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The Challenge of Segregation

David Callahan

When I was growing up in Hastings-on-Hudson, one of the most famous residents of this Westchester town was Kenneth Clark -- a psychologist who, along with his wife Mamie, did groundbreaking research in the 1940s and 1950s on the negative effects of segregation. 

Chief Justice Earl Warren echoed Clark's research when he wrote about kids of color in the Brown v. Board ruling: "To separate them from others of similar age and qualifications solely because of their race generates a feeling of inferiority as to their status in the community that may affect their hearts and minds in a way unlikely to ever be undone."

This insight about the damaging effects of segregation was a huge driver of civil rights policies for decades. But today, we barely hear about how segregation affects kids and, by and large, U.S. society seems to have given up on school desegregation -- which, as I noted yesterday, has been intensifying in recent years, particularly for Latino students. 

Westchester County, where Clark lived until his death in 2005, shows the intractability of this problem. Spend some time on the website and you'll see what I mean. 

Westchester is famous for its excellent public schools, but it also has many schools that garner ratings from under 3 (with 10 being the best.) And if you click on the profile of the lowest rated schools in Westchester, you'll see what contemporary segregation looks like. 

Consider a school like the MLK Junior High Tech and Computer Magnet School in Yonkers -- which is just four miles from the Hastings home in which Clark lived. 

MLK Junior High's student population is 49 percent Latino, 46 percent black, and 2 percent white. It's rating: 1. 

Or look a few miles away in Westchester at the Nelson Mandela Commuity High School in Mount Vernon, which also garners a 1 rating. It is 88 percent black, 8 percent Latino, and 3 percent white. Mount Vernon High School, another school rated 1, is also 97 percent non-white. 

Meanwhile, just a few miles away from the public schools of Yonkers or Mount Vernon are schools with barely any black or Latino kids at all. Just 1 percent of kids at Scarsdale High School are black.

Remember, we're not talking about Birmingham, Alabama in the 1960s. We're talking about public schools today in the heart of Westchester County, which remains one of the wealthier places in America. 

For kids of color here, segregation is as just as alive as when Martin Luther King, Jr., spoke at the Lincoln Memorial. 

Westchester also underscores how hard it is to desegregate schools. The average home price in Mount Vernon is $330,000 dollars. In Scarsdale, it's $1.2 million.

One reason that many white communities have so little affordable housing is that they long ago passed zoning ordinances that make it difficult to construct multi-family apartment units -- as Lisa Prevost describes in her recent book Snob Zones: Fear, Prejudice, and Real Estate

Racial covenants may be gone, but it turns out that zoning works almost as well to enforce housing segregation. 

Overall, if you let markets and zoning determine housing patterns, the schools will remain segregated -- absent aggressive efforts to move students around, either through magnet schools or busing. 

Yet many parents and students are not so keen on education choices far oustide their community, never mind the opposition from whites. Back in the 1970s and 1980s, polls found that busing was almost equally disliked by both whites and blacks. 

So, in Westchester, the major approach taken by federal government has been to mandate that all the county's mostly white towns build affordable housing. As part of a 2009 settlement between Westchester and the federal government, the county pledged to build 750 affordable housing units and -- as importantly -- take action against exclusionary zoning. 

But Westchester has resisted implementing the agreement, dragging it's feet on every part of the agreement. And, according to a ProPublica investigation, the Obama administration backed down from tough enforcement of the settlement for years.

Even if the settlement is fully implemented, it will only be a start in terms of providing housing options for low-income parents seeking less segregated schools districts. Mount Vernon alone, which is 75 percent black and Latino, has a population of 67,000 people. 

So what solutions can break the back of modern segregation? I'll take that question up in my next post.