Segregation, Inequality, Concentrated Poverty: How We Got Here

Last fall, after the police shooting of Michael Brown in Ferguson, Missouri, Richard Rothstein of the Economic Policy Institute, published The Making of Ferguson in the American Prospect.  Now after the death of Freddie Gray while in police custody in Baltimore, Rothstein has posted a new summary of government policies that have, over the past century, created tragic conditions in America’s big cities, the kind of conditions that lead to rioting as an expression of widespread anger and despair.

In From Ferguson to Baltimore: The Fruits of Government-Sponsored Segregation, Rothstein writes, “Whenever young black men riot in response to police brutality or murder, as they have done in Baltimore this week, we’re tempted to think we can address the problem by improving police quality—training officers not to use excessive force, implementing community policing, encouraging police to be more sensitive, prohibiting racial profiling, and so on.  These are all good, necessary, and important things to do.  But such proposals ignore the obvious reality that the protests are not really (or primarily) about policing.”

Rothstein quotes from the report of the 1968 Kerner Commission, established by President Lyndon Johnson to explore the deeper causes of rioting that arose from protests, again in the context of police brutality.  The Kerner Commission concluded that, “what white Americans have never fully understood—but what the negro can never forget—is that white society is deeply implicated in the ghetto.  White institutions created it, white institutions maintain it, and white society condones it.”  Rothstein, however, is more specific, attributing the concentrated poverty, segregation and inequality apparent across America’s big cities to government policies, not an accidental convergence of private choices.  The fact that such policies have been systemic is why we are seeing angry protests and rioting in so many places.  “When the Kerner Commission blamed ‘white society’ and ‘white institutions,’ it employed euphemisms to avoid naming the culprits everyone knew at the time.  It was not a vague white society that created ghettos but government—federal, state, and local—that employed explicitly racial laws, policies, and regulations to ensure that black Americans would live impoverished and separately from whites.  Baltimore’s ghetto was not created by private discrimination, income differences, personal preferences, or demographic trends, but by purposeful action of government in violation of the Fifth, Thirteenth, and Fourteenth Amendments.  These constitutional violations have never been remedied, and we are paying the price in the violence we saw this week.”

In his examination of Baltimore, Rothstein cites formal policies going back to 1910, policies that have included building and health regulations combined with government sanctioned policies of real estate companies, the adoption of restrictive protective covenants that specified who could not purchase homes in particular neighborhoods, the barring of African Americans from qualification for Federal Housing Administration loans, insurance redlining practices, the implications of punitive contract home sales for African Americans, and most recently the targeting of African American buyers by those marketing subprime loans, a practice that has led to much higher rates of foreclosures in black neighborhoods in cities like Baltimore and Cleveland.  For all these reasons that have made it harder for blacks to purchase homes—the primary asset by which families build long term equity—Rothstein reports that today “black household wealth is only about 5 percent of white household wealth.”

So what does all this have to do with public education, the subject of this blog?  Just this week Harvard economists Raj Chetty and Nathan Hendren released a study (not yet published at a site which can be linked) that re-analyzed older data that had seemed to show that moving away from segregated and highly impoverished neighborhoods did not make a difference for children’s life chances.  The new report documents—in dry academic language—that the places children grow up deeply affect their lifetime prospects and that if their families can move away from deeply impacted communities, children do better, especially if they move away when they are young.  “Overall, these results suggest that neighborhoods matter for children’s long-term outcomes and suggest that at least half of the variance in observed intergenerational mobility across areas is due to the causal effect of place.” “Urban areas, particularly those with substantial concentrated poverty, typically generate much worse outcomes for children than suburbs and rural areas…. We also find that areas with a larger African-American population tend to have lower rates of upward mobility.  These spatial differences amply racial inequality across generations….”

While we like to think that the Civil Rights Movement addressed our racial inequalities by eliminating de jure segregation across the South, Thomas Sugrue, the historian from the University of Pennsylvania, has explored what racial injustice looks like in today’s America:  “At the opening of the twenty-first century, the fifteen most segregated metropolitan areas in the United States were in the Northeast and Midwest.  A half century after the Supreme Court struck down separate, unequal schools as unconstitutional, racial segregation is still the norm in northern public schools.  The five states with the highest rates of school segregation—New York, New Jersey, Illinois, Michigan, and California—are all outside the South.  Rates of unemployment, underemployment, and poverty reach Third World levels among African Americans in nearly every major northern city, where the faces in welfare offices, unemployment lines, homeless shelters, and jails are disproportionately black.” (Sweet Land of Liberty, p. xix) “The stark disparities between blacks and whites by every measure—economic attainment, health, education, and employment—are the results.  The high degree of separation by race reinforces and hardens perceptions of racial difference.  It creates racially homogeneous public institutions that are geographically defined….” (Sweet Land of Liberty, p. 540)

When he spoke at the Cleveland City Club in February, Richard Rothstein explained one of the new ways the segregation of institutions is being perpetuated these days—again by state governments, this time copying Jeb Bush’s Florida system of assigning letter grades for schools and school districts,  grades of ‘A’ through ‘F.’  The fact that the state school ratings track all the issues described by Rothstein, Chetty and Hendren, and Sugrue is never named.  The grades are said to describe the quality of the schools, but the conditions faced by the children and the teachers are overlooked. Here is what Rothstein told the Cleveland audience:  “These rating systems really just describe the social class of the students in the schools.  And the high ratings don’t necessarily mean they’re better schools.  Many of these schools that are rated ‘A’ because they happen to have a lot of middle class children with highly educated parents may add less value to their students than schools rated ‘F’…. Those ‘F’ schools may actually be better schools in terms of what they add to students than ‘A’ schools, but most people don’t understand that.  And so if you label schools with ‘A-F’ ratings, people who attend a ‘C’ school, which may be integrated, are going to want to move their children to an ‘A’ school.  This will increase the segregation of schools by convincing people that these ‘A-F’ ratings accurately reflect the quality of the school.”

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One thought on “Segregation, Inequality, Concentrated Poverty: How We Got Here

  1. Pingback: Segregation, Inequality, Concentrated Poverty: How We Got Here | SEEDS OF FREEDOM

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