About Me

I am Associate Professor and Chair of the History Department at the University of Massachusetts-Dartmouth. I am also the Academic Director of the Clemente Course in the Humanities, in New Bedford MA. Author of "Social Security and the Middle Class Squeeze" (Praeger, 2005) and the forthcoming "Saul Alinsky the Dilemma of Race in the Post-War City" (University of Chicago Press), my teaching and scholarship focuses on American urban history, social policy, and politics. I am presently writing a book on home ownership in modern America, entitled "Castles Made of Sand? Home Ownership and the American Dream." I live in Providence RI, where I have served on the School Board since March 2015. All opinions posted here are my own.

Friday, August 24, 2012

George Romney Knew Better: Educational Inequality and the Continuing Significance of Racial Segregation

Nationally, black and Hispanic/Latino public school students are now more segregated from whites than at any point in the last four decades.  Most policymakers and activists on all sides accept the fact that our metropolitan areas are segregated by race as well as class, and work within its confines.
  In this age of greatly diminished expectations – the ‘twilight of common dreams,’ as Todd Gitlin once put it – it is assumed either that these patterns aren’t terribly important, or that the practical and political obstacles to changing them are too overwhelming.  Today, Democrats and Republicans alike unashamedly promote efforts to “gild the ghetto” with charter schools that are more segregated than regular public schools, and with compensatory education programs that have little chance of truly compensating. But the black-white academic achievement gap is unlikely to narrow much further without revisiting the imperative of residential integration in our metropolitan areas.  By ignoring segregation, we thrust the entire burden of our unjust social geography on urban and high poverty schools, leaving white and privileged suburbs untouched.

However, as Richard Rothstein and I argue in "The Cost of Living Apart," in the September/October 2012 issue of The American Prospect, it wasn’t always this way.  From the mid-1960s to the mid-1970s these geographical inequalities were very much a part of our public discourse.  As Secretary of Housing and Urban Development (HUD) during Richard Nixon’s first term, Republican George Romney – Mitt’s father -- led an ultimately unsuccessful crusade to use the power of the federal purse to ‘loosen the white noose’ and open up the suburbs along lines of race and class.  He believed that racial inequalities in education and opportunity could not be overcome any other way.  Forty years on, it seems clear that George was right.  Unfortunately, as the Democratic and Republican National Conventions near, it appears that neither party is willing to take up the banner of racial integration.

Racial segregation matters -- in Providence and elsewhere

As Rothstein and I discuss in the longer paper on which our American Prospect article is based, social scientific research on school segregation is quite clear.  Geographically concentrating poor black and Latino children – as we do in the Providence metropolitan area, and throughout the United States -- is harmful.  Integration, on the other hand, is beneficial.  Because black and Hispanic children in Providence and elsewhere are much more likely to be poor than white children are, racial segregation not only isolates them – it compounds the negative consequences of poverty, by concentrating it geographically. 

While we have much more research on the consequences of racial segregation for blacks than we do for Hispanics, both groups are clearly segregated here – in Providence, and in the metropolitan area as a whole.  This is one of the ten most segregated cities in the country for Hispanics.  In the Providence-Fall River metropolitan area, according to the U.S. Census, Hispanics have a ‘dissimilarity index’ of just over 70.7%; the index for the smaller black population is 65.5.  

What does this mean?  This means that 7 out of 10 Hispanics (and almost that many blacks) in greater Providence would have to move, in order to achieve an integrated pattern.  The dissimilarity index for Hispanics is slightly lower for Providence, 57.6%.  But all this tells us is that Rhode Island’s Hispanic population is heavily concentrated in the Capital City – and segregated within it.  The average Hispanic resident of Providence lives in a neighborhood made up 45.3% of other Hispanics, despite being just over 30% of the city’s population. 

While approximately half of the residents of Providence are white, the school age population is overwhelmingly Latino and black -- 84%, according to the latest RI KidsCount Factbook.  There are many reasons why this might be the case, some of them innocent and easily explained.  But the lack of affordable housing in the suburbs, due in large part to exclusionary zoning, is clearly a major factor trapping low and moderate income Hispanics and blacks in Providence.  Because of this, and because most public school children attend neighborhood schools, one consequence of the residential segregation of blacks and Latinos is school segregation.  26.4% of Hispanic public school students in Rhode Island, for example, attend extremely segregated schools (those with a 90-100% minority student body).

Combine this with Providence’s high rates of child poverty – among the worst in the nation for two decades now – and it should be abundantly clear that segregation matters.  Hispanic and black children in the Providence area (and nationally) are not only three times more likely to grow up in poverty than white children are; they are much more likely to live in predominantly poor neighborhoods and attend high poverty schools, even when they themselves aren't poor.  Nearly four in ten black and Latino children in Providence grow up in poverty.  As a consequence the average Hispanic primary school student in the Providence metropolitan area attends a school with a poverty rate of just under 75%.  The numbers are comparably stark for black students.  For whites, who are disproportionately found in suburban schools, its 32.1%.  Just 4% of students in Barrington's public schools live in poverty.

