Thursday, December 11, 2014

Public Policies and Contemporary Segregation

Prior to a grand jury failing to indict the officer who shot Michael Brown in Ferguson, Missouri this summer, Richard Rothstein released an important report examining the broader structural contexts that make Ferguson, like many inner-ring suburbs, likely to provide limited opportunities for its young people. His work connects nicely with more contemporary work I’ve done examining the opportunity of students of color in suburban schools and districts that are rapidly changing—which in many instances are expanding the geographic scale of central city segregation. Rothstein stresses—and my own reading and research on this topic concur—that this is not unique to Ferguson or St. Louis, but is systematic and similar across metro areas in the country.

Rothstein’s report is especially useful because it illustrates how much of the existing patterns of segregation within metropolitan areas are a result of state action, not simply private prejudice. He provides an array of examples of policy tools used by jurisdictions outside of St. Louis to destabilize what integrated neighborhoods existed, pushing out black residents due to zoning policies, annexation or other means.  Moreover, two important points are (1) the myriad of ways in which the federal government not only condoned but indeed subsidized the discrimination against African Americans in suburbia, but also (2) the comprehensive nature with which racial discrimination permeated policies at all levels, reinforcing private action (including through government regulation of professional practice). Thus, a lesson from this is that even when the Supreme Court, for example, prohibited certain actions as unconstitutional or the Fair Housing Act became law, they were somewhat limited in changing outcomes on the ground because of the reinforcing and perpetuating effect of existing policies and practices. Indeed one of the conclusions Rothstein draws is that “the lesson of Black Jack [suburb that resisted a proposed integrated housing development] was that winning a lawsuit is not the same as winning the fight for integration” (p. 21).

What’s also important to understand is the way in which this has a perpetuating effect.  The exclusion of African-Americans from further out suburbs in St. Louis County means that they were not able to reap the advantages of rapidly rising home values. As African-Americans were increasingly relegated to central city neighborhoods, there was a rise in mismatch from employment opportunities and combined with limited public transportation opportunities, this made it difficult for Black residents to keep what good jobs were available to them (Rothstein also recounts employment discrimination in the metro).

Layered onto housing segregation and inequality is school quality and fragmentation.  In St. Louis city and county, there are nearly two dozen districts that have three or more schools. Given the differences in present day values due to the discrimination in the housing market Rothstein recounts, it is likely that students have vastly different opportunities, including due to segregation. The current governor as Attorney General two decades ago tried to end the long-lasting interdistrict desegregation program that sought to create more integrated experiences for students in the metro. At a time in which the Supreme Court has limited the ability of districts to pursue voluntary integration, the work that Rothstein has done could potentially be the foundation for arguing that schools should be responsible for remedying existing segregation due to the multifaceted ways in which it resulted from governmental action.

by Erica Frankenberg

Erica Frankenberg, Ed.D., is an Assistant Professor in the Department of Education Policy Studies at the Pennsylvania State University. Her research interests focus on racial desegregation and inequality in K-12 schools, and the connections between school segregation and other metropolitan policies.

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