Richard Rothstein Tells Cleveland Audience: Public Policy Created Segregation and White Flight

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In a 2004 book, Class and Schools, Richard Rothstein, of the Economic Policy Institute, examined social and economic factors in the lives of children and in the community that affect the academic performance of children in school.  Rothstein has been examining economic factors that affect student achievement for years, and his observations have recently been substantiated by the large research studies of sociologist Sean Reardon at Stanford University.  Reardon documents that the proportion of families in major metropolitan areas living in either very poor or very affluent neighborhoods increased from 15 percent in 1970 to 33 percent by 2009, and the proportion of families living in middle income neighborhoods declined from 65 percent in 1970 to 42 percent in 2009.  Reardon also demonstrates that along with growing residential inequality is a simultaneous jump in an income-inequality school achievement gap among children and adolescents.  The achievement gap between students with income in the top ten percent and students with income in the bottom ten percent is 30-40 percent wider among children born in 2001 than those born in 1975.

Rothstein has recently shifted his own focus to the significance of the convergence of racial and economic segregation in public schools.  In the fall, 2014, issue of the American Prospect, Rothstein published a penetrating piece, The Making of Ferguson, that traces the shaping of greater St. Louis and particularly its inner-ring suburbs by structural racism over the decades of the twentieth century. (A longer, in-depth version of Rothstein’s piece is posted on the website of the Economic Policy Institute.)

Last Friday, Rothstein presented a major address at the City Club of Cleveland.  I urge you to watch his remarks in this video.  Rothstein begins:  “Evidence continues to accumulate that despite our often stated vows to close the achievement gap in educational outcomes between black and white students, we cannot close that achievement gap in segregated schools.  Yet our schools are becoming more and more segregated over time.”

For Rothstein, racial and economic segregation are inseparable.  The challenges imposed by poverty are compounded when concentrated poverty in segregated schools ensures that all the children need special attention to their learning needs.  Rothstein explains, “Let me give you a very recent development… that is having a terrible effect on the achievement of disadvantaged children.  That is the ability of employers of low wage workers to use computers for much more just-in-time scheduling of work. For black hourly workers, 50 percent—half of black hourly workers—now receive their weekly schedules less than one week in advance.  And having received these schedules, they’re often sent home early or called in outside their regular schedule.  Among black mothers of children less than 13 years of age, 32 percent now receive their weekly schedules less than one week in advance.  What does this have to do with schools?  Well, parents with those kinds of schedules can’t plan regular meal times, can’t plan regular bedtimes, can’t make child care arrangements that require regular drop off and pick up at predictable times. The idea that children in these circumstances (and their numbers are growing because of the way our economy is being reorganized) can achieve at the same level as children who have regular bedtimes, who are enrolled in regular after school or preschool or early childhood programs is absurd.  But it is not only these individual characteristics, and there are many more of them.  What is much more important is when you take children like these and concentrate them together in the same schools… If you have a whole classroom where all the children have these characteristics, the instruction has to be tailored to a different level… Teachers can’t pay special attention to the children with special problems because every child has a special problem.  So the achievement, on-average, of classrooms like that is inevitably going to be lower.”

Rothstein condemns the recent U.S. Supreme Court decision in Seattle and Louisville—called Parents Involved v. Seattle— in which Chief Justice John Roberts, writing for the majority, declared that when segregation is de facto—determined by accident of history— the factor of race cannot be considered as a legal basis for addressing segregation by race.  “And that decision indicated to me how far we have come from an understanding of the racial history of this country. Our cities—Louisville and Seattle, and also Chicago, Cleveland, Detroit, New York, San Francisco, Los Angeles and Kansas City—have been segregated not by accident but by explicit, purposeful racial policies emanating from the federal, state, and local governments. We do not have de facto segregation in this country.  We have explicit racial apartheid.  And we have forgotten the history of how this came about.”

In his Cleveland address, Rothstein examines federal housing policy to trace the explicit role of government for driving racial segregation.  During the New Deal at a time of severe housing shortage, the Public Works Administration chose the sites of public housing projects according to a “neighborhood composition rule.” Federal law required the race of the inhabitants of public housing to match the race of the residents of the neighborhood where each housing project was built. Three quarters of public housing during the 1930s was built for white families in white neighborhoods, with one quarter of public housing built in black neighborhoods for black families.  After WWII, as the Federal Housing Administration embarked on a program to subsidize the construction of subdivisions in the suburbs, the condition was that homes were sold only to white families.  In Levittown, NY, for example, 17,000 homes were built and sold to white families who could also qualify for the FHA loans from which black families were shut out.  As white families left public housing in the cities, urban housing projects became segregated sites for African American families. “This was,” Rothstein explains, “all the result of the explicit policy of the federal government.”  And, of course, this process fed inequality because white families built assets when the homes they owned appreciated.

In Rothstein’s piece on Ferguson, Missouri in the fall, 2014, American Prospect, he concludes: “A century of evidence demonstrates that 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.” “Although policies to impose segregation are no longer explicit, their effect endures.  When we blame private prejudice and snobishness for contemporary segregation, we not only whitewash history but avoid considering whether new policies might instead promote an integrated community.”

In his recent Cleveland City Club address, after his formal remarks and in answer to a question, Rothstein brings the conversation specifically to Ohio when he comments on the likely racial impact of the “A” through “F” school district rating system the state of Ohio will formally launch as school begins in the fall of 2015:  “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,’ where parents may be working the kind of contingent schedules I described earlier. Those ‘F’ schools may actually be better schools in terms of what they add to students than the ‘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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