Politicians and experts typically refer to schools as “failing” if they are filled with low-income children with low test scores. Faced with enormous challenges, such schools may be doing as well as they possibly can, though. African American children from low-income urban families often suffer from health problems that lead to school absences; from frequent or sustained parental unemployment that provokes family crises; from rent or mortgage defaults causing household moves that entail changes of teachers and schools, with a resulting loss of instructional continuity; and from living in communities with high levels of crime and disorder, where schools spend more time on discipline and less on instruction and where stress interferes with academic achievement. With school segregation continuing to increase, these children are often isolated from the positive peer influences of middle-class children who were regularly read to when young, whose homes are filled with books, whose environment includes many college-educated professional role models, and whose parents have greater educational experience and the motivation such experience brings as well as the time, confidence, and ability to monitor schools for academic quality.
We have little chance of substantially narrowing the achievement gap without breaking up heavy concentrations of low-income minority children in urban schools, giving these children opportunities to attend majority middle-class schools outside their distressed neighborhoods.
Busing poor black children out of neighborhoods with accumulating disadvantages is not only politically inconceivable but practically impossible—the distances are now simply too great. Yet without integrated education, we have little hope of remedying the educational struggles of the “truly disadvantaged” (sociologist William Julius Wilson coined the term a generation ago). Without integrating residential neighborhoods, we have little hope of integrating education. Residential integration is now also beyond the pale politically and perhaps inconceivable practically as well. But it was not always so; we should give the policy a second look.
Delegates booed Mitt Romney at this year’s NAACP convention, as they had booed another Romney 43 years earlier. The speaker then was Mitt’s father, newly installed as President Richard Nixon’s secretary for the Department of Housing and Urban Development (HUD). Delegates were furious about an administration plan to waive deadlines for Southern school districts to desegregate. In the next year, however, George Romney launched an ambitious program to overwhelm white resistance and integrate the suburbs—not by busing schoolchildren but by forcing suburbs to accept black residents.
The son has also made a seemingly bold proposal to address the achievement gap: Low-income and special-education students should be allowed to transfer to any public school in their state. But Mitt’s proposal is more shadow than substance. The differing approaches of George and Mitt to the ongoing national embarrassment of racial segregation mark how far we have come in abandoning the civil-rights era’s modest dreams and how far we must go to reignite them.
Public-school choice, permitting students to enroll outside their neighborhood but within their district, has been a staple of education reform for a decade. Permitting students to choose schools in another district, as Mitt has proposed, would be a dramatic departure, giving low-income black students the right to opt into mostly white, affluent suburban schools. It is hard to imagine suburban voters allowing Congress to adopt this—even in the few Northern liberal states where voluntary interdistrict-choice plans have been authorized (Boston’s Metco plan, for example), suburbs have been loath to participate.
Yet Romney’s plan is based on an accurate insight. In our largest low-income and minority cities, intradistrict choice can do little to narrow gaps because most same-district schools are demographically similar to students’ home schools.
Recent research confirms that integration not only benefits black students but also does no harm to white classmates, provided the concentration of disadvantaged children is not great enough to slow the instructional pace or deflect time from academics to discipline. When children whose parents are well educated make up a strong classroom majority, all students benefit from the academic culture established by that majority. Integration is no panacea, but without it, other reforms to raise the achievement of disadvantaged children have less promise.
Race and the limits of choice
Even if enacted, Romney’s plan would encounter daunting obstacles. Would states provide student transportation to distant suburbs? Must urban districts reimburse suburbs for educating transfer students? Would they do so at the sometimes-lower per-pupil urban rate or affluent suburban rate? The Romney campaign says suburbs must accept transfers only if they have capacity, but would they be permitted to reduce capacity by lowering class sizes to eliminate seats or by closing schools if resident enrollments declined?
Many policymakers don’t even consider school integration desirable. Some caricature it as based on a claim that a black child “must sit next to a white to be successful.” Ignoring research on how peer and community influences affect academics, they instead support charter schools that emphasize discipline and order, hoping to raise low-income black youths’ achievement in segregated environments. These efforts are mostly unsuccessful, but even when charter schools claim success, apparent gains are small and may be attributable to selective admissions and to attrition of failing students.
Schools remain segregated not because of inadequate choice but because neighborhoods remain segregated. To realize integration’s benefits, disadvantaged families must be residentially dispersed.
