We cannot remedy the large racial achievement gaps in American education if we continue to close our eyes to the continued racial segregation of schools, owing primarily to the continued segregation of our neighborhoods. We pretend that this segregation is nobody’s fault in particular (we call it “de facto” segregation), and that therefore there is nothing we can or should do about it. Instead, we think that somehow we can devise reform programs that will create separate but equal education. One after another of these programs has failed—more teacher accountability and charter schools being only the latest—but we persist.
The presidential campaign can be a reminder, though, of the opportunities we’ve missed and continue to miss. Forty years ago, George Romney, Mitt’s father, resigned as Secretary of Housing and Urban Development after unsuccessfully attempting to force homogenous white middle-class suburbs to integrate by race. Secretary Romney withheld federal funds from suburbs that did not accept scatter-site public and subsidized low and moderate income housing and that did not repeal exclusionary zoning laws that prohibited multi-unit dwellings or modest single family homes—laws adopted with the barely disguised purpose of ensuring that suburbs would remain white and middle class.
Confronted at a press conference about his cabinet secretary’s actions, President Nixon undercut Romney, responding, “I believe that forced integration of the suburbs is not in the national interest.” This has since been unstated national policy and as a result, low-income African Americans remain concentrated in distressed urban neighborhoods and their children remain in what we mistakenly think are “failing schools.” Nationwide, African Americans remain residentially as isolated from whites as they were in 1950, and more isolated than in 1940.
In the September/October issue of The American Prospect, Mark Santow and I review George Romney’s crusade, and contrast his views with those of his son, this year’s Republican presidential candidate. Like most policymakers today from both political parties, Mitt Romney accepts the permanence of racial segregation. Instead, to address the problems of low-income urban youth, he has made a wildly impractical proposal to permit children from low-income families to transfer to public schools far from home in those lily-white suburbs that his father had confronted.
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.
The failure of George Romney’s efforts has resulted today in African-American children from low-income urban families still frequently suffering from health problems that lead to school absences; from frequent or sustained parental unemployment that provokes family crises; from rent or mortgage defaults causing household moves that entail changes of teachers and schools, with a resulting loss of instructional continuity; and from living in communities with high levels of crime and disorder, where schools spend more time on discipline and less on instruction and where stress interferes with academic achievement.
With school segregation continuing to increase, these children are often isolated from the positive peer influences of middle-class children who were regularly read to when young, whose homes are filled with books, whose adult environments include 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.
Although his integration efforts were suppressed by President Nixon, George Romney was not an isolated figure. Although his passion was unusual, his views on racial integration were shared by many national leaders, Republican and Democrat alike. It is hard for many of us today, unfamiliar with how far this nation has regressed in matters of racial inequality, to imagine that, for example, Vice President Spiro Agnew lectured the National Alliance of Businessmen that he flatly rejected the assumption that “because the primary problems of race and poverty are found in the ghettos of urban America, the solutions to these problems must also be found there… Resources needed to solve the urban poverty problem – land, money, and jobs – exist in substantial supply in suburban areas, but are not being sufficiently utilized in solving inner-city problems.” Nixon’s domestic policy coordinator, Daniel Patrick Moynihan, contemptuously called it “gilding the ghetto” to try to ameliorate inequality simply by pouring money into urban programs: “efforts to improve the conditions of life in the present caste-created slums must never take precedence over efforts to enable the slum population to disperse throughout the metropolitan areas involved.” A commission headed by former Illinois Gov. Otto Kerner, formed after riots in over 100 cities in 1967, called for a crash program for the federal government to construct or subsidize six million units of low and moderate income housing, intended primarily for black urban families, in middle-class white suburbs. George Romney adopted this goal as HUD Secretary, but he could never begin to fulfill it.
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. Integration alone won’t close the gap, but without integration, other programs will continue to be frustrated.
Read the full report on which the Santow-Rothstein American Prospect article is based, with sources for those interested in pursuing these issues.