By Sheryll Cashin (click here for the PDF)
Preamble from the author: I call the Black people trapped in high-poverty neighborhoods “descendants,” in recognition of an unbroken continuum from slavery. Occasionally, I also use this honorific to describe Black Americans like myself, who do not live in the “hood” but descend from the long legacy of slavery. Descendants are typecast and consigned to the bottom of the social order. Denizens of poverty-free, very-white spaces enjoy entrenched advantages, and everyone else struggles to access opportunity in real estate markets premised on exclusion begun a century before to contain descendants.
Segregation is the fundamental subtext for all school ﬁnance and school quality debates. Public schools are more racially segregated than they have been at any point in the last ﬁfty years. Most Black and Latinx public school students attend majority-minority schools. Nearly 40 percent of Black students attend schools that have been described as apartheid schools, with more than 90 percent students of color (Frankenberg et al, 2019).
Boundary maintenance is as apparent as opportunity hoarding in public education. Sometimes afﬂuent and apartheid schools are shockingly close to each other. According to a recent analysis on school boundaries, one in ﬁve public school students “live[s] virtually across the street from a signiﬁcantly whiter and richer school district” and for every student enrolled in afﬂuent bastions, three neighboring students “are left behind in lower-funded schools serving far more nonwhite students” (EdBuild, 2020).
A Black-American lawyer tells me about moving his child from J. O. Wilson Elementary in northeast Washington, DC, a school nearly 90 percent Black with low test scores, to a “lottery school” blocks away that was about 70 percent white. Both schools were public, but the “white” one could be accessed only by negotiating and winning a lottery process. It was much better-resourced, with more consistency and less turnover among teachers, the lawyer said. As a parent whose children bypassed our neighborhood elementary school for a “lottery” slot to well-resourced, racially diverse public charter schools in D.C., I understand his choice and the extremes. Our family was able to avoid sending our Black sons either to overwhelmingly white schools or to apartheid, impoverished schools. We were lucky, literally winning the school lottery on the third try, landing at the Washington Yu-Ying Elementary School, which afforded my sons an excellent international baccalaureate immersion education in Mandarin. No one would call this fabulous school in which white children were a minority “white space.” But among public neighborhood and charter schools in the District, extremes of very white and very Black, advantaged and hyper-poor, continue. Whether intentional or acquiesced in, it is still segregation. An old idea has been made new and respectable in its colorblind pretensions and willful ignorance to systems that exclude. An unspoken and unspeakable subtext is that some children are valued more than others, effectively told that they are less worthy of public investment than others. It is an American horror we do not own up to.
About 80 percent of all students in the United States attend a public school, and most of them are assigned based on where they live (McArdle and Acevedo-Garcia, 2017). Racial disparities in per-pupil spending persist in states with regressive approaches to school funding because people of color are more likely to live in high-poverty school districts with lower tax revenues (Miller and Epstein, 2011). The Department of Education projects that the white student population in public high schools will decrease in this decade as the Black, Latinx, and Asian/Paciﬁc Islander populations grow apace (U.S. Department of Education, 2018). As public schools become poorer and more colored, and more whites and afﬂuent people retreat to private or home schools, these tensions are likely to worsen.
When the Supreme Court decided Brown v. Board of Education of Topeka in 1954, it overruled the formal ﬁction of Plessy v. Ferguson that separate could be equal. The Brown case should also be understood as ﬁnally overruling Dred Scott and attempting to bring Black Americans into equal personhood and citizenship (powell, 2001). In the unanimous Brown opinion, Chief Justice Warren wrote about the common public school as an institution critical to rendering American youth successful citizens: “Education is perhaps the most important function of state and local governments…It is the very foundation of good citizenship…it is doubtful that any child may reasonably be expected to succeed in life if he is denied the opportunity of an education. Such an opportunity, where the state has undertaken to provide it, is a right which must be made available to all on equal terms” (347 U.S. 483, 1954).
