Why School Choice is the Last Thing America Needs to Solve Its Huge Racial Wealth Gap


The gap between how much wealth Blacks and Whites have in the US is stark. If current trends continue, the median wealth of Blacks could fall to zero, even as wealthy Whites remain blissfully, even delusionally, unaware of the economic divide. But what is the source of the racial wealth gap, and how can we upend what is essentially a caste system in this country? AlterNet education editor Jennifer Berkshire talks to Richard Rothstein, author of The Color of Law, about the federal housing policies that segregated cities, neighborhoods and schools, dividing the economic prospects of Blacks and Whites in the process.

Rothstein blows up the myth that residential segregation is the product of millions of private choices. And he has little patience for arguments that school choice is the solution to cities and neighborhoods segregated by design. "We're not going to solve this problem by choosing schools. We’re going to solve this problem by enforcing the neighborhood school concept in integrated neighborhoods." Listen to the interview here

Jennifer Berkshire: The Color of Law takes aim at what you argue is a false narrative about the origins of residential segregation. Here’s your opportunity to set the record straight.

Richard Rothstein:  I wrote this book in response to a national myth that the reason we have residential segregation in every metropolitan area in this country is the result of private activity. It's the result of rogue real estate agents steering White families to White neighborhoods and Black families to Black neighborhoods. Or it's the result of people  wanting to live among same-race neighbors. Or it's because of income differences and African-Americans are not able to afford to buy homes in White neighborhoods. Or it's because of private individuals discriminating. It's very hard to figure out what to do about the residential segregation that exists in every metropolitan area in this country if it’s the result of millions of accidental private decisions. But once we understand that residential segregation is the product of very explicit and intentional public policy, then it's easier to understand that we can do something about it. If it was created by public policy it can be reversed by public policy.

JB: You lay out the history of a handful of federal housing policies that created the segregated cities and neighborhoods that remain with us today. In many ways the legacy of those policies comes down to a single word: equity.

RR: The Federal Housing Administration, which was created 1934, subsidized builders of large subdivisions, entire suburbs, with the explicit condition that no homes be sold African-Americans. The most famous of these is Levittown just east of New York City. William Levitt, the developer, could never have acquired the capital necessary to build all those homes on his own. He went to the Federal Housing Administration, which approved his plans on the condition that no homes be sold to African Americans, and further, that deeds include a clause prohibiting resale to African-Americans. There were hundreds of places like Levittown around the country; all of California,  suburbs in places like Lakewood south of Los Angeles or Panorama City. was developed in this way with Federal Housing Administration requirements that no African-Americans be admitted.

At the time those homes sold for about twice the national median income; they were affordable to working class families. Today they sell for $300,000, $400,000 or $500,000. The White families who moved into those homes in the mid-twentieth century gained over the course of the next two or three generations. Half million dollars in equity. Maybe a little bit less but a lot of equity the Black families who were required to live in rented apartments either in public housing or private housing in urban areas get no equity. The result is that today nationwide African-American incomes on average are about 60 percent of White incomes. But African-American wealth is only about seven percent of White wealth and that enormous disparity 60 percent income ratio a percent wealth ratio is entirely attributable to unconstitutional federal housing policy practice in the mid 20th century.

JB: The cities that appear in your book include not just Chicago or St. Louis, metropolitan areas that we've come to associate with, say, segregated public housing, but places we consider progressive bastions, like San Francisco and Cambridge. 

RR: I like to talk in the book about the places like San Francisco and Cambridge, which also had government-created segregation because I think that if people can understand that this happened in places that are considered the most liberal places in the country it must have happened everywhere. Richmond, CA across the bay from San Francisco was at the center of shipbuilding. Its population was less than 20000 at the beginning of World War II, and by the end of the war was 100,000 Clearly the shipyards couldn't keep working if the government didn't provide housing for these workers.

So government in this neighborhood that in this community that never known segregation and didn't even have an African-American population to speak of before the war created separate housing for African-Americans and for Whites. The housing for African-Americans was located along the railroad tracks near the shipyards in the industrial area of Richmond. The housing for Whites was located in the residential area further inland. It's not that Whites happen to pick those those units and Blacks happened to pick the units in the industrial area. This was explicitly designated. All over the country the government created segregation where if it existed before it existed in a much less rigid form or in places like Richmond where it never existed before.

JB: The subtitle of your book is “A forgotten history of how our government segregated America.” But you make a strong case that the history hasn’t just been forgotten, but erased.

RR: In the course of writing The Color of Law I examined every high school textbook that was widely used in American high schools today. Every one of the textbooks I examined lied about this history or misstated it. For example, the most widely used American history textbook when I was doing my research five years ago was The Americans,  and I doubt much has changed since then.  The Americans is 1,200 pages long, and there is one paragraph devoted to what they called ‘segregation in the North.’ And within that one paragraph there was a single sentence devoted to housing segregation, and it reads as follows. “In the North, African Americans found themselves forced into segregated neighborhoods.” Passive voice sentence with no description of who forced them. “They found themselves.” They woke up one day and looked out the window and said ‘Hey - we’re in a segregated neighborhood!’ That’s what we're teaching young people today. And unless we do a better job of teaching

JB: School choice advocates make the claim that ‘your education shouldn’t be limited by your zip code,’ arguing essentially that allowing parents to choose their way out of neighborhood schools is the way to overcome the legacy of residential segregation. What do you say to that?

RR: My argument is that we can't have good schools unless we have integrated neighborhoods. We don't measure school quality well today. We consider schools good if they have a lot of White middle class children who are well prepared to succeed and who the schools simply have to pass through. They come in successful and they leave successful. We consider schools bad if they have schools with a lot of disadvantaged children who come to school with serious economic and social problems that interfere with their learning.The question is how can we integrate neighborhoods in every school. Has a mix of low moderate affluent families income families is integrated. Fundamentally we're not going to solve this problem by choosing schools. We’re going to solve this problem by enforcing the neighborhood school concept in integrated neighborhoods.

JB: Race relations are incredibly polarized right now, and we have a President whom many regard as a White supremacist. And yet you’re feeling optimistic these days. Care to share some of that optimism?

RR: We’ve had the exposure of a White supremacist minority in this country that was always there but has now been empowered and enabled by President Trump. And that's very frightening. On the other hand we have much much more discussion about the legacy of slavery, the legacy of Jim Crow, and the obligation that the country has to address its racial problems and to create equality than we've ever had before. When I started working on this book which was 10 years ago I did it because I'm a policy writer and that's what policy writers do—they write about policy. I never thought that this book would get any attention because nobody was talking about race at the time. It was what people thought of as a post-racial society. And then since Ferguson, since the death of Michael Brown at the hands of a policeman and subsequent incidents in other cities, there is a national awakening to the fact that we have never addressed the legacy of slavery and the caste system that we've created in violation of the Civil War Amendments. Whether the national discussion that we're having in this very positive way will overcome the negative empowering of White supremacist forces. I can't predict, but we're certainly in a lot better position now that we're confronting it.

Richard Rothstein is a research associate of the Economic Policy Institute and a fellow at the Thurgood Marshall Institute of the NAACP Legal Defense Fund and of the Haas Institute at the University of California (Berkeley). He is the author of The Color of Law: A Forgotten History of How our Government Segregated America.This is an edited transcript. 

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