Harvard School Desegregation Project links school resegregation & government housing policies

Dismantling Desegregation, The Quiet Reversal of Brown v. Board of Education, Gary Orfield, Susan E. Eaton and the Harvard Project on School Desegregation, the New Press, $30 (1-56584-305-3). DDC: 370.19

Review by Galen Martin

The beauty of the new book by the Harvard Project on School Desegregation is its unique tie between the increase in efforts to dismantle desegregation and the failure of housing desegregation to keep pace with school desegregation.

The authors document the backward race toward "separate but equal" which they say is based on questionable evidence and assumptions.

The book says, "Profiles of school districts across the country highlight the kind of in school discrimination and residential segregation issues that most communities have refused to address. Among them:

  • Resegregation in Norfolk, Virginia, the first district in the nation to win federal court permission to return to racially segregated elementary schools
  • President Clinton's desegregation compromise in Little Rock, Arkansas
  • Desegregation at risk in Charlotte, North Carolina, the site of the nation's first busing order
  • The abandonment of desegregation in Montgomery County, Maryland
  • The failure of desegregation in Prince George's County, Maryland, praised nationally in the 1980s for effective voluntary desegregation."

The Harvard authors cite the Milliken case as a turning point in the battle for school desegregation because the Supreme Court refused to order school desegregation plans which crossed political boundaries. The plaintiffs in the Milliken case claimed that without a school desegregation plan that crossed political lines, schools within Detroit's city limits would become increasingly segregated because the city itself was becoming increasingly segregated. The Court accepted metropolitan segregation in Detroit and claimed that nothing could be done about it.

Orfield calls upon his own vast research and wide experience in court cases as author of the last two chapters on housing. In Chapter Eleven, entitled "Segregated Housing and School Resegregation" Orfield blames government housing policy. He says, "Few aspects of urban history are clearer than the fact that governments at all levels fostered residential segregation for many years."

The section entitled "The History of Housing Discrimination" traces discrimination by public agencies from the Black exodus from the rural South triggered by both World Wars. "The entire system was one of government-sponsored segregation and a denial of even `separate but equal' opportunities for minority families."

In his text and extensive footnotes, Orfield quotes HUD officials to document the agency's record on housing segregation. He cites a speech by Assistant Secretary Roberta Achtenberg. In February 1995, Achtenberg conceded that "the federal government, including HUD, has a long history of having precipitated and perpetuated housing discrimination." She detailed the ways government programs had increased segregation and said, "fair housing law has been weak and inadequate."

Orfield refers to a federal district order to submit a housing plan to support desegregated education in St. Louis. The report documented a strong relationship between the location and tenancy of subsidized family housing and school desegregation. In each of the areas studied, much of the busing required by school desegregation orders was attributable to the segregation of subsidized housing for low-income minority families, according to one of his own studies.

In the book, Orfield refers to many desegregation success stories from around the country. According to Orfield, desegregation plans in Louisville, Raleigh, St. Louis, Denver, Wisconsin, New Jersey, and Washington have been extremely successful in integrating schools.

Orfield points out that the Kentucky Commission on Human Rights was "the only civil rights agency in the country to take an early and strong initiative to use housing to help school desegregation." He retells the story of a Commission staff member who worked to decrease housing segregation by driving Black recipients of Section 8 subsidy certificates around to introduce them to other housing options. "About half of these subsidy recipients decided to move to white areas. Under the Louisville school plan, they were immediately exempted from busing, since their moves increased integration."

Orfield also reports the great success of the desegregation plan of Raleigh, North Carolina. Since combining city and county school districts, Raleigh has flourished as a community. Fortune magazine rated it the best place to do business in 1995. In the same year, Money magazine rated it the best place to live. The Greater Raleigh Chamber of Commerce was convinced that desegregation was one of the reasons for Raleigh's economic health and passed a resolution expressing strong support for the continuation of school desegregation.

In Raleigh, enrollment is up among both Black and white students. According to Orfield, minority enrollment in Raleigh is up 18 percent and white enrollment is up a "soaring" 37 percent. While there is some "white flight" in Raleigh, it has been a far smaller problem than in other areas.

Both Houston and Detroit have become increasingly segregated since courts ruled against countywide desegregation plans. In Houston, the court of appeals said that school boards "have no affirmative fourteenth amendment duty to respond to the private actions of those who vote with their feet."

Orfield points out that in areas where desegregation takes hold, the people in that area begin to support it. "Research from other areas of civil rights policy, such as school desegregation and attitudes toward election of Black political leaders, shows that attitudes change with experience." In Louisville, for example, the countywide desegregation plan was violently opposed when it was unveiled in 1975. Today, however, a recent study by the school board shows that nearly 90 percent of residents support integrated schools, even if it means continued busing.

While the book hit the stands on September 13, it has already been reviewed by several sources:

Publishers Weekly said:

"The authors argue that segregation today means profound educational inequality linked to poverty and lack of political power...The authors conclude (that) desegregation...must bridge cities and suburbs and, because school segregation is based on residential segregation, a long-term plan to integrate communities could work better than busing students."

Teacher Magazine said:

"The authors' point is not to claim `that Black gains are supposed to come from sitting next to whites in school' but to argue that Blacks benefit from `access to the resources and connections of institutions that have always received preferential treatment.' To bolster this claim Orfield and Eaton bring forth evidence demonstrating that desegregation has indeed worked: Blacks attending integrated schools are much more likely, for instance, to attend college."