Many people argue that schools are segregated because neighborhoods are segregated, and neighborhoods are segregated because most people choose to live with “their own kind.”
The first part of that statement may contain some truth, but the second part is mostly a myth, as Richard Rothstein explains in his recent book “The Color of Law.” Government policies at the national, state and local level created or strengthened housing segregation that persists today.
And because segregation resulted from law, called de jure, and not by choice, it violates the U.S. Constitution, argues Rothstein, a research associate at the Economic Policy Institute.
“If I am right that we continue to have de jure segregation,” he writes, “then desegregation is not just a desirable policy; it is a constitutional as well as a moral obligation that we are required to fulfill.”
In a sense, “The Color of Law” is a rebuttal to two key Supreme Court decisions. In one, the court ruled in 1974 that suburbs couldn’t be included in a Detroit school desegregation plan; in the other, issued in 2007, it barred voluntary school segregation plans adopted in Louisville and Seattle. In both, the court claimed segregation resulted from private choice, not legal requirements.
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.
“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. Continue reading