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Housing and School Segregation: Two Sides of the Same Racist Coin

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Housing and school segregation are of course deeply related. But if you think fighting de facto segregation in education is tough–just look at LGM comment threads anytime the white privilege of parents is challenged–just add to the mix a challenge to what people think is The Inalienable Right of My House To Be a Surefire Investment No Matter the Social Cost. But defeating both housing and school segregation are the only ways to actually push back against the reality of racism. So long as that doesn’t happen–and it won’t because there is more than enough evidence from the last half-century about what happens when you try to integrate either in any meaningful way–then the nation will just continue down it’s racist path, despite the bromides of liberals who think that voting for Democrats is an actual anti-racist strategy, not to mention of course the millions of people who actively want racist outcomes known as the Republican electorate. I know this sounds harsh and plenty of LGM readers don’t want to hear it, but it’s also correct.

That was my thought when reading this piece about school segregation in New Jersey.

Christian Estevez, the son of Dominican immigrants, grew up in the 1970s in Plainfield, N.J., at a time of widespread white flight. Most of the children in his crowded elementary school classes were like him: poor, minority and struggling.

Then his single mother managed to rent an apartment in the neighboring town of Westfield, which was thriving and predominantly white. The situation in his new school was like “night and day,” and Mr. Estevez succeeded and went on to college.

Since his own childhood, the problem of school segregation in New Jersey has only gotten worse, despite efforts to make school funding across districts more equal. Today, New Jersey is the sixth most segregated state in the nation for black students, and seventh for Latino students, according to a U.C.L.A. study. This is despite the fact that it is among the only states whose constitution explicitly prohibits segregation in public schools.

What’s the core of the problem?

“The promise of Brown is not being realized in New Jersey,” Mr. Estevez said. “If you look at a lot of the issues we are having right now in our society, it has a lot to do with the fact that people don’t know each other, and don’t interact with each other, and this creates misunderstanding and animosity. And so it’s important as a society, we think, that people be together, and that they learn side by side.”

The school segregation in New Jersey is de facto segregation, not explicit segregation by law, as was the case in the American South before the Brown decision. It stems from a complicated mixture of discriminatory zoning practices in suburbs, poverty and personal choice, the plaintiffs claim. But it is institutionalized by a state law in New Jersey that requires children to attend schools in the municipalities where they live, said Elise Boddie, a law professor at Rutgers University and a founding member of the New Jersey Coalition for Diverse and Inclusive Schools, a nonprofit that organized the lawsuit.

Because neighborhoods and towns in New Jersey are so segregated, that law results in segregated schools. So the suit asks the state to let children cross municipal lines to go to school. It also calls on the state education commissioner to develop a comprehensive, detailed plan suggesting ways to integrate schools.

New Jersey is rare among the states in that its courts have declared even de facto school segregation unconstitutional since the 1960s. Such segregation has persisted, and worsened, however, because “no one has done anything about it,” said Gary Stein, a former New Jersey Supreme Court justice on the court that ordered equal funding for the state’s districts.

“Here in New Jersey, we have segregation that’s more intense than any state today in the South,” he said. “What we have got in New Jersey, frankly, is an embarrassment. We have segregation at a level that is just intolerable for a state like ours, and we have never addressed it.”

The lawsuit suggests several remedies, including the creation of magnet schools that draw from multiple towns and districts and tax incentives for municipalities to create more diverse schools. It points to an effort in Hartford, stemming from a 1996 desegregation lawsuit, that created clusters of magnet schools so attractive that suburban children are bused into inner-city Hartford to attend them.

Children who attend integrated schools do better than those that remain in segregated schools, research shows. And while the benefits of desegregation are most profound for black and Latino low-income students, diversity also helps white students by exposing them to children of different socioeconomic backgrounds and broadening their perspectives.

“We think that white children who attend segregated white schools are disadvantaged,” Mr. Stein said.

Of course a lot of white parents will disagree.

What know from the busing plans of the 1970s and the history of housing segregation that supporters of racism will default to “my property values” and “sending my children to the best schools possible.” There’s a long literature about these issues and I recommend Kevin Kruse’s first book as a great starter into how this worked in Atlanta. This language has become so deeply ingrained in our society that people often don’t even recognize its racial connotations. But it goes far to explain why the nation has never taken on racism in a serious manner.

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