Black History Month in the United States is a time to focus on and celebrate the history of Black Americans. However, as we approach the 70th anniversary in May of the U.S. Supreme Court’s decision in Brown v. Board of Education of Topeka, this year’s celebration requires a more in-depth look at history’s impact on the present day, as well as its implications for Black Americans and society broadly. For that, there is no better place to focus than on the intersection of racial discrimination in education and in housing.
In the Brown decision, the Supreme Court declared legal segregation in education unconstitutional. Yet 70 years later, schools across America remain stubbornly segregated.
A 2022 report by the U.S. Government Accountability Office (GAO) states: “As the K-12 public school student population grows significantly more diverse, schools remain divided along racial, ethnic, and economic lines throughout the U.S. More than a third of students (about 18.5 million) attended a predominantly same-race/ethnicity school—where 75 percent or more of the student population is of a single race/ethnicity. … GAO also found that 14 percent of students attended schools where 90 percent or more of the students were of a single race/ethnicity.”
Even in New York, long considered a reliably liberal state, school segregation is still a prominent reality. According to a 2023 research report titled “Empire State Inequity” by the civil rights organization ERASE Racism, which I lead, one out of every three students of color in New York attends a district that is 90 percent or more students of color — what we call “intensely segregated school districts of students of color.”
The report identified 36 intensely segregated school districts of students of color in nine counties, including 15 school districts in New York City, 11 on Long Island, and five in Westchester County. The segregation is compounded by inequitable and historical underfunding, which compromises the students’ futures.
It is not accidental that these intensely segregated school districts are largely reflective of historical governmental discriminatory housing policies, which have become deeply embedded in modern-day practices through exclusionary zoning decisions. These decisions are often enabled by local control of zoning; at first glance this may seem benign, but closer review shows that it works to support and retain historical segregation.
The effect is literally structural racism.
As the UC Berkeley School of Public Health reports, “Decades of redlining—a longstanding banking practice that blocked people of color from getting mortgages—continue to perpetuate racial and socioeconomic inequality in the San Francisco Bay Area and across the country. … Although the practice has been illegal since 1968, multiple studies show that redlining’s harmful legacy has left nonwhite communities struggling with air pollution, reproductive health disorders, and fewer urban amenities more than 50 years later.”
Current banking practices continue to be an obstacle to racial equality in homeownership. In October 2023, an analysis of recent mortgage data by the Office of the New York State Attorney General “found racial disparities at every phase of the lending process for purchase mortgages. … Reflecting the real barriers to homeownership experienced by New Yorkers of color, these disparities remained even when controlling for various underwriting considerations, such as credit score and debt-to-income ratio. The disparities are most pronounced for individual Black and Latino borrowers, as well as for neighborhoods of color.”
These racially discriminatory housing practices in turn perpetuate public school segregation, as they affect the boundaries of school districts and, therefore, which students can attend those schools. Housing control continues school segregation, which affects per-pupil expenditures, determines student performance, and maintains inequitable opportunities in life. In effect, a child’s ZIP code still determines access, or lack thereof, to quality education, quality and affordable housing, and a family-sustaining career.
The overall effect is not only the perpetuation of racially discriminatory housing and educational practices. It is also the over-burdening of lower-income communities with the societal needs of those who have been — and are still — discriminated against. These communities have to address greater needs with fewer resources.
To reverse these catalytic forces, three key policy changes are needed nationally, statewide and locally:
First, the connection between racial segregation in housing and in public education should be recognized, and policies that perpetuate segregation in housing should be eliminated.
Second, inequitable funding of public-school districts should end. Being equitable includes recognizing that students with greater needs require more funding to overcome them.
Third, because those needs are in many cases the lasting legacy of decades of discrimination and inequitable funding based on race, public policy should make reparation for government-sanctioned structural racism. Why should the government not be accountable for its own actions?
In New York State, recent attempts have been made to make school funding more equitable. They do very little, however, to address the lasting legacy of discrimination.
Black History Month offers an opportunity to look at our past as a way to inform our future. The 70th anniversary of the Brown decision provides us with a chance to reflect on the progress that has been made and acknowledge how far our nation must still go to make the decision a reality. We must use our past to make needed changes now to ensure a better future for our nation.
Laura Harding is president of ERASE Racism, the civil rights organization based in New York.
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Author: Laura Harding, opinion contributor