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"Socioeconomic School Integration - A Response,"

by john a. powell November/December 2001 issue of Poverty & Race

There has been a long and largely unproductive debate in this country about the primacy of racial subordination or class to address our society’s growing inequality. Over the last several years, a growing number of scholars have persuasively demonstrated that these two hierarchical structures in our society are powerfully related, but nonetheless differ. Addressing the problem of class isolation in schools is certainly a necessary and important task, but it is only a partial and weak response to racial segregation. While it is true that racial hierarchy has socioeconomic dimensions, it cannot simply be reduced to class and cannot be addressed by only using class. Both for analytical and pragmatic reasons, race must be central to any serious effort to confront racism.

It is a reflexive move within the dominant society to try to avoid discussions about race or racism. To the limited extent that we are willing to talk about racism, we are likely to find it a psychological event where the perpetrator is just as likely to be a racial minority holding negative stereotypes about innocent whites as the other way around. Never mind that racism was called into being to create a system of white superiority that is very much reflected in our institutions and structures. This system was not and could not have been put together just by the individual private acts of whites. Racism in our country has largely been and is about white superiority and white supremacy that is reflected in the creation and distribution of resources.

By locating racism in our structures and institutions, I am not suggesting that whites and people of color do not harbor negative racial thoughts. What I am suggesting is that our institutions and structures have produced and reflect white hierarchy. This expression of white superiority (and conversely, minority inferiority) that is visited on nonwhites is not something that is largely dependent on the expressed or proven intention of any individual.

The creation and maintenance of the modern suburbs provide an example of this structural racial hierarchy. There are a number of reasons why whites may live in the suburbs that are not explicitly anti-nonwhite. But nonwhites, and particularly blacks, were excluded from choosing the ‘burbs. New home, good school, clean environment away from the city were available only to white Americans. These structures were put in place, funded and protected against minority intrusion by the government. When we talk about the impossibility of changing the pattern of spatial segregation, the obvious question is why. Whites who took advantage of government’s arrangement may not be guilty of harboring racial animus, but they still are the beneficiaries of a system of white supremacy. Even if they are not guilty, they certainly are not “innocent,” as Justice Powell and others have insisted. We need to move beyond the guilt and innocence paradigm and begin to challenge racism on a deeper, institutional level.

In one of the most important cases in United States history, Dred Scott, Chief Justice Taney stated that no blacks, slave or free, had any right protected by the Constitution. He went on to assert that blacks only had the rights that whites were willing to give them. Many historians have stated that Dred Scott helped push the country into the Civil War. After the Civil War and passage of the Civil War Amendments, the Supreme Court in Plessy v. Fergurson upheld the doctrine of separate but equal, holding that isolating blacks did not violate the Constitution’s Equal Protection Clause.

What both of these cases represent is that blacks and other minorities were not recognized as full citizens, and that their rights can be abbreviated in the interest of whites. This is what racial segregation meant in 1896, and that is what it means today.

In reading these cases, the Court does not discuss socioeconomic status. But this is wrong on a number of counts. Racial hierarchy cannot be either adequately explained or corrected by income alone, and class is not just income. The ideology of white supremacy was not reducible to class in Plessy or Dred Scott, and it is not reducible to class now. While it is true that one of the consequences of a system of white supremacy is to depress the economic wealth and class status of blacks and others, it was never a system where all blacks were necessarily poorer than all whites, based on a single indicator. Consider voting: It did not matter how much wealth a black had in Mississippi. For much of this country’s history, this person could not vote, regardless of his or her income resources. Racial profiling is another poignant example of racial exclusion not explained by class. Even if one were to pick a single economic indicator, wealth is a much better indicator of disparity than income, as demonstrated by Melvin Oliver and Thomas Shapiro in Black Wealth/White Wealth. The correlation to wealth and access to opportunity in education and other areas is much stronger than free and reduced lunch or income. While both income and free and reduced lunch tell us something, they both understate the persistent inequality between whites and nonwhites.

The Nobel Prize-winning economist Amartya Sen observes that in considering equity, one must look not just at resources, but the ability to translate those resources into utilities. In a system where opportunity is distorted by discrimination, the disfavored groups’ ability to translate economic resources into opportunity will be limited. What this means is that if there is discrimination against blacks in, for example, mortgage lending or purchasing a car, blacks will pay more for a mortgage or a car than whites. This is a subordination tax levied against blacks that discounts their resources.