Warren did not address inequality of resources between white and then-Negro schools, focusing instead on the intangible messages that state-sponsored segregation sent to Black children. Warren also did not address the message that segregation and white supremacy sent to white children, although the NAACP did raise this issue in its brief (Appellate Brief for Appellants, Brown v. Board of Education of Topeka). Whatever Black children thought of Jim Crow segregation in 1954, and the evidence was mixed regarding their alleged feelings of inferiority, segregation had material consequences. Racially identiﬁable schools were unequal then, as they are now. The Supreme Court in ensuing years effectively sanctioned separate and unequal schooling, particularly with Milliken v. Bradley, the 1974 case that exempted white suburbs surrounding Detroit from participating in cross-boundary school integration with the city, and hence exempted white suburbs everywhere. Milliken, decided only six years after the Court had ﬁnally begun to enforce Brown with alacrity, presaged its demise.
There are myriad ways in which opportunity is hoarded in public education. Beyond inequitable public funding, afﬂuent parents raise funds privately to pay for additional resources. For their own children, they would not stand for schools that look like prisons, twenty-ﬁve-year-old textbooks, leaking or wasp-infested ceilings, useless and outdated technology, crowded classrooms, and exhausted teachers who pay for supplies with their own limited paychecks. These are among the conditions thousands of teachers across the country shared with the New York Times in 2018 (Sedgwick, 2018).
Afﬂuent schools differ markedly in the type of education they offer. Though students in advantaged schools suffer the stresses of an arms race to selective higher education, they are engaged to think critically and have the possibility of stimulating, liberal inquiry. Descendant children receive soul-crushing drills to meet standardized tests, privatized “reforms” designed by and proﬁting outsiders, school-to-prison policing, and school closures that punish whole communities for being poor (Rooks, 2017).
There are alternatives to an America divided against itself, investing less in the education of its fastest-growing populations, preparing white youth less for the realities of living in a diverse country. Louisville, Kentucky, evolved from a place that once promoted segregation to one that resists it. For decades in the twentieth century, the city was hypersegregated. Like every other place that constructed ghettos, Louisville used zoning, redlining, urban renewal, highways, and other tactics to contain Black people. Then-mayor Charles Farnsley admitted Louisville’s urban renewal plan was designed to “drive the Negro back from the central area” so that “downtown did not become a black belt” (Corsey, 2020).
In the 1970s, more than 90 percent of the students in Louisville schools were Black, and approximately 95 percent of students in Jefferson County’s suburban district were white (Century Foundation, 2016). The region’s taste for integration had to be acquired. White mothers were the mass of massive resistance to school integration throughout the nation (Gillespie McRae, 2018). When a court ordered Louisville schools to desegregate in 1970, white parents protested against busing. The Kentucky National Guard had to be called in. In time, with actual experience participating in integrated schools, leaders and parents grew to appreciate the beneﬁts of a uniﬁed city-county school system in which there were no failing, apartheid schools to run from.
After court-ordered school desegregation was lifted, Louisville’s uniﬁed school district maintained a race-conscious school assignment and busing plan because it wanted schools to stay integrated. In 2007, the Supreme Court declared voluntary school integration plans in Louisville and Seattle, Washington, unconstitutional because they considered the race of individual students. But Justice Anthony Kennedy, who wrote the critical opinion in the case, Parents Involved in Community Schools v. Seattle School District No. 1, declared that all school districts have a compelling interest in promoting school diversity and avoiding racial isolation. Kennedy suggested race-conscious alternatives like drawing school attendance zones to mitigate residential segregation in order to achieve school integration (551 U.S. 701, 2007).
Louisville worked with school integration expert Gary Orﬁeld to adopt a new plan that mixes students based on their neighborhood characteristics. Among multiple neighborhood factors considered are race, household income, and parents’ education. The school district exempted racially balanced neighborhoods from busing, creating incentives for parents to choose residential integration. And students can apply for sought-after magnet and specialty programs like language immersion (Semuels, 2015; Siegel-Hawley, 2013). Researchers found that levels of housing segregation fell precipitously in Louisville Metro as parents knew that school assignments did not depend on where students lived (Siegel-Hawley, 2013; Taeuber, 1979). In 2010, metropolitan Louisville was no longer hypersegregated. Black-white dissimilarity—the percentage of Blacks who would have to move to be evenly distributed—declined from very high to moderate over four decades. Successful and enduring school integration explains this transition (Semuels, 2015).
