NYU’s Furman Center for Real Estate & Urban Policy is hosting a debate on the role that segregation in neighborhoods and schools plays in hindering economic and racial equality. The latest installment of The Dream Revisited series asks “Why Integration?” Sherrilyn Ifill responds that we must “Focus on the Costs of Segregation for All.”
Does the pursuit of integration stigmatize black people? Does it, as Mary Pattillo suggests, “posit proximity to Whiteness as a solution” to the problems of urban, poor black people? This a tough question. One which must be confronted if we are to understand how and why segregation plays such an important role in reproducing the poverty and educational inequality 60 years after the Supreme Court’s landmark embrace of integration in Brown v. Board of Education.
Like Dr. Pattillo, I too experienced firsthand the policies that school districts implemented in an effort to live up to the promise of Brown. I was bused to school far from home beginning in kindergarten. My Queens, NY high school was a veritable United Nations. About 40 percent of the students were black, 40 percent were white and the other 20 percent were Latino and foreign students, children of diplomats from Indonesia, Malaysia and other Asian countries, who lived in nearby neighborhoods. Unlike Pattillo, I recall a richly integrated life of school activities. My sister and I participated in all the annual school musicals – from Brigadoon to Lil Abner – fully integrated productions with alternative casting and interracial romantic leads. For the two years I edited the yearbook, most of the yearbook staff was white. Our senior class president was black. Black students seemed to thrive at our high school, and racial tension seemed to be a minimum.
Still without question, school was the only part of our lives that was racially integrated. When we left school for the day, we abruptly returned to our segregated lives. And while black students may have prospered at our school, our segregated communities did not. Precious little investments were made in our communities. Family-owned stores struggled but failed to stay in business, lacking the inherited capital and well-resourced social networks of white families in other parts of the city. Moreover, redlining and other discriminatory policies by the federal government, banks, and mortgage companies deprived aspiring neighborhood entrepreneurs of credit and starved the community of commercial investment. Without small businesses and the jobs they produced in our community or other opportunities beyond it, drug dealing and petty crime became the principal employment for young adults.
Over the next thirty years, we made some progress, but ongoing racial discrimination continued to deprive our community of opportunity. Worse, economic stagnation drove housing prices down. Then the recent housing crisis dealt the final blow. Like hundreds of other families, the assets that our parents had so proudly acquired and invested in were siphoned off by predatory and regressive economic forces. The combined processes of disinvestment, exploitation, and neglect were made easier and more complete because of how segregated our community was. While I and many of my classmates left for college without looking back, the children from poorer families lost important social networks and supports with the loss of the more economically secure members of the community. And in all too many communities, recent decisions by federal courts have made it more difficult to continue the integration programs that were available to me and my generation.