These are just a few examples of the limitations of using class to address issues of race. In the school context, federal Judge Robert Carter observed that segregation is only the symptom of the disease of white supremacy. I maintain that neither the disease nor the symptom can be adequately treated by simply using class or free and reduced lunch to overcome the racial isolation of students. There are a number of reasons for this. First of all, a strategy of class integration will not be effective in addressing the racial isolation, and even where physical isolation is reduced, this will not address the problem of white supremacy and move us to true integration.

Empirical evidence backs up these claims. There have been a number of efforts to address racial subordination and segregation by simply folding them into a class response. Virtually all of them have failed, and some of them have caused greater racial isolation.

Justice O’Connor in The City of Richmond v. Crowson suggested that it would be better to use class rather than race for “set-aside” contracts in the construction industry. However, the evidence is clear that while it may benefit poor whites, this approach does not address the problem of the lack of minority contractors. It is important to note the O’Connor and other conservative Justices are not trying to address the problem set out by Judge Carter. They have largely rejected the claim that racism remains a serious problem in our society and are in the business of demanding greater and greater proof. Instead, they assert that racial classification is the evil that must be avoided, not racial hierarchy.

In New Jersey, the state Supreme Court took a housing segregation case that was largely about racial discrimination and turned it into a case about class. In the most far-reaching housing case dealing with low-income residents, the Court ordered the entire state to provide a fair share of low-income housing. About 25,000 housing units have been created under this plan. However, it has been administered in such a way as to actually increase the racial segregation of minorities in New Jersey. When we think about it, it is clear: Middle-class whites’ reluctance to live with poor whites is not nearly as strong as their reluctance to live with blacks. Given the choice between the two, you get the results in New Jersey. It is also instructive that many advocates argued that because minorities were over-represented in the pool of low-income tenants they would receive the largest benefit from a class-based approach. They wrongly assumed there were no other factors that would continue to disadvantage minorities or the ingenuity of whites to find creating to ways to exclude people of color. In essence, they believed that the present dynamic of racial subordination would be reduced to class.

To try to reduce racial subordination to a single cause has repeatedly and consistently failed. The current conservative Supreme Court has limited racial discrimination in education to the intentional acts of a school board. They have refused in most cases to look at housing or the drawing the jurisdictional boundaries. They have treated housing and municipal segregation as “nature” and beyond the scope of consideration for addressing discrimination in schools. A growing number of commentators have recognized the relationship between concentrated poverty neighborhoods and high poverty rates in school. But even some of these have not examined why 75% of those living in high-poverty neighborhoods are minorities. Poor whites in urban areas are much more likely to live in white middle-class neighborhoods. We sort people by both race and class. And although most commentators recognize that blacks and other minorities are over-represented in the low-income and low-wealth categories, they fail to tie this sorting process to race and class. But as Oliver and Shapiro remind us, this process is both the consequence and the product of racialized wealth. Once this system is in place, it does not require racial animus to reproduce itself.

According to Professor George Lipsitz, there is ambivalence in America. We are willing and even want to pursue racial justice in our society but only to the extent that whites’ expectation of privilege and hierarchy is not disrupted. He calls this “the possessive investment in whiteness.” But in order to achieve racial justice, the very thing that is called for is disruption of this expectation. Lipsitz looks at examples of major civil rights laws, from education to housing to employment, and asserts that each set of laws as policies was designed to create some accommodation without dis-establishing the material and cultural privileges associated with whiteness. In the school context, we see the Court narrowing the scope of Brown to achieve this ambivalent balance. We can promise minorities desegregated schools, not to be confused with integrated schools, while maintaining the reality of racially segregated schools in response to whites’ fears all across the country.

If this is accurate, why do people keep pushing class in our capitalist society to address the problem of racism and white supremacy? It may be that some really believe it will work. Others clearly know that it will not, but it gives the appearance of doing something while avoiding the issue. For the latter, group, it is what some theorists have called “whitespeak.” It is another iteration of the ambivalence noted above, while maintaining white privilege.. So, we can have fair housing laws as long as they allow for the continuation of white enclaves. And we can have judicial repudiation of segregated schools as long as we have a system of de facto segregation. There is an attempt to explain these segregation patterns in neutral sounding terms like “private choice” and “the market.” Anything but racial discrimination. For those who follow the jurisprudence of the Supreme Court in education and housing law, it is clear that the Court has decided to accommodate neo-segregationists in the school and housing context. While doing so, the Court invites us to consider class after it has already found that there is very little judicial remedy for class-based inequalities.

