And the school segregation comes from...

Leads | By Remapping Debate |

May 16, 2012 — This past Sunday, The New York Times ran an in-depth piece called “Why Don’t We Have Any White Kids?” that explored the continuing phenomenon of racial segregation in New York City schools. The story, authored by N.R. Kleinfield, provided an excellent overview of the problem, noting that, “In the broad resegregation of the nation’s schools that has transpired over recent decades, New York’s public-school system looms as one of the most segregated.”

An analysis by The Times found that approximately “650 of the nearly 1,700 schools in the system have populations that are 70 percent a single race,” and that “more than half the city’s schools are at least 90 percent black and Hispanic.” The charter school that was the focus of Kleinfeld’s story was 92.7 percent black.

The article was accompanied by powerful graphics by Ford Fessenden, including a map of the 100 most segregated schools in New York City.

The patterns observed in the story are mirrored in other research on school segregation throughout the country. A 2007 report from the Civil Rights Project at UCLA, for example, found “accelerating resegregation” along with “increasing isolation and profound inequality.”

In New York, as elsewhere, most students still attend neighborhood schools, and it is neighborhood residential segregation that propels school segregation. The article does point out that “children trundle from segregated neighborhoods to segregated schools, living a hermetic reality.” And the text that was part of the accompanying graphics identifies the fact that “[t]wo-thirds of the city’s most segregated public schools are black, concentrated in deeply isolated black neighborhoods in central Brooklyn and southeast Queens.”

Nevertheless, the residential segregation element is not explored. In fairness, it was not the prime function of the article to do so. But for a very long time now, school segregation articles almost always tend to ignore or downplay that housing segregation that is the root of the problem (often, we suspect, because housing patterns are falsely assumed to be “voluntary,” despite mountains of evidence that residential patterns are not “natural” but are rather the result of decades of intentional discrimination that decisively shaped neighborhood composition during the post- World War II period).

Reporters all over the country have the opportunity to connect the dots between residential segregation and school segregation. One tool that can help is Remapping Debate’s unconventional mapping of residential segregation down to the level of each census block group. We highlighted block groups where African-Americans or Latinos represent 50 percent or more of the population, and we also highlighted areas where African-Americans or Latinos are almost altogether absent: block groups with less than 3 percent of a group.

Oddly, that latter issue — the widespread prevalence of ultra-White neighborhoods — is frequently not thought about as part of the picture of segregation. It is, of course, and it has profound consequences. These neighborhoods are more likely to be neighborhoods of opportunity, and lack of access to the neighborhoods means lack of access to things like…good schools.

A recent Brookings Institution report focused on an overlapping problem: restrictive housing market regulations like exclusionary zoning “prohibit all but the very affluent from enrolling their children in high-scoring public schools.”

In short, it turns out that barriers to open neighborhoods are not natural or inevitable, but are man-made (social engineering in popular parlance). This phenomenon presents another opportunity for compelling reporting:  an examination of local exclusionary zoning barriers and the extent to which reasonable alternatives exist.

As the Brookings report pointed out:

Eliminating exclusionary zoning in a metro area would, by reducing its housing cost gap, lower its school test-score gap by an estimated 4 to 7 percentiles—a significant share of the observed gap between schools serving the average low-income versus middle/higher-income student.

And the link to school segregation is not the only pernicious effect of housing segregation that needs reporting: there are the connections between housing segregation on the one hand and inferior access to jobs and health care on the other; there are those between housing segregation and excessive exposure to environmental hazards as well.


*   *   *


(We should note our sense that one element of the graphics element of the story in The Times might confuse readers: the statement that “residential segregation has declined” in New York. Before thinking that “declined” means “declined a lot,” a reader should examine carefully the graph accompanying the statement. The graph shows that the “typical black resident’s neighborhood” is 5 percent less black in 2010 than it was in 1970 — in other words, an achingly slow process averaging little more than 1 percent change every ten years that makes little if any material impact on segregation. Moreover, finding the “typical” neighborhood, even when weighting by population is taken into account, can understate the scope of segregation in many black neighborhoods.)



Send a letter to the editor