In 2003, the city of Louisville combined its government with surrounding Jefferson County. This shared destiny of tax base and resources is called Louisville Metro, a consolidation that reduced white ﬂight and stabilized property values in the urban core (Semuels, 2015). Louisville Metro is still shaped by past racism, but it has begun to work at residential integration. The Metropolitan Housing Coalition successfully pressured the government to correct and amend its laws. Louisville enacted a local fair housing law that covers virtually all rental properties, including those exempted by federal law. It is considering banning discrimination by source of income, which protects low-income voucher holders. Louisville also amended its zoning code to incentivize developers to build multifamily and affordable housing in formerly sacrosanct single-family zones. For now, Louisville does not have a mandatory inclusionary zoning law, and like many cities, does not have enough affordable housing, but advocates continue to ﬁght for inclusion.
Louisville has adopted an online interactive project, titled “Redlining Louisville,” which maps past HOLC redlining and current neighborhood data. It is a digital reckoning of sorts. Mayor Greg Fischer said the project was meant to acknowledge “unnecessary hurdles… placed in front of some residents [and] spark a community conversation that results in removing those hurdles” (Louisville/Jefferson County Information Consortium, 2017). A municipal agency makes the tool available to the public through its website. It conducted a year-long series of community dialogues to spread knowledge about how and why west end Black neighborhoods became separate and unequal (Mock, 2017).
In 2019, Louisville Metro published its ﬁrst formal housing-needs assessment, examining the full range of types of housing needed to provide diverse residents with fair, affordable options and access to economic mobility within each neighborhood. The assessment identiﬁes policies and development strategies to meet assessed needs, and Louisville Metro has committed to revisiting this assessment every ﬁve years (Louisville, KY Office of Housing and Community Development, 2019). Louisville is far from perfect. Demands for justice for Breonna Taylor, killed by Louisville police on March 13, 2020, and for transformation and accountability of policing in the city continue. In late May 2020, white women moved forward when a Black Lives Matter leader asked them to use their bodies to stand between the police and Black protestors. They formed a line, locked arms, and the photo of these white allies went viral (Eadens, 2020). It was a moment that suggested possibilities for mutual liberation from the dogmas and structures of supremacy.
Louisville Metro’s economy soared as segregation levels fell (Semuels, 2015). Whether separatists like it or not, they are tied to others. Economies ignore boundaries. Metropolitan regions that are less segregated do better economically as a whole than those still fragmented by fear (Acs et al, 2017).
Other communities got started much earlier than Louisville in attacking the segregationist order: Shaker Heights, Ohio. Oak Park, Illinois. The Shepherd Park neighborhood of Washington, DC. They are among the local unicorns that intentionally pursued residential integration in the 1960s. Perhaps visionary residents recognized that the damage from segregation would be mutual. Or they afﬁrmed their “I-am-not-a-racist” identity by acting to prevent systemic racism in housing markets.
Places with a sizeable middle class that integrate rather than exclude poor families have higher rates of upward mobility for poor children: DuPage, Illinois. Bergen, New Jersey. Bucks, Pennsylvania. Fairfax, Virginia. King, Washington State. Montgomery, Maryland. These are among the top counties in the country for social mobility. Every year a child lived in these places would raise her earnings as an adult. At the opposite end of the spectrum, places with stark residential segregation, including Baltimore and Milwaukee, penalize children who live there, detracting from their life chances and adult earnings. Counties with higher rates of social mobility tended to be less segregated, with lower-income inequality, better schools, less violent crime, and more two-parent households (Chetty et al, 2018). In the 2018 book Moving Toward Integration, three housing scholars documented that for the 10 percent of Blacks who live in urban metro areas with only moderate segregation, their outcomes on indicators like employment, education, and life span are much closer to that of whites than in highly segregated places that correlate with stark racial inequality (Sander et al, 2018).
Some localities become “equality innovators,” as legal scholar Robin Lenhardt calls them (Lenhardt, 2011; Johnson, 2016). They raise minimum wages to enable human beings to live as such. They ban boxes that limit job prospects for returning citizens. They mandate inclusionary housing. They enact and enforce human rights and antidiscrimination protections along multiple dimensions. Transforming systems from exclusionary to inclusive, from racist to anti-racist, requires coalition and hard, never-ending work. And seeing and naming the systems that harm descendants is the ﬁrst step to racial reckoning.▀
Sheryll Cashin (Sheryll.Cashin@law.georgetown.edu) is the Carmack Waterhouse Professor of Law, Civil Rights and Social Justice at Georgetown University and a member of PRRAC’s Board of Directors. This article is an excerpt from the sixth chapter, “More Opportunity Hoarding: Separate and Unequal Schools,” of her new book White Space, Black Hood: Opportunity Hoarding and Segregation in the Age of Inequality (Beacon Press, 2021) – available wherever books are sold. Reprinted with permission from Beacon Press.
