income black children is only de facto—the accident of economic circumstance, personal preference, and private discrimination. Unless we relearn how residential segregation is de jure—racially motivated public policy—we can’t remedy school segregation that flows from neighborhood isolation.

When a school’s proportion of students at risk of failure grows, the consequences of disadvantage are exacerbated. In schools with high proportions of disadvantaged children, remediation becomes the norm; with high student mobility, teachers spend more time repeating lessons for newcomers. When classrooms fill with students less ready to learn, teachers discipline more and instruct less. Children surrounded by neighborhood violence suffer greater stress that depresses learning. When few parents have strong educations themselves, schools cannot benefit from parental pressure for stronger curriculum; children have few college-educated role models to emulate, and few classroom peers whose own families raise academic expectations.

Nationwide, low-income black children’s isolation has increased. It’s a problem not only of poverty but of race. Roughly 40 percent of black students attend schools that are more than 90 percent minority, up from 34 percent 20 years ago. Then, black students typically attended schools where 40 percent were low-income; it’s now 60 percent.

Even sophisticated policymakers now generally assert that black students’ residential isolation is de facto, but the proposition is dubious.

An unfinished lot in Levittown, N.Y., in June 1948. Exclusionary housing policies in communities such as Levittown furthered racial isolation in public schools.

The federal government led in establishing metropolitan residential segregation. From its New Deal inception, federally funded public housing was explicitly segregated by government. Nationwide (not only in the South), projects were officially designated either for whites or blacks. Once white families left the projects for the suburbs, most public housing was purposely placed only in black neighborhoods.

In the mid-20th century, the federal government subsidized relocation of whites to suburbs and prohibited similar relocation of blacks. The Federal Housing Administration and the Veterans Administration recruited builders to construct giant developments in the East like the Levittowns, most famously in New York’s Long Island, but also in Delaware, New Jersey, and Pennsylvania; in the West like Lakeview, Panorama City, and Westlake (Daly City) in California; and in numerous metropolises in between. These builders received federal loan guarantees on explicit condition that no sales or resales be made to blacks.

Federal and state bank regulators approved and encouraged “redlining” policies, banning loans to black families in white suburbs and even, in most cases, to black families in black neighborhoods, leading to those neighborhoods’ deterioration and ghettoization.

The Internal Revenue Service unconstitutionally extended tax favoritism to universities, churches, and other nonprofits that enforced racial segregation. For example, Robert Maynard Hutchins, known for promoting the liberal arts, headed the University of Chicago from 1929 to 1951. His office organized homeowners’ associations to establish racial restrictions in surrounding neighborhoods, and employed university lawyers to evict black families who moved nearby, all while the university enjoyed tax-deductible and tax-exempt status.

Urban renewal programs of the mid-20th century often had undisguised purposes of forcing low-income black residents away from universities, hospital complexes, or business districts and into new ghettos. Real estate is highly regulated, but state authorities never punished brokers for racial discrimination, and rarely do so even today when discriminatory practices remain. Public police and prosecutorial power enforced racial boundaries: North, South, East, and West, in thousands of incidents police stood by as mobs firebombed and stoned homes purchased by blacks in white neighborhoods, while prosecutors refused to charge easily identifiable arsonists. These and other forms of racially explicit state action to segregate the urban landscape violated the Fifth, 13th, and 14th Amendments. Yet the term “de facto segregation,” describing a never-existent reality, persists among otherwise well-informed advocates and scholars.

About This Occasional Series

To recognize the 50th anniversary of the War on Poverty, Commentary will run an occasional series of Perspectives on the federal initiative and its impact on schools and children today. This is the second essay in this series. Read the first essay, from Deborah Meier, here.

Private prejudice certainly played a large role, but the federal government helped create and sustain private prejudice. White homeowners’ resistance to black neighbors was fed by fears that African-Americans who moved into their neighborhoods would bring slum conditions with them. Yet slum conditions were created by overcrowding caused almost entirely by government refusal to permit African-Americans to expand their housing supply and by municipalities’ discriminatory denial of public services. In the ghetto, garbage was collected less frequently, and neighborhoods were often rezoned for industrial or even toxic use. White homeowners came to see these conditions as characteristics of black residents themselves, not the result of racially motivated government policy.

Even those today who understand this dramatic history may think that because these policies are mostly those of the past, segregation persists mostly because few blacks can afford to live in middle-class neighborhoods.

Yet the federal government also contributed to this unaffordability with discriminatory labor-market policy. At the behest of Southern congressmen, New Deal labor standards, like minimum wages and the right to unionize, excluded from coverage, for undisguised racial purposes, occupations in which black workers predominated.

The federal government granted exclusive collective bargaining rights to segregated private-sector unions, including some that entirely excluded African-Americans from their trades, into the 1970s. Government thus depressed income levels of African-American workers below levels of comparable white workers, contributing to black families’ inability to accumulate the wealth needed to move to equity-appreciating white suburbs.

Unless we relearn how residential segregation is de jure, ... we can’t remedy school segregation that flows from neighborhood isolation."

Reacquaintance with this history should lead us to conclude that racially segregated metropolitan areas have a constitutional obligation to integrate, with inclusionary zoning laws, scattered public and private housing for low- and moderate-income families (including in the wealthiest suburbs), and even the removal of tax subsidies for property in communities that fail to take aggressive steps to integrate.

Yet we fail to tell young people this story so, as adults, they will be unlikely to understand our constitutional obligation to integrate. School curricula typically ignore, or worse, misstate historical truth. For example, in over 1,200 pages of McDougal Littell’s widely used high school textbook The Americans, a single paragraph is devoted to 20th-century “Discrimination in the North.” It devotes one passive-voice sentence to residential segregation, stating that “African-Americans found themselves forced into segregated neighborhoods,” with no explanation of how government did the forcing.

Another widely used textbook, Prentice Hall’s United States History, attributes segregation to mysterious forces: “In the North, too, African-Americans faced segregation and discrimination. Even where there were no explicit laws, de facto segregation, or segregation by unwritten custom or tradition, was a fact of life. African-Americans in the North were denied housing in many neighborhoods.”

History Alive!, a popular textbook published by the Teachers Curriculum Institute, teaches that segregation was mostly a Southern problem: “Even New Deal agencies practiced racial segregation, especially in the South,” making no reference to liberal Democrats’ embrace of Northern residential segregation in return for Southern support for progressive economic policies.

We have a national concern with the racial achievement gap, but school reform cannot succeed without housing reform. We’re unlikely to accomplish either if we suppress knowledge of how they came to be connected.

A version of this article appeared in the March 26, 2014 edition of Education Week as Segregated Housing Policies Still Haunt Schools


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