Politicians and experts typically refer to schools as “failing” if they are filled with poor children who don’t do well on high-stakes tests.  Faced with the obstacles posed by racial segregation and geographically concentrated poverty, however, such schools may be doing as well as they possibly can.  

Black and Latino children from poor Providence families disproportionately suffer from poor health, which causes frequent school absences.  A higher percentage of Providence school children changed schools during the 2010- 2011 school year than any other district in the state. During that time period, one in four (25%) Providence children changed schools, compared to the state rate of 14%.  Providence also has a very high rate of chronic early absence, the percentage of children in kindergarten through third grade who have missed at least 10% of the school year (i.e. 18 days or more). During the 2010-2011 school year, more than one in five (22%) Providence children in grades K-3 were chronically absent.  Children from poor families are much more likely to suffer from financial crises causing repeated household moves that result in changes of teachers and schools, with a resulting loss of instructional continuity.  

Poor children are also more likely to be living in communities with high levels of crime and disorder, and to have parents who are incarcerated (or whose employment prospects are greatly limited by prior imprisonment).  Recent scholarship also indicates that children growing up in poverty experience high levels of stress at young ages, which not only affects their health -- it shapes their cognitive development too.  Poor black and Latino students in Rhode Island on average attend low-performing high schools (according to test scores), where schools spend more time on discipline and 'teaching to the test' and less on instruction, while white students mostly attend high-performing high schools.  Poverty and inferior educational opportunities combine to drive blacks and Latinos out of high school at rates higher than that of white students, increasing the chances that their own children will grow up in poverty too.  

Children stuck in high poverty schools -- who are, again, disproportionately black and Hispanic -- are often isolated from the positive peer influences of middle-class children who were read to frequently when young, whose homes are filled with books, whose adult environment includes many college-educated professional role models, whose parents have greater educational experience and the motivation such experience brings and who have the time, confidence, and ability to monitor schools for academic standards.

Recent research confirms that integration not only benefits black students but also does no harm to white classmates, provided the concentration of disadvantaged children is not great enough to slow the instructional pace or deflect time from academics to discipline. When children whose parents have strong educational backgrounds comprise a strong classroom majority, all students benefit from the academic culture established by that majority. Integration is no panacea, but without it other reforms to raise the achievement of disadvantaged children have less promise.

 George Romney understood this.

Back to the future:  George Romney and the 'white noose'

The Civil Rights Act of 1968 – the Fair Housing Law – was passed in the waning days of the Johnson Administration.  Its language was ambiguous.  It could be interpreted narrowly, as a prohibition against racial discrimination.  Or, it could be seen as requiring HUD to ‘affirmatively promote’ racial and economic integration across the metropolitan landscape.  Recognizing the role that government at all levels had played – and continued to play – in the racial segregation of American cities and suburbs, George Romney chose the latter interpretation.  Federal policy, suburban zoning laws and discrimination by realtors and the financial sector had “built a high-income white noose basically around these inner cities, and the poor and disadvantaged, both black and white, are pretty much left in the inner city,” he told Congress.”  His 1968 campaign book, The Concerns of a Citizen, urged “we must have open housing on a statewide basis; eliminate zoning that creates either large-scale economic or racial segregation; provide low-cost private housing through nonprofit organizations in all parts of the metropolitan area and throughout the state.” 

During his first 18 months in office Romney quietly developed a series of programs and proposals that put HUD (and Nixon) on a collision course with metropolitan segregation – and those who preferred to leave it untouched.  The latter group included the increasingly suburban base of the Republican Party. 

Operation Breakthrough was designed to build low and moderate-income housing in the suburbs.  While it wasn’t aimed at racial integration, Romney intended to use HUD funding to either entice or coerce suburbs into revoking their exclusionary zoning laws.  Open Communities, however, was directly aimed at the racial integration of the suburbs.  Hidden even from the White House, by the summer of 1969 Romney and his staff had taken a full inventory of all federal programs that could be used to open the suburbs, and had even draw up a list of possible target areas.

They were deeply critical of the failures of their predecessors.  The Kennedy and Johnson Administrations, despite all of their rhetoric, “lacked the political fortitude to deal with urban problems on a metropolitan-wide basis,” wrote Under Secretary Richard Van Dusen in an internal policy memo in the fall of 1969.  Instead, “they poured large amounts of money into the ghettos.”  “The white suburban noose around the black in the city core is morally wrong, economically inefficient, socially destructive, and politically explosive,” one staffer wrote to Romney in August 1969.  What was needed was a “frontal assault on suburbia.”  Using the carrot – the promise of federal funds – HUD began to put both programs into practice during the first six months of 1970.  Romney went to Congress in May 1970 to get legislative authority to use coercion (‘the stick’) as well.

