Housing Sins of Past Need to be Known, Says Scholar

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To fix education in the United States, we must first acknowledge that the U.S. government stacked the deck against African-Americans in the early 20th century with discriminatory housing practices, a scholar told a packed house at Fordham on Oct. 24.

“Schools today are segregated because their neighborhoods are racially homogenous, but neighborhoods did not get that way from private discrimination, economic characteristics, or voluntary housing choices,” said Richard Rothstein, research associate at the Economic Policy Institute.

“Residential segregation’s causes are 20th-century federal, state, and local policies explicitly designed to separate the races, and whose effects endure today.”

Rothstein delivered “The Racial Achievement Gap, Segregated Schools, and Segregated Neighborhoods: A Constitutional Insult,” to a standing-room-only gathering at the Lincoln Center campus. The Sapientia Et Doctrina lecture was part of the Graduate School of Education’s ongoing celebration of its 100th anniversary.

Sophisticated educators should to pay attention to issues that affect education in indirect ways, he said. African Americans are disproportionately affected, for instance, by mass incarceration, contingent work schedules, and overdue property tax evaluations.

His strongest critique was of racial integration, a policy that has been shown to improve the education of African Americans, but which has been resisted by the U.S. Supreme Court. In a 2007 case, Meredith v. Jefferson County Board of Education, the court ruled unconstitutional plans to make racial balance a factor in assigning students to school districts in the cities of Louisville and Seattle.

“In Chief Justice John Roberts’ terminology, . . . constitutionally forbidden segregation established by federal, state or local government action is de jure segregation, while racial isolation independent of state action is, in Roberts’ view, de facto segregation.”

The problem, however, is that segregation was baked right into federal public housing policy as far back as the 1930s’ New Deal.

“Here in New York, the Williamsburg Homes were for whites only, and the Harlem River Houses were for African Americans. This was de jure segregation, and it went on across the country,” he said.

In fact, he noted that in The Big Sea, (Knopf, 1940) Langston Hughes described growing up in a racially integrated neighborhood in Cleveland that was subsequently demolished to make way for segregated public housing.

After World War II, the federal government then subsidized the relocation of whites to suburbs such as Levittown, but prohibited African Americans from also moving there, he said. White families could buy a house in Levittown for the equivalent of $100,000 in today’s dollars; yet today these are often sold for $400,000.

The 1968 Fair Housing Act made overt discrimination illegal, but by then, white homeowners had built up equity over decades. Blacks had been confined to inner cities, where they were forced to rent, and thus gain no equity.

“The Fair Housing Act was an empty freedom,” said Rothstein.

He said that in 1947, the price tag on a Levittown home was equal to about twice the median national income—easily affordable to a working class family with a mortgage. Today, the sell price of $400,000 is more than six times the national median income, putting it out of reach for many working class families.

“Today, median black family income is about 60 percent of white median income, but black median family wealth is just an astonishing 5 percent of the white median,” he said. “This difference is almost entirely attributable to racially motivated federal housing policy—and you can see the effects in your classrooms daily.”

Rothstein suggested that textbooks should be updated to reflect this uncomfortable truth. If educators build public awareness, Supreme Court cases like Meredith v. Jefferson County Board of Education can be revisited.

“Today, most Americans have forgotten—or never learned—this history. Instead, we’ve adopted a de facto segregation myth that paralyzes our ability to remedy it,” he said.

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