In one of the essays in Twenty-First Century Color Lines (2009), Andrew Grant-Thomas and john a. powell, of the Kirwan Institute for the Study of Race and Ethnicity at the Ohio State University, confront the idea that our greatest social challenges are the result of the attitudes and behaviors of individuals. Grant-Thomas and powell write instead about structural racism—the way the primary institutions of our society privilege some groups of people and constrain opportunity for others. They define structural racism: “A social system is structurally inequitable to the degree that it is configured to promote unequal outcomes. A society marked by highly interdependent opportunity structures and large inter-institutional resource disparities will likely be very unequal with respect to the outcomes governed by those institutions and structures… In a society that features structural inequalities with respect to opportunities and institutional resources, initial racial inequality in motion will likely stay in motion.” (p. 124)
Richard Rothstein has just published a fascinating piece in the fall issue of The American Prospect, The Making of Ferguson, that traces the shaping, over the decades of the twentieth century, of structural racism in greater St. Louis and particularly its inner-ring suburbs. Rothstein examines the forces that shaped the Ferguson where Michael Brown was shot this summer and where mass protests followed. Rothstein’s piece is an eloquently engaging story of the growth and aging of a community. He concludes with this summary of decades of public policies—many of them promoted by the federal government—that have supported segregation, inequality and resegregation, not only in Ferguson and greater St. Louis but also across so many of America’s big cities: “St. Louis was segregated by interlocking and racially explicit public policies of zoning, public housing, and suburban finance, and by publicly endorsed segregation policies of realty, banking, and insurance industries. These government policies interacted with public labor market policies that denied African Americans access to jobs that comparably skilled whites obtained. When all of these mutually reinforcing public policies conspired with private prejudice to turn St. Louis’s African American communities into slums, public officials razed those slums to devote acreage to more profitable (and less unsightly) uses. African Americans who were displaced then relocated to the few other places available, converting towns like Ferguson into new segregated enclaves. “ (A longer, in-depth version of Rothstein’s piece is posted on the website of the Economic Policy Institute.)
Rothstein reminds us that the trends created by all these factors were then interpreted by a society used to personal racial stereotyping in ways that condemn the victims: “Whites observing the ghetto concluded that slum conditions were characteristics of black families, not of housing discrimination. Government policy thus created stereotypes that spurred ‘white flight.’”
Rothstein does not dwell on the implications for Ferguson, Missouri’s public schools, except to acknowledge that in a society where suburban jurisdictional boundaries combine with long-standing housing segregation by both race and economics, it is to be expected that extreme racial and economic segregation in public schools would persist.
We should wonder, however, how history, from the point of view of racial justice, will judge today’s school “reform.” What will be the long term effects of the massive school closures in Chicago and Philadelphia? What about the conversion of New Orleans to an all charter school district? Once America’s big-city school districts are torn apart, how shall we reconstruct the political will for publicly funded mass education in our poorest communities? Will we ever choose to rebuild institutions as systemic and comprehensive as the public school districts we have destroyed?
And what about today’s federal and state policies that push accountability by test-and-punish, rank-and-rate? The very highest-scoring school districts—now ranked “A” or “excellent” from state to state—are school districts in wealthy enclaves where the children bring the effects of their trips to the library and their music lessons and their travels and their computers with them to school. What does it mean that federal test-and-punish policy, as filtered by the state rating systems, is condemning the schools in our poorest communities and conflating privilege with supposed school quality in places where all the children are wealthy? Like our twentieth century counterparts, however, we blame the victims—in this case the public school teachers.
Back in 2005, the National Council of Churches Committee on Public Education and Literacy warned that the racial and economic implications would emerge as a serious moral concern in the policies prescribed by the federal No Child Left Behind Act: “The No Child Left Behind Act exacerbates racial and economic segregation in metropolitan areas by rating homogeneous, wealthier school districts as excellent, while labeling urban districts with far more subgroups and more complex demands made by the law as ‘in need of improvement.’ Such labeling of schools and districts encourages families with means to move to wealthy, homogeneous school districts.”
While today’s school “reformers” may not have intentionally set out to calcify racial and economic segregation and while as always we are bent on blaming individuals, there is no question that the effect will be to encourage those with wealth to buy homes in expensive, homogenous enclaves with highly rated schools and those who cannot afford to move up or move out to scramble in what is becoming a privatized competitive educational marketplace in poor communities where charters and vouchers are expanding—a marketplace that lacks the capacity to protect the rights of the students. Public education will be increasingly rationed through the metropolitan housing market along with privatized choices in poor communities for the parents who are savvy enough to be able to scramble to secure a place for their children. Will we permit these markets to become the structures that define the way our society educates its children.
Benjamin Barber, the political philosopher, describes the scenario: “Aggregating our private choices as educational consumers in fact yields an inegalitarian and highly segmented society in which the least advantaged are further disadvantaged as the wealthy retreat ever further…. As citizens, we would never consciously select such an outcome, but in practice what is good for ‘me,’ the educational consumer, turns out to be a disaster for ‘us as citizens….” (Consumed, p. 132)