There are many important issues raised in the call to use class as a surrogate for racial integration. From a pragmatic standpoint, I have argued, based on prior examples, that it will not work. This need not disturb us unless we believe that racial integration remains an important goal. Unfortunately, we do not have a clear concept of what is meant by integration. At times, we seem to confuse integration with either desegregation or assimilation. Although Kahlenberg tells us that he supports racially integrated schools, he does not tell us why. All the reasons he lists for supporting integrated schools are about class and not about race. He cites Justice Thomas’ rhetorical question as to why it is necessary for black and white children to be together to learn. The only answer he suggests is class, not race. Of course, the need for students to be together or (more accurately) not separated varies in importance, depending on what we think students are to learn and what they are learning by the separation. Should we then be satisfied if we had economically integrated schools that remained racially segregated?

Dr. King understood integration to mean more than simply having students in the same classroom. Unlike many detractors of integration, he understood that integration is not assimilation or desegregation:
    "We do not have to look very far to see the pernicious effects of a desegregated society that is not integrated. It leads to “physical proximity without spiritual affinity.” It gives us a society where men are physically desegregated and spiritually segregated, where elbows are together and hearts are apart. It gives us spatial togetherness and spiritual apartness. It leaves us with a stagnant equality of sameness rather than a constructive equality of oneness."

And as Gordon W. Allport prefigured in his 1950’s book The Nature of Prejudice, the nature of contact between students and the surrounding environment matters greatly in terms of whether the school is truly integrated or has just succeeded in putting bodies next to each other.

True integration embraces a multi-cultural conception of social interaction. Social interaction is constitutive of the individual and the collective identity of the community. Assimilation envisions the absorption of minorities into the mainstream. Integration envisions the transformations of the mainstream. Thus, real integration is measured by the transformations of institutions, communities and individuals. Real integration involves fundamental change, among whites, blacks and other minorities as people and communities. Rather than Euro-centric or Afro-centric education, integration necessarily implies a curriculum that respects and values cultural difference, while building community. It is about integrating the mind and heart. In our society, it is about dis-establishing white supremacy.

A truly integrated education is not just about putting students together, as important as this might be. It is about building, if not a beloved community, at least a democratic community. As John Dewey suggests, the primary role of education is not about test scores or access to employment, even though both can be important. Fundamentally, it is about citizenship. The problem that persists in this country is that we have a racialized concept of who belongs, based on white superiority, that undermines our democratic community.

I have already touched on many complicated issues. But I want to at least raise one more: Justice Scalia, in some of his opinions, has rhetorically asked the question, “What is race?” He suggests that it is socially-constructed and not biologically real. But for him and for many others, this means that we should not discuss race, and that racial categories are problematic and must be avoided. There is a lot of confusion in this popular and increasingly judicial position.

If race is socially constructed, it does not follow that it is not real. Instead, it means that it gains its reality and significance from our social practices and arrangements. How can whites claim that race does not exist and yet assert the desire to be around whites? Glenn Loury [john: you had Lowry—isn’t it Loury?]has suggested that if race is socially constructed, then so are any disparities that exist between the races. The significance of race will only change when these disparities in education, income, housing and life opportunities cease to exist. This is a social, not individual, project.

The current project to avoid race is not a project to address white superiority, but is instead likely to entrench it. Our country’s history has been about racial hierarchy. This system of hierarchy is a web constructed by society. If it is to be deconstructed, we must avoid reducing it to a single thread. Racial subordination cannot be addressed by avoiding race and racism, nor can we sneak through the agenda of racial justice under the cover of class. I am ready to sign on to a struggle to reduce poverty and class inequities in our society, but I am not prepared to endorse a position that asserts we will only embrace racial justice after we have become a classless society. That position is not racial progress but the depth of our attachment to racial hierarchy.

john a. powell is Secretary of PRRAC's Board, is on the faculty of the University of Minnesota Law School, where he directs the Institute on Race & Poverty (415 Law Ctr., 229 19th Ave. S., Minneapolis, MN 55455. 612/625-5529, E-mail:


john powell (, a PRRAC Board member, is a professor at the Univ. of Minnesota Law School and Director of the Institute on Race and Poverty.


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