Across the political spectrum, we’ve largely accepted the “color-blind” view that aside from random acts of discrimination, neighborhood segregation reflects individual choice within a free market: Low-income African Americans are unlikely to live in white suburbs only because they can’t afford to do so. This ignores how government policy in the mid-20th century explicitly assigned whites to suburbs and blacks to cities. It also ignores the impossibility of reversing these patterns without equally explicit public action. Imposing segregation took much effort, and unraveling it will take even greater effort.
True, in many metropolitan areas, black working- and middle--class families have escaped central cities. “Changing neighborhoods” now exist in first-ring suburbs bordering those cities. Like urban changing neighborhoods of the past, these suburbs have become temporarily integrated en route to becoming fully (or nearly so) minority. As the number of African Americans in these suburbs increases, whites typically abandon them, relocating to second-ring suburbs farther out. Details vary by city, but one characteristic holds: The lowest-income black families, with children most in need, remain trapped and isolated in historically black ghettos.
But Mitt Romney’s proposal of busing low-income children to distant schools is a flawed remedy. Long bus rides are not good for children, excluding them from friendships both in their home neighborhoods and in the communities to which they travel. It is difficult for them to participate in after-school activities. Parents lose loyalty to neighborhood schools, a traditional strength of American public education.
There is also the question of those students left behind. Parents most likely to choose distant schools will be those with the greatest ambition for their children and the strongest educational background. Children bused to integrated suburban schools will probably benefit despite the drawbacks. But children remaining in neighborhood schools would be harmed by immersion in classrooms where an even greater share of their peers are headed for academic failure. Romney’s plan includes no obligation for states to pour additional resources into urban schools to compensate, albeit poorly, for the loss of more motivated peers.
The obstacles facing Mitt Romney’s plan ensure that it could not accomplish significant integration and will therefore leave the achievement gap mostly undisturbed. But Mitt’s father offered an alternative. As housing and urban development secretary, George Romney tried to force white middle-class suburbs to permit construction of low- and moderate-income housing that would bring black families into their neighborhoods and black children into their schools. He denied federal funds to suburbs that refused such action. He was so uncompromising in pursuit of this goal that he was eventually replaced by Nixon, who insisted that no suburb should be forced to integrate.
Loosening the “white noose”
A Republican, George Romney was keenly aware of the connections between residential segregation, school segregation, and racial inequality and became his party’s most vociferous civil-rights advocate. As an eyewitness to Detroit’s explosive 1967 black riot and the grievances that provoked it, Romney also understood how the federal government had promoted segregation in the past and the more positive role it could play in the future. He brought that understanding to Washington.
As governor of Michigan from 1963 to 1969, Romney led efforts to purge segregationist sympathizers from the state Republican Party. In the 1964 presidential election, he refused to support Barry Goldwater because, Romney charged, the Republican nominee was appealing to racist voters who interpreted his states’ rights advocacy as a commitment to diminish or eliminate federal action to promote integration of schools, workplaces, and public accommodations. It was inconsistent, Romney charged, for Goldwater to reject federal civil-rights activity in the name of state, local, and individual action without promoting state, local, and individual action to combat racism.
He explained his maturation like this: “I come from a Rocky Mountain Mormon background. I didn’t know any Negroes. … It was only after I got to Detroit that I got to know Negroes and began to recognize that some Negroes are better and more capable than lots of whites. … I understand Barry [Goldwater] and Ronnie Reagan, they come from the same background I did—they just can’t understand what we have to do.” By 1966, in his gubernatorial re-election, Romney won 30 percent of the African American vote, unprecedented then (or now) for a Republican.
Romney recognized that the postwar white suburbs surrounding Detroit were created by Federal Housing Administration and Veterans Administration policies enacted in the 1930s and 1940s, which required insured properties to have deeds prohibiting sales to African Americans. By the time the two agencies ceased requiring such clauses in the 1950s, the exclusive white character of Detroit’s suburbs had been firmly established. State-licensed real-estate agents who openly refused to sell or rent to blacks in the suburbs and federally regulated banks that refused to make loans to credit-worthy black applicants reinforced the pattern.
Local authorities, with federal encouragement and consent, segregated public housing and then, as whites left the projects for all-white suburbs, placed new projects only in black neighborhoods to ensure continued segregation. Federal urban-renewal funds were used to bulldoze black neighborhoods to make space available for white residential and business expansion; resulting displacements further overcrowded the ghettos. Suburbs adopted exclusionary zoning laws requiring large lot sizes and banning multiunit developments, often with the barely disguised purpose of ensuring that no African Americans could afford to become neighbors.
