Today’s high levels of school segregation can be traced to specific government policies that created distinct White and Black neighborhoods.
For nearly 30 years, the nation’s education policy makers have proceeded from the assumption that disadvantaged children would have much greater success in school if not for educators’ low expectations of them. In theory, more regular achievement testing and tougher accountability practices would force teachers to pursue higher academic standards for all children, resulting in improved instruction and greater student proficiency.
However, there never was any evidence to support this theory, and even its most eager proponents have come to realize that it was flawed all along. In fact, there are a host of reasons why disadvantaged children often struggle to succeed academically. Undeniably, one is that some schools in low-income neighborhoods fall short in their traditional instructional roles. Another is that many schools have failed to embrace effective out-of-classroom programs — such as health clinics or early childhood centers — that might enable students to be more successful in the classroom. Perhaps most important, however, is the influence of children’s out-of-school social and economic conditions, which predict academic outcomes to a far greater extent than what goes on in the classroom. Researchers have long known that only about one-third of the Black-White academic achievement gap results from variations in school quality. The rest stems from social and economic factors that render some children unable to take full advantage of what even the highest-quality schools can offer.
Racial segregation exacerbates achievement gaps between Black and White children because it concentrates students with the most serious social and economic challenges in the same classrooms and schools. Consider childhood asthma, for example: Largely because of poorly maintained housing and environmental pollution, urban African-American children have asthma at as much as four times the rate of White middle-class children. Asthmatic children often come to school drowsy and inattentive from sleeplessness, or they don’t come to school at all. Indeed, asthma is the single most important cause of chronic absenteeism. No matter how good the teacher, or their instruction, children who are frequently absent will see less benefit than children who come to school well rested and regularly. Certainly, some asthmatic children will excel — there is a distribution of outcomes for every human condition — but on average, children in poorer health will fall short.
Children from disadvantaged families suffer disproportionately from a number of other such problems, including lead poisoning that diminishes cognitive and behavioral capacity; toxic stress, from experiencing or witnessing violence; irregular sleep or meal times, related to their parents’ working multiple jobs with contingent work schedules; housing instability or homelessness; parental incarceration, and many others. A teacher can give special attention to a few who come to school with challenges that impede learning, but if an entire class has such problems, average achievement inevitably declines.
We cannot expect to address our most serious educational issues if the most disadvantaged of the nation’s children are concentrated in separate neighborhoods and schools. Today though, racial segregation characterizes every metropolitan area in the United States and bears responsibility for our most serious social and economic problems: Not only does it produce achievement gaps but it predicts lower life expectancies and higher disease rates for African Americans who reside in less healthy neighborhoods, and it corrupts our criminal justice system when police engage in violent altercations with young men who are concentrated in neighborhoods with inferior access to good jobs in the formal economy and without transportation to access those jobs (and for the same reason, segregation exacerbates economic inequality, too).
Racial segregation also undermines our ability to succeed, economically and politically, as a diverse society. Some might argue that “a Black child does not have to sit next to a White child to learn.” They are wrong: Not only should Black children sit next to White children, but White children should sit next to Black children. A diverse adult society is inevitable; failing to prepare children for it invites disastrous conflict. This has become readily apparent, as our growing political polarization — which maps closely onto racial lines — threatens our very existence as a democratic society. How can we ever sustain a common national identity if so many of us live so far apart from one other that we cannot possibly understand or empathize with the life experiences of people from other races?
A misguided legal ruling
Today, our schools are more racially segregated than at any time in the last 40 years, mainly because the neighborhoods in which they are located are racially segregated. Yet, as Jeremy Anderson and Erica Frankenberg recount in this issue of Kappan, the U.S. Supreme Court in its 2007 Parents Involved ruling prohibited school districts from implementing even modest race-conscious desegregation plans.
The case arose from the Louisville, Ky., and Seattle, Wash., school districts, both of which had adopted programs that permitted parents to choose the school their child would attend. In effect, these were token programs — if both a White child and Black child applied for a place in a mostly White school, the Black child would get preference to help diversify the school. The Court prohibited the programs on grounds that the schools in these communities were segregated only because they were located in racially homogenous neighborhoods. And, the court asserted, the neighborhoods had been segregated in a de facto manner (resulting not from the deliberate actions of public officials but, rather, from choices made by private individuals). That is, segregation resulted from White homeowners’ bigoted refusal to sell to African-American purchasers, or from discrimination by real estate agents or banks operating in the private economy, or because White and Black families simply preferred to live in neighborhoods in which their own race predominated, or perhaps because of income differences between typical White and Black families. Chief Justice John Roberts wrote the controlling opinion, and he repeated a now-commonplace theory of the Court: Where segregation is de facto (not created by government policy), it would violate the Constitution to take racially explicit steps to reverse it.
