From the conception of this nation, America has had a complex relationship with race beginning with the enslavement of black people upon which the foundations of the country were built. From the start, black people were categorized as a commodity rather than as people and even after the abolishment of institutionalized slavery, this notion did not change. Black people fought and continue to fight to claim their rights in this country and while they have come far, racism is too deep rooted in America to be completely gone. Too often, we see this struggle conflated with the South while the North attempts to escape the notion that racist practices are still alive and well in their midst as well under this safety of this premise. Of course, New York City is no exception to this; its identity as an ethnically diverse immigrant city is used to obscure the very real phenomenon of de facto segregation that still plagues the schools and neighborhoods of the city. When looking at the ethnic makeup of the city it is clear that residential segregation is still at large. And it doesn’t just exist in a bubble—residential segregation also correlates to segregation in the school system and plays a role in creating an inequality in the quality of education in the public-school system.
After the landmark Supreme Court case, Brown vs. the Board of Education, it was ruled that separate was inherently unequal and therefore put an end to de jure segregation. This however was not the end of segregation as it would continue to live on through a combination of unsavory practices in the real estate industry designed to keep the wealthier white population separate from the rest. The most significant event that allowed for the aggravation of segregation in New York city was the building of the suburbs. Robert Moses the Master Builder and his city plan for the sprawling highways and the commercialization of the automobile allowed for the suburbs of New York to be settled by the wealthier white families, cementing the divide in the city between the whites and blacks. The phenomenon became known as White Flight as white families began to flee from the deteriorating urban sprawl. To preserve the ‘utopian’ white suburbs the practices of redlining and blockbusting emerged.
Redlining is a tactic wherein real estate agents would break up the city by neighborhoods based on how desirable the property in the neighborhood was, drawing lines around each sector on the map. The least desirable neighborhoods were outlined in red ink, and frequently these neighborhoods were black neighborhoods. Blockbusting was a strategy where realtors would intentionally place a black family in an all-white neighborhood to spark white flight and a decline in market prices for homes. These things were not coincidental, they were done intentionally to keep the city segregated and to keep blacks concentrated in areas of ruin. According to Richard Rothstein, “Federal and state bank regulators approved and encouraged ‘redlining’ policies, banning loans to black families in white suburbs and even, in most cases, to black families in black neighborhoods, leading to those neighborhoods’ deterioration and ghettoization.” As Rothstein said, as a result of the efforts of the real estate industry and the subtle encouragement from the government to keep NYC segregated, many black neighborhoods began declining as lower income people became concentrated in those areas creating not only racial segregation but also economic segregation. With it too, the public schools in those neighborhoods began declining due to the lack of tax revenue coming in from the residents. The result of all of these circumstances is one of the most segregated school systems in the United States.
In a study published by the American Educational Research Association, a segregation index was used to measure segregation across the boroughs in the first and fifth grade. By generating random levels of segregation and comparing them to actual amount they determined that “For each grade and type of segregation, the actual segregation levels are two to five times higher than the levels achieved under the random assignment simulation, suggesting that segregation is partially driven by nonrandom processes, such as systematic segregation or other sorting practices”. While the study does point out that ability grouping is one of the likely causes of this extremely segregated school system, it concedes that that is not the sole reason. Due to zoning, children typically attend the school they live closest to. Of course, school segregation is a more complex issue with a multitude of causes and new research has shown that high poverty, segregated schools exist in areas of ethnic diversity. However, the effects of residential segregation cannot be discounted.
Take, for example, District #7 in South Bronx, NYC’s worst performing school district. Figures report an average of 21.3% of students in grades 3-8 performing below the standard average. Across the board, average test scores fall below the state median in all subjects and the pass rate on all tests averages 29.3% which is far below acceptable performance from a school. District 7 also consists of mostly black and Latino students—amongst 18,550 students, 69% were Latino and 29% were black and 83% of those 18,550 were poor. The median income per household in the district ranges from $30,000-$41,000.
This ethnic and economic makeup in the neighborhood is no consequence of chance. The South Bronx is highly segregated due to the mismanaged government housing projects and the utter failure of the urban renewal endeavor that caused the disintegration of the Bronx as well as the exodus of the higher income families and with it, the loss of resources for the school. And unfortunately, the schools are only getting more segregated or resegregating as families that can afford to send their children to better schools make that choice.
NPR conducted an interview with Peabody award winner Hannah-Jones on her choice to send her daughter to a zoned public school rather than sending her to a private school which she could afford. She responded that by doing so, she would become a part of the issue that keeps New York city schools segregated. She says that while segregation is definitely a systematic tool of oppression, there is an element of personal responsibility in the integration effort. And there is no question that the school need to integrate. In order to reduce educational inequality and correct the unequal distribution of resources, racial and economic integration of the schools must occur. Education is the most important tool for advancing your station in society and the current segregated education system threatens the future of the next generation with the continuation of systematic racism. These issues in our city cannot continue to be ignored in favor of criticizing the South. Integrated neighborhoods and integrated schools are absolutely necessary to finally correct these wrongs of the past and dismantle institutionalized racism in New York City.