Federal and local officials in the 1950s and 1960s routed highways through black communities to force residents to move to ghettos farther from white residences and businesses. The executive director of the American Association of State Highway Officials, himself deeply involved in the congressional design of the program, later acknowledged that “some city officials expressed the view in the mid-1950s that the urban interstates would give them a good opportunity to get rid of the local ‘niggertown.’”
In Michigan, the city of Hamtramck was typical. An overwhelmingly Polish American enclave surrounded by Detroit, Hamtramck had a small number of black residents, for whom the city’s 1959 master plan intended a “program of population loss.” With federal funds, the city began in 1962 to demolish its black residential neighborhoods to create vacant land for a Chrysler plant expansion. Federal funds were next used to raze more (mostly black) homes for construction of an expressway to serve the plant. No replacement housing was provided, and because white neighborhoods were closed to them, the displaced blacks were forced deeper into Detroit’s ghettos. A federal appeals court concluded that HUD officials “must have known of the discriminatory practices which pervaded the private [Hamtramck] housing market and the indications of overt prejudice among some of the persons involved in carrying out the urban renewal projects of the City.”
In Michigan as elsewhere, a state licensing board supervised the real-estate industry, but the board did not prohibit discriminatory practices by realtors. In the affluent suburb of Grosse Pointe, the real-estate brokers’ association had detectives rate prospective homebuyers. Points were earned by having skin without “swarthiness” and having “typically American” lifestyles. Grosse Pointe homebuyers of Anglo-Saxon descent had to earn 50 points, Poles 55 points, Southern Europeans 65 points, and Jews 85 points. Blacks were ineligible to earn points, forbidden from purchasing Grosse Pointe property altogether. Today, the community remains only 3 percent African American, compared to 83 percent in neighboring Detroit.
Suburban exclusion also limited black economic opportunities as manufacturing jobs moved outside Detroit. The suburb of Sterling Heights, for example, obtained a Ford plant, but black workers from Detroit had to commute because they could not live in the town. In 1964, when a black family did attempt to move in, their home was firebombed. The police made no arrests.
Circumstances were similar in Warren, a suburb just north of the city and home to five automobile plants with overall workforces that were 30 percent black and to a General Motors Technical Center, also with black employees. Warren’s realtors would not show blacks homes, and landlords would not rent to them. Then, in 1967, an African American managed to move to Warren. Nightly, crowds of up to 200 gathered outside the home. With police looking on, residents threw rocks into the windows, cut the phone line, burned crosses, and lit a fire on the front lawn. Cars cruised by as occupants shouted obscenities. Police made no arrests. Because, as Romney later recalled, local officials “would not fulfill their responsibilities,” he ordered state police to disperse the mob. An official of the state Civil Rights Commission observed, “Nearly all attempts by black families to move to Detroit’s suburbs have been met with harassment.”
Congress in 1966 rejected President Lyndon Johnson’s call for a fair housing act. The Justice Department then recommended use of federal funds to induce suburbs to change zoning laws to “facilitate the construction of non-ghetto open housing within economic reach of low and moderate income nonwhites.” A presidential task force found it “probably no exaggeration to say that low-income urban families will never find adequate housing, no matter how much federal assistance is offered, unless some way can be found to break down the locally imposed barriers that prevent such families from moving out” of the ghetto. Another White House report recommended transferring a “reasonable mixture” of black schoolchildren across suburban boundaries.
None of these recommendations was implemented, and violence continued against African Americans who secured suburban housing. Then in July 1967 blacks in Detroit rioted. The immediate provocation was 82 arrests when police raided a party celebrating the homecoming of two Vietnam veterans. Tensions were already high following the recent murder of another black veteran by a crowd of white youths yelling, “Niggers keep out of Rouge Park,” a city-owned recreation area a few blocks away. By the riot’s end, 43 had been killed, most black and most by police or National Guardsmen.
From January to September 1967, blacks rioted in 128 cities. In their wake, Romney not only advocated government action to challenge residential segregation but also supported grassroots protest. He praised militant black community groups organized by the confrontational activist Saul Alinsky in Chicago and Rochester and arranged a meeting between Alinsky and Detroit’s influential white civic leaders, accompanied by black activists and supportive clergy. “I think you ought to listen to Alinsky,” Governor Romney told Detroit’s elite.