But is it accurate to say that the government did not create, sustain, and support such segregation? Back in 2007 when I considered the Chief Justice’s opinion, I recalled an incident half a century earlier in Louisville, one of the districts from which the Parents Involved case arose. A homeowner in an all-White Louisville suburb had a middle-class African-American friend who lived in Louisville’s Black neighborhood but wanted to move with his family to the suburbs. No real estate agent would show him a home in a White neighborhood, so the White homeowner bought a second property in his suburb and then resold it to the African-American friend.
When the Black family moved in, a mob surrounded the home, monitored by the police. The mob threw rocks through the windows, then dynamited and firebombed the home. Yet despite the police presence, there were no arrests. But when the riot was over, the White homeowner was arrested, tried, convicted, and jailed with a 15-year sentence for sedition; the prosecutors and courts reasoned that he was responsible for the violence because he had sold a home to an African American in a White neighborhood. If the government’s criminal justice authorities were employed in this way to maintain Louisville’s racial boundaries, then clearly this should not be described as de facto segregation. Hundreds and hundreds of similar incidents occurred in cities across the country during the mid-20th century.
After a more systematic investigation of other federal, state, and local policies that were explicitly designed to produce residential segregation, I concluded that residential segregation was in large part created, enforced, and sustained by a network of racially explicit and unconstitutional federal, state, and local government policies in the mid-20th century and that these policies were so powerful that they continue to determine our racial boundaries to this day.
Everywhere, segregation was intentional
I recounted this history in a book, The Color of Law, that tells a “forgotten history of how our government segregated America,” resulting in the concentration of African Americans in segregated neighborhoods not only in the South but also in the North, Midwest, and West. The de facto theory that Chief Justice Roberts expounded is nothing but myth. Our prevailing patterns of residential segregation — and with it, school segregation — did not come about as the result of untold number of private decisions about where to live or who can buy one’s house; rather, it resulted from specific choices made by specific public officials working at specific public agencies.
To argue persuasively on behalf of policies to desegregate our schools and communities, we will require knowledge of this history. What happened by accident can only be undone by accident. But if segregation has been created by government’s explicit racial policies — that is, if residential segregation itself is a civil rights violation — then not only are we permitted to remedy it, we are required to do so.
And we are so required. Not only did local police forces organize and support mob violence to drive Black families out of homes on the White side of racial boundaries, the federal government purposefully placed public housing in high-poverty, racially isolated neighborhoods to concentrate the Black population. It created a Whites-only mortgage insurance program to shift the White population from urban neighborhoods to exclusively White suburbs. The Internal Revenue Service granted tax exemptions to nonprofit institutions that openly sought neighborhood racial homogeneity. State government licensing agencies enforced a real estate brokers “code of ethics” that prohibited the sale of homes to African Americans in White neighborhoods. Federal and state regulators allowed the banking, thrift, and insurance industries to deny loans to homeowners in other-race communities.
When the federal government first constructed civilian public housing during the Great Depression, it built separate projects for White and Black families, often segregating previously integrated communities. For instance, the great African-American poet, Langston Hughes, described in his autobiography how, in early-20th-century Cleveland, he went to an integrated neighborhood high school where his best friend was Polish and he dated a Jewish girl. However, the Public Works Administration — a federal agency created under the New Deal — demolished housing in that integrated neighborhood to build racially segregated public housing, creating residential patterns that persisted long into the future. This was the case even in places that today consider themselves racially progressive. In Cambridge, Mass., for example, the Central Square neighborhood between Harvard and the Massachusetts Institute of Technology was integrated in the 1930s, about half Black and half White. But the federal government razed integrated housing to create segregated projects that, with other projects elsewhere in the region, established a pattern of segregation throughout the Boston metropolitan area.
During World War II, hundreds of thousands of White and African-American migrants flocked to war plants in search of jobs, and federal agencies systematically segregated the war workers’ housing. In many cases, officials did so in places where few African Americans lived before the war and little previous pattern of segregation existed. Richmond, Calif., a suburb of Berkeley, was one such case. It was the largest shipbuilding center on the West Coast, employing 100,000 workers by war’s end. In Berkeley, African-American workers were housed in separate buildings along the railroad tracks in an industrial area, while White workers were housed adjacent to a shopping area and White neighborhoods.
Residents of even the most segregated communities couldn’t count on staying put, however. At the end of the war, local housing agencies in most parts of the country assumed responsibility for such projects and maintained their racial boundaries. However, Berkeley and the University of California (which owned some of the land on which war workers had been housed) refused to permit the public housing to remain, arguing not only that it would change the “character” of the community but also that the site wasn’t suitable for housing. The war projects were demolished and African-American residents were placed in public housing in Oakland. Then, the university reconsidered the site’s suitability for housing and used the property for graduate student apartments.