Erica Frankenberg, Jongyeon Ee, Jennifer B. Ayscue, and Gary Orﬁeld,“Harming Our Common Future: America’s Segregated Schools 65 Years After Brown,” (Civil Rights Project, 2019).
“Dismissed: America’s Most Divisive Borders,” EdBuild, 2020.
Nancy McArdle and Dolores Acevedo-Garcia, “Consequences of Segregation for Children’s Opportunity and Wellbeing,” (A Shared Future: Fostering Communities of Inclusion in an Era of Inequality, Harvard Joint Center for Housing Studies, 2017).
Raegen Miller and Diana Epstein, There Still Be Dragons: Racial Disparity in School Funding Is No Myth (Center for American Progress, July 2011).
“Projections of Education Statistics to 2026 Forty-Fifth Edition,” (U.S. Department of Education, April 2018)
john a. powell, “The Tensions Between Integration and School Reform,” (Hastings Constitutional Law Quarterly, 2001).
Brown v. Board of Education of Topeka, 347 U.S. 483, 493 (1954).
Appellate Brief for Appellants, Brown v. Board of Education of Topeka, 11 (1952)
Josephine Sedgwick, “25-Year-Old Textbooks and Holes in the Ceiling: Inside America’s Public Schools,” (New York Times, 2018).
Noliwe Rooks, Cutting School: Privatization, Segregation, and the End of Public Education (New York: New Press, 2017).
“Redlining Louisville: Racial Capitalism and Real Estate;” Gil Corsey, “Once a Booming Strip of Black Business, Wall Street Faded from Louisville’s Memory for Failed Urban Renewal,” (2020).
Century Foundation, Louisville, Kentucky: A Reflection on School Integration, (2016).
Elizabeth Gillespie McRae, Mothers of Massive Resistance: White Women and the Politics of White Supremacy (New York: Oxford University Press, 2018).
Parents Involved in Community Schools v. Seattle School District No. 1, 551 U.S. 701 (2007).
Semuels, “The City That Believed in Desegregation”; Genevieve Siegel-Hawley, “City Lines, County Lines, Color Lines: The Relationship Between School and Housing Segregation in Four Southern Metro Areas,”(Teachers College Record 115, 2013).
Siegel-Hawley, “City Lines, County Lies, Color Lines,” 1, 24; see also Karl E. Taeuber, “Housing, Schools, and Incremental Segregative Effects,” (Annals of American Academy of Political and Social Science 441, no. 157, 1979).
Alana Semuels, “The City That Believed in Desegregation,” (Atlantic, 2015).
“Redlining Louisville: The History of Race, Class, and Real Estate,” (Louisville/Jefferson County Information Consortium, 2017).
“Redlining Louisville: Racial Capitalism and Real Estate”; Brentin Mock, “Louisville Confronts Its Redlining Past and Present,” (Bloomberg CityLab, 2017)
“Housing Needs Assessment,” Louisville, KY Office of Housing and Community Development (2019).
Savannah Eadens, “Viral Photo Shows Line of White People Between Police, Black Protesters at Thursday Rally,” (Louisville Courier-Journal, 2020).
Gregory Acs, Rolf Pendall, Mark Treskon, and Amy Khare, The Cost of Segregation National Trends and the Case of Chicago, 1990–2010 (Urban Institute, 2017).
Raj Chetty et al., “The Opportunity Atlas: Mapping the Childhood Roots of Social Mobility,” (National Bureau of Economic Research Working Paper Series, 2018).
Richard H. Sander et al., Moving Toward Integration (2018)
R. A. Lenhardt, “Localities as Equality Innovators,” (Stanford Journal of Civil Rights & Civil Liberties, 2011); see also Olatunde C.A. Johnson, “The Local Turn; Innovation and Diffusion in Civil Rights Law,” (Law & Contemporary Problems 2016).