President Johnson appointed former Governor Otto Kerner of Illinois to lead an investigation of the riots. Noting the shift of employment to suburbs, the Kerner Commission argued that in order to avoid condemning blacks to a “permanently inferior economic status,” “ghetto enrichment” must be combined with the integration of “substantial numbers of Negroes into the society outside the ghetto.” This required a reorientation of federal housing programs, “to place more low and moderate--income housing outside of ghetto areas.”
Romney made racial integration a centerpiece of his doomed 1968 campaign for the Republican presidential nomination, saying that the nation must make “the most massive effort in peacetime history” to address urban African Americans’ problems. His 1968 campaign book, The Concerns of a Citizen, urged, “We must have open housing on a statewide basis; eliminate zoning that creates either large-scale economic or racial segregation; provide low-cost private housing through nonprofit organizations in all parts of the metropolitan area and throughout the state.”
At his Senate confirmation hearing to be secretary of housing and urban development, Romney denounced the Federal Housing Administration, saying that it has “built a high-income white noose basically around these inner cities, and the poor and disadvantaged, both black and white, are pretty much left in the inner city.”
In the wake of Martin Luther King Jr.’s assassination and another round of nationwide rioting in 1968, Congress finally passed a fair-housing law, but its practical impact was yet to be determined. Secretary Romney could interpret the law narrowly, simply as a prohibition against further discrimination, or see it as requiring HUD, based on vague language in the statute, to take steps “affirmatively to promote” racial integration across the metropolitan landscape. He chose the stronger interpretation and determined to implement a Kerner Commission recommendation that six million new low- and moderate-income public or subsidized housing units be placed largely in white suburbs.
Romney developed a program he called “Open Communities” to use HUD funding to entice or coerce suburbs into revoking exclusionary zoning laws. President Nixon was kept in the dark; Romney prohibited official discussion of the plan, instructing his staff to wait until after the November 1970 elections to say anything publicly. Open Communities would deny all grants administered by HUD, including funds for sewer and water projects, open-space acquisition, and urban renewal, to suburbs that did not accept public housing or subsidized low-income housing. Romney’s staff targeted suburbs where African Americans were not welcome, where central city segregation and overcrowding were most severe, and where employment opportunities were inaccessible to blacks because they required long commutes. Meanwhile, Romney proposed legislation to condition the placement of federal facilities, such as courthouses or office buildings, on a community’s willingness to accept public or subsidized housing.
He then terminated HUD funding in the Baltimore, Boston, and Toledo metropolitan areas because they rejected low-income housing in white neighborhoods. He was initially successful. Stoughton, a Boston suburb, agreed to accept a housing project, despite community opposition, to qualify for HUD water-project funds. In Toledo, HUD’s action was supported by the local congressman who agreed that something should be done to desegregate his city.
Romney also had some supporters inside the administration. Daniel Patrick Moynihan, the White House domestic-policy coordinator, opposed trying to ameliorate African American problems solely through programs to improve conditions in low-income areas. He referred to this approach as “gilding the ghetto,” and while he advocated additional resources for urban neighborhoods, he argued that the answer is to put disadvantaged children into a better environment. Vice President Spiro Agnew, a former Baltimore County executive and Maryland governor who, like Governor Romney in Michigan, had encountered suburban resistance to integration, agreed. In a 1970 speech to the National Alliance of Businessmen, Agnew attacked Johnson administration attempts to solve the country’s racial problems by pouring money into cities. The solutions to urban problems, Agnew told the business leaders, can be found only in the suburbs.
Romney had allies outside the Nixon administration as well. Civil-rights leaders were divided, with some emphasizing inner-city programs and others favoring suburban integration. A powerful lobby, the National Association of Home Builders, supported Open Communities because contractors saw profit potential in subsidized suburban construction.
Believing he had inside and outside forces at his back, George Romney decided to confront his gubernatorial nemesis, Warren, Michigan. HUD officials told city officials they would not receive future funds for parks, street repairs, sidewalks, and schools unless they also accepted low-income housing, passed an anti--discrimination ordinance, and provided greater police protection to African American residents.
Romney told the officials, “You can try to hermetically seal Warren off from the surrounding areas if you want to, but you won’t do it with federal money. … Black people have as much right to equal opportunities as we do. God knows, they have suffered so much they may have more right. … This problem is the most important one America has ever faced.”