George Romney was no lone crusader.  Indeed, it is a sign of how far even liberals have strayed in the 21st century from the dreams of the civil rights movement, that questioning metropolitan segregation was quite common among Republicans as well as Democrats in the 60s and early 70s.  President Johnson was somewhat vexed by the fact that each urban, suburban and educational task force he appointed in his second term seemed to call for metropolitan desegregation, even as he was casting about for alternative and more politically viable approaches to the urban crisis.  This included the famous Kerner Commission, which in 1968 called for the integration of “substantial numbers of Negroes into the society outside the ghetto,” through the reorientation of federal programs and the placement of low and moderate-income housing in the suburbs.  Failure to do so would condemn blacks to a “permanently inferior economic status,” rendering the U.S. “two nations, separate and unequal.”

Angered at Romney’s secrecy, and under increasingly intense pressure from suburban officials, Nixon made his position explicit in a series of statements between December 1970 and June 1971, declaring his belief that the federal government did not have the legal authority to ‘force’ racial and economic integration of the suburbs.  While he would enforce non-discrimination law, he insisted that racial segregation in the suburbs was a byproduct of economic considerations, not discrimination.  Privately, he even considered introducing a constitutional amendment banning federal efforts to force educational and residential integration.  Romney was pushed out after the November 1972 election.  “Nixon’s policy,” according to Charles Lamb, who served on the U.S. Commission on Civil Rights in the mid-70s, “was consciously designed to protect the status quo, to shield suburbs from economic, and thus racial, integration.  Its political intent was to preserve the Republican political base for years to come.”

Federal urban policy since then has focused primarily (and weakly) on improving the quality of ghetto neighborhoods (and their residents) by devolving resources and power to municipal authorities, public-private partnerships and Community Development Corporations (CDCs), not on the forces that create and sustain metropolitan inequality.  Particularly since 1980, federal and local governments have embraced an ideology of market accommodation in policy making that emphasizes privatization, decentralization, economic competitiveness, and creating a favorable ‘business climate.’  National policymakers in both parties have continued to deploy the rhetoric of decentralization and localism – for education, as well as urban policy more generally.  This approach enjoys support from free-market advocates on the right as well as community-based activists on the left.  Politically, it has granted both political parties a kind of cheap policy grace, presenting the appearance of doing something about poverty and urban problems, but without the political and economic costs that confronting metropolitan segregation, economic insecurity and an underfunded and inadequate welfare state would actually entail.  The social consequences of this persistent localism have been profound, setting in motion a kind of “feedback loop” that reinforces patterns of place-based racial and economic inequality.

Despite the growing ideological divisions of our age, there has been a surprising political convergence on issues related to urban policy, social services, and housing.  From the spread of charter schools, to the expansion of home ownership through financial deregulation, it is apparent that left and right agree on much more than is commonly assumed.  Virtually all of these points of agreement either hide or exacerbate racial and economic segregation, or geographically concentrate its deleterious consequences.  In many ways the Obama Administration’s embrace of urban charter schools, school choice, and the use of market models for the assessment of students, teachers and schools, is emblematic of this convergence.  Despite a lack of evidence of their efficacy, and growing empirical support for the integration of schools by class as well as race, the ‘achievement gap’ is virtually never discussed in terms of the intersection between inequality and social geography.

George Romney understood that there is little chance we can substantially narrow the achievement gap without breaking up heavy concentrations of low-income minority children in urban schools, giving these children opportunities to attend majority middle-class schools outside their “truly disadvantaged” neighborhoods. But urban children cannot have a practical opportunity to attend such middle-class schools unless their parents have the opportunity to live nearby.

1 comment:

Anonymous said...


But there is a major flaw in the thesis that income differences explain the racial gap. Consider these three observable facts from The College Board's 2005 data on the SAT:

• Whites from families with incomes of less than $10,000 had a mean SAT score of 993. This is 129 points higher than the national mean for all blacks.

• Whites from families with incomes below $10,000 had a mean SAT test score that was 61 points higher than blacks whose families had incomes of between $80,000 and $100,000.

• Blacks from families with incomes of more than $100,000 had a mean SAT score that was 85 points below the mean score for whites from all income levels, 139 points below the mean score of whites from families at the same income level, and 10 points below the average score of white students from families whose income was less than $10,000.

This gap is never going to be closed because it can't be closed. There's not enough government power in Zombie Soviet Union to do so.