How housing policies led to segregated schools

Richard Rothstein has long been the go-to scholar for journalists writing about segregated schools. In books like “Grading Education: Getting Accountability Right” and “Class and Schools,” he sounded the alarm about the harm done by segregating children by race and socioeconomic status.

Recently the Economic Policy Institute research associate has turned his attention to the forces that caused much of that school segregation. He blames government policies that created racially segregated neighborhoods through much of the 20th century.

Richard Rothstein

Richard Rothstein

“I contend we do not have de facto segregation in this country,” he said Friday at a Public Policy and International Affairs conference at Indiana University. “Every metropolitan area in this country has been segregated purposefully by public policy.”

Two strands of federal policy created and maintained segregated housing, including in neighborhoods that had previously been integrated, he said. One was construction of separate public housing for whites and blacks. The other was promotion of whites-only subdivisions.

Segregation also was protected with restrictive deed covenants that prohibited the buyer of a home from subsequently selling it to a non-white family. For decades, Rothstein said, government officials and university legal departments used their clout to enforce those restrictions.

Today, public housing is generally associated with crowded projects in cities. But the first public housing was built for middle-class white families who had trouble finding decent housing in the Great Depression, Rothstein said. Later, segregated public housing for blacks was built to accommodate factory and shipyard workers who migrated to cities during World War II.

After the war, the 1949 American Housing Act provided low-cost mortgages for buyers and loan support for builders, fueling the boom of affordable subdivisions that changed the face of American cities. Loan guarantees were typically provided only for developments that barred African-Americans, he said.

An interest in schools led Rothstein to research housing. Reading the opinions in Parents Involved v. Seattle, the 2007 Supreme Court decision that struck down voluntary school desegregation in Seattle and Louisville, he saw that justices agreed school segregation in the cities was “de facto.” Segregation existed, they conceded, but it wasn’t “de jure” segregation created by law or government.

He knew otherwise, because he had read about the government’s enforcement of housing segregation in Louisville and elsewhere. In the 1950s, Louisville residents were prosecuted for sedition after they arranged for a black family to buy a home in an all-white neighborhood.

“None of this was hidden,” Rothstein said. “We’ve forgotten it now, but it’s never been hidden.”

Rothstein draws a straight line between government housing policies and the isolation of poor children and children of color in schools that are labeled as failing. There may no longer be laws that mandate separate schools for white and nonwhite children, he said. But government policy produced the segregated neighborhoods that continue to give us segregated schools.

“This was not a story about de facto segregation,” he said. “It’s de jure segregation. It’s unconstitutional. And it’s never been remedied.”


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