Warren’s mayor responded that his city was being used as a “guinea pig for integration experiments.” HUD officials had asked Warren to survey the housing needs of nonresidents employed in the city. The city council refused, with the mayor claiming the survey would be an invitation for “busloads of blacks to move to Warren.” Romney then went to Warren for a public forum attended by mayors of 40 Detroit suburbs. “All Americans [should] have the opportunity to live within a reasonable distance of their jobs,” he told them. Greeted by an angry crowd, he was escorted away by police.
President Nixon took notice. He instructed John Ehrlichman, the White House counsel, to ensure that no federal funds were withheld from suburbs that refused to accept public or subsidized housing. Romney assured a congressional committee that HUD would not challenge exclusionary zoning ordinances nor cut off funds to communities hostile to black residents. He released urban-renewal funds for Warren. After the town proceeded anyway to pass a November 1970 ballot referendum to withdraw from the federal urban-renewal program entirely, Romney met with Nixon and agreed to abandon suburban integration.
Then, at a news conference, the president repudiated his HUD secretary: Asked about Romney’s proposals, Nixon responded, “I can assure you that it is not the policy of this government to use the power of the federal government or federal funds in any other way, in ways not required by the law for forced integration of the suburbs. I believe that forced integration of the suburbs is not in the national interest.”
Secretary Romney hung on in the cabinet for another two years, no longer pressing the Open Communities initiative. After his 1972 re-election, Nixon accepted Romney’s resignation and announced he would refuse to spend any congressionally appropriated funds for subsidized housing. Meanwhile, Nixon’s judicial appointees halted the beginnings of progress in the courts toward eliminating exclusionary zoning. By the mid-1970s, the brief window of opportunity for integrating the nation’s metropolitan areas had closed. As a consequence, racial inequality in schooling has stubbornly persisted as well.
Gilding the ghetto?
The lessons that George Romney understood so well seem lost to us in the present. Metropolitan school choice remains unworkable while housing segregation persists. But in one respect, Mitt Romney deserves some credit. He limited his fanciful plan to low-income and special-education students only, although the political obstacles to his proposal might be minimized if it were expanded to include all students. That is what Michigan has recently done, with troubling consequences.
In 1996, Michigan enacted an interdistrict-choice plan that differs from Mitt Romney’s in two critical ways. First, Michigan’s Schools of Choice plan permits all students, not only low-income or special-education students, to choose public schools outside their districts. Second, districts can refuse to participate.
The result has been increased school segregation. Districts like Grosse Pointe simply opt out, taking no black students from neighboring Detroit. In other suburban communities bordering Detroit, white families in newly integrated and changing neighborhoods drive their children to schools in districts even farther from the city. That’s why, in a neighborhood on Warren’s southern edge, McKinley Elementary School is now 53 percent African American, with 91 percent of its students eligible for the lunch program. The community is in transition, and though whites have lower incomes than more-affluent families farther north in Warren, McKinley Elementary is more African American and poor than its neighborhood. As white families have fled integrated education and transferred children to whiter suburbs farther away, the school district has filled its empty seats with more transfers from Detroit. Soon we can expect McKinley Elementary to be another “failing” school, further exacerbating white flight, thanks to Schools of Choice.
Michigan makes no provision for transportation of students to schools outside their districts. Only parents with automobiles, gas money, and no morning or afternoon work demands (or members of carpools with such parents) can avail themselves of the program. Metropolitan Detroit’s highways are now filled with parents driving to distant schools. Low-income African Americans from Detroit take children to first-ring suburbs where neighborhoods are changing, while middle-class white parents from these suburbs take children to the second ring.
Although Mitt Romney has proposed an unworkable plan for school integration, the Obama administration has avoided the issue entirely by embracing urban charter schools and intradistrict choice. Charter schools are even more segregated than regular public schools. Despite lack of evidence for charter-school efficacy and strong empirical support for the benefits of integration, administration officials fail to describe the black-white achievement gap as a reflection of racial separation. Establishing racially homogenous charter schools in urban neighborhoods, even where charter schools are competent, is but a contemporary example of what Moynihan called “gilding the ghetto.”
George Romney, in contrast, understood that suburbs must be forced to desegregate so that disadvantaged children could live near and attend predominantly middle-class schools. He and his allies were defeated in their efforts. Partly because of this, the achievement gap between black and white children has not narrowed nearly as much as it might have in the past half-century. It is unlikely to narrow much further without revisiting the imperative of residential integration in our metropolitan areas.
Learn more about the Romneys' differing ideas on education here.