Friday, June 8, 2007

The Tangled History of Housing and School Integration

In 1954, right before the decision in Brown was issued, another integration drama was being played out in Louisville, Kentucky. Andrew and Charlotte Wade, who were black, were looking to purchase a house for their young family in the suburbs of Louisville. They were not having any luck. Although zoning ordinances forbidding the sale of property to African-American buyers had been struck down as unconstitutional years earlier, in practice local realty practices ensured that a couple like the Wades was unlikely to ever move into the neighborhoods they chose. Carl and Anne Braden, two white married journalists who were active participants in the growing civil rights protest movement, knew the Wades through friends. The Bradens offered to buy a house in the all-white suburb of Shively and then sell it to the Wades. On May 15, 1954, two days before the Brown decision, the Wades moved into their new home.

The response in Shively was as violent as any reaction to the Supreme Court decision. The Wades were constantly and dangerously harassed; a cross was burned in the front yard and shots were fired at the house, with several bullets entering through windows. A little more than a month after their arrival in Shively, the Wades' house was bombed while they were away from home. Badly shaken, the Wades returned to the city, fearing for their lives and those of their children. Instead of prosecuting the bombers, local law enforcement targeted the Bradens, whose two cars had been blown up in response to their actions. Amid claims that they were the masterminds behind a massive Communist plot to stir up racial unrest and violence, and thereby overthrow the government of the state of Kentucky, the Bradens were charged under state law with sedition. By the time the charges were dropped when the U.S. Supreme Court nullified state sedition laws, Carl Braden had already served 8 months in jail, and the Bradens continued to be shunned by many even within the civil rights movement.

During the current battle over school desegregation -- in Louisville, the hometown of the Wades and Bradens -- much has been said about the issue of "neighborhood schools." Opponents of voluntary integration extol the importance of a community centered around the physical home, where students can walk to school and play with their classmates on the streets where they all live. Certainly, "neighborhood" connotes something safe and comforting, familiar and intimate, almost like an extended family; no doubt the Wades' arrival in Shively was so disturbing to their close-minded neighbors for precisely this reason. Fifty years later, it is tempting to imagine that the "neighborhood" reaction in Shively was an anomaly, and that diverse neighborhoods could provide a backbone for local, integrated schools.

Unfortunately, the Wades' experience was not an isolated one. For decades after housing discrimination had become illegal, black families experienced a variety of difficulties in trying to move where they wanted. As suburbs developed after World War II, both the Veterans Administration and the Federal Housing Administration (which together financed almost half of all suburban homes in the 1950's and 1960's) initially endorsed the use of race-restrictive covenants and refused to underwrite loans that would introduce ‘incompatible’ racial groups into white residential enclaves. Blacks were systematically denied entrance to these neighborhoods as they formed, and the effect is still evident today. In fact, while cities like Louisville and Seattle have gradually become more integrated over the years, the concentration of isolated, black-majority census tracts in both cities has increased.

Even now, both private and government-sponsored policies and practices in the housing market continue to have a discriminatory effect on minority buyers and renters, and a segregating effect on America's neighborhoods. Public housing has been constructed without an eye to integration of neighborhoods, and indeed often with the intent of further segregating them. As a result majority of African-American public housing residents live in poor, racially isolated neighborhoods. In the last ten years in both the Seattle and Louisville metropolitan areas, more than 68% of Low Income Housing Tax Credit family units were located in census tracts with greater than average minority population. Section 8 tenant assistance program funds are spent disproportionately on affordable housing in racially identifiable, high poverty neighborhoods.

Meanwhile, in the private sector, real estate agents frequently steer people to different neighborhoods based on their race, an illegal practice that has persisted (in up to 15% of cases in which test subjects posed as comparable white, black, or Latino customers) in part because reporting of such methods rarely occurs. Real estate agents have also been shown to give white customers favored treatment over black customers 17% of the time, and Latinos 20% of the time. Mortgage lending and insurance redlining similarly contribute to residential segregation; lenders and insurers offer different terms and policies to minority homebuyers and deny their applications at disproportionately high rates. In both Seattle and Louisville, the rate of rejection of mortgage applications differs by 10% and 11%, respectively, between white and black applicants.

For cities like Louisville and Seattle to strictly maintain "neighborhood" schools, then, is to actively choose segregated schools. Without the countering effect of diversity and multiculturalism at school, most students will not be likely to seek out friendships and opportunities outside their largely homogeneous immediate surroundings. Rather than being safe havens of play and learning, neighborhoods will be incubators for distrust, fear, and intolerance. Conversely, school integration has been shown in studies to directly contribute to stable residential integration. Students educated in integrated environments go on to be far more likely to live in integrated neighborhoods. Families living in cities with integrated schools, especially those with school choice plans like Louisville and Seattle, can be more confident that their children will receive a high-quality education irrespective of where they live. Eventually, residential integration can pave the way to an eventual return – should the cities so choose – to true "neighborhood schools" where diversity will continue to thrive.

To learn more about the connections between integrated housing and integrated schools, read the Housing Scholars and Research & Advocacy Organizations' amicus brief in support of the school districts at

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