Monday, January 8, 2018

Real Effects of Segregation

I've finished Richard Rothstein's The Color of Law and strongly recommend it. (Here's my earlier post about it, focusing on mortgages and blockbusting.)

But knowing that many people can't take the time to read the full book, here are its key points, all of which are thoroughly substantiated in its pages.

John Roberts and other Supreme Court justices have said that constitutional remedies can only be applied to address state actions, not private actions, but he seems to not know (or to deny) that state action caused the most significant aspects of our country's racial (and therefore school) segregation. At the end of the book, Rothstein lists all the ways our federal and state governments did just that:

If government had declined to build racially separate public housing in cities where segregation hadn't previously taken root [examples are given in California, Illinois, New York], and instead had scattered integrated developments throughout the community, those cities might have developed in a less racially toxic fashion, with fewer desperate ghettos and more diverse suburbs.

If the federal government had not urged suburbs to adopt exclusionary zoning laws, white flight would have been minimized because there would have been fewer racially exclusive suburbs to which frightened homeowners could flee.

If the government had told developers that they could have FHA guarantees only if the homes they built were open to all, integrated working-class suburbs would like have matured with both African Americans and white sharing the benefits.

If state courts had not blessed private discrimination by ordering the eviction of African American homeowners in neighborhoods where association rules and restrictive covenants barred their residence, middle-class African Americans would have been able gradually to integrate previously white communities as they developed the financial means to do so.

If churches, universities, and hospitals had faced loss of tax-exempt status for their promotion of restrictive covenants, they most likely would have refrained from such activity.

If police had arrested, rather than encouraged, leaders of mob violence when African Americans moved into previously white neighborhoods, racial transitions would have been smoother.

If state real estate commissions had denied licenses to brokers who claimed an "ethical" obligation to impose segregation, those brokers might have guided the evolution of interracial neighborhoods.

If school boards had not placed schools and drawn attendance boundaries to ensure the separation of black and white pupils, families might not have had to relocate to have access to education for their children.

If federal and state highway planners had not used urban interstates to demolish African American neighborhoods and force their residents into urban ghettos, black impoverishment would have lessened, and some displaced families might have accumulated the resources to improve their housing and its location.

If government had given African Americans the same labor-market rights that other citizens enjoyed, African American working-class families would not have been trapped in lower-income minority communities, from lack of funds to live elsewhere.

If the federal government had not exploited the racial boundaries it had created in metropolitan areas, by spending billions on tax breaks for single-family suburban homeowners, while failing to spend adequate funds on transportation networks that could bring African Americans to job opportunities, the inequality on which segregation feeds would have diminished.

If federal programs were not, even to this day, reinforcing racial isolation by disproportionately directing low-income African Americans who receive housing assistance into the segregated neighborhoods that government had previously established, we might see many more inclusive communities (pages 215-217).
All of those things were (and sometimes are still) done by government, whether federal, state, or local. And they need to be remediated by government. That is all of our responsibility: "It was our government that segregated American neighborhoods, whether we or our ancestors bore witness to it, and it is our government that now much craft remedies" (page 222).

Rothstein brings all of this to a personal level by focusing on the members of one particular family, the Stevensons. After World War II, Frank and Rosa Stevenson were prevented from moving their family out of a segregated part of Richmond, California, to a new suburb near where Frank worked. They raised three daughters, who had to attend segregated schools that had the lowest test scores in the state, even though white schools in the same district had empty seats. Their youngest daughter, Terry, graduated in 1970 from a Richmond high school that had a vocational emphasis (appropriate to black students, as the school board stated at the time).
She took community college courses but never completed a college degree. She worked all her life, in day care centers and as a nursing assistant, and had six children of her own.

Terry Stevenson's two sons are warehouse workers. Of her four daughters, two are certified nurse assistants, one answers phone inquiries at a bank, and one is a security guard. Terry's sisters also have children. They include a paralegal working at a law firm, a pharmacist assistant, a clerical worker at a government social service agency, and a department store sales clerk.

What might have become of these Stevenson grandchildren if their parents had grown up and attended school in an integrated [suburban town], not in de jure segregated Richmond? Should they now have partners with similar occupations, their household incomes are likely to rise above the fourth quintile of Americans. How much farther on the socioeconomic ladder would they have been able to climb if they had grown up in a well-educated household as a result of Terry and her sisters being permitted to attend a high school that was designed for students "who can profit from the academic program," rather than one that instead offered manual training? How different might the lives of the Stevenson grandchildren have been were it not for the federal government's unconstitutional determination to segregate their grandparents, and their parents as well?

What do we, the American community, owe this family, in this and future generations, for their loss of opportunity? How might we fulfill that obligation?

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