To be sure, some public officials fought against such policies and practices. In 1949, for instance, the U.S. Congress considered a proposal to prohibit racial discrimination in public housing. It was voted down, however, and federal agencies went on to cite this vote as justification for segregating all federal housing programs for at least another decade.
Thus, during the years after World War II, the Federal Housing Administration (FHA) and Veterans Administration (VA) subsidized the development of entire subdivisions to house returning veterans and other working-class families on a Whites-only basis. Communities like Levittown (east of New York City), Lakewood (south of Los Angeles), and hundreds of others in between could be built only because the FHA and VA guaranteed the builders’ bank loans for purchase of land and construction of houses. The FHA’s Underwriting Manual for appraisers who investigated applications for such suburbs required that projects could be approved only for “the same racial and social classes” and prohibited developments close enough to Black neighborhoods that they might risk “infiltration of inharmonious racial” groups.
The effects continue
None of this is ancient history. The effects of these policies continue to the present day. For example, homes in places like Levittown and Lakewood sold in the mid-20th century for about $100,000 (in today’s currency), about twice the national median income and easily affordable to working-class families of either race with FHA or VA financing. Indeed, the terms of federally guaranteed mortgages were so generous that White working-class families could move to single-family suburban homes and pay less in monthly housing costs than they had paid in rent for public housing.
Today, homes in these suburbs sell for as much as half a million dollars (in some areas, even more), or eight times the national median income. White families that benefited from this mid-20th-century federal housing program gained hundreds of thousands of dollars in equity, which they have used to send offspring to college, weather emergencies, and subsidize retirements. They’ve also bequeathed this wealth to the next generations, enabling children and grandchildren to make their own down payments on suburban homes. However, African Americans gained none of this wealth. As a result, while African-American average yearly income now stands at about 60% of the White average, African Americans’ average wealth — the overall value of everything they own, less their outstanding debts — stands at only about 10% of the White average. That enormous disparity is almost entirely attributable to unconstitutional federal housing policy practiced in the mid-20th century.
By 1962, when the federal government renounced its policy of subsidizing segregation, and by 1968, when the Fair Housing Act banned private discrimination, the residential patterns of major metropolitan areas had already been set in concrete. White suburbs that had previously been affordable to the Black working class were no longer so, both because of the increase in suburban housing prices and because other federal policies had depressed Black incomes while supporting those of Whites.
Options and strategies
There are many possible ways to desegregate housing, which might enable the most disadvantaged children to grow up in diverse, higher-opportunity neighborhoods. Further, when researchers have looked closely at the handful of experimental programs that have assisted low-income families with young children to move to integrated housing, they have observed positive effects on those children’s performance in school.
Such reforms might range from subsidizing first-time homeownership for working families to modification of zoning ordinances in affluent suburbs that prohibit construction of town houses or even single-family homes on small lot sizes to the revision of programs that help low-income families rent apartments. (For example, the “Section 8 voucher” program is long overdue for a redesign. As it stands, it reinforces residential segregation because vouchers tend to be usable only in already low-income neighborhoods.)
But such reforms will never become politically or constitutionally feasible if we hold onto the myth of de facto segregation. That’s why it’s so critical, for example, to challenge those who would misinform young people about the country’s recent past. Even today, the most widely used middle and high school history textbooks neglect to mention the role of public housing in creating segregation, and they portray the FHA as an agency that made home ownership possible for working-class Americans, with no mention of those who were excluded. Likewise, they describe state-sponsored segregation as a strictly Southern phenomenon, and they portray discrimination in the North as the result of private prejudice alone, saying nothing about the active participation of local, state, and federal governments.
Such miseducation — though I’m tempted to call it indoctrination — undermines the possibility of future progress toward residential and educational integration. As New Orleans’ Mayor Mitch Landrieu put it, referring to the glorification of Confederate generals who fought to maintain slavery, “We justify our silence and inaction by manufacturing noble causes that marinate in historical denial.” The next generation will do no better than the present one unless we teach young people an un-sanitized version of the past. And if we do not, they too will wonder why the achievement gap so stubbornly persists, and they too will pursue flawed policies that attempt to raise the performance of segregated schools without addressing its underlying cause — the ongoing segregation of the neighborhoods in which those schools are located.
Portions of this article are based on material from and sources that are referenced in The Color of Law (Liveright/W.W. Norton, 2017).
Citation: Rothstein, R. (2019). The myth of de facto segregation. Phi Delta Kappan, 100 (5), 35-38.