Myron Orfield has made a career of telling people things they don’t want to hear. Now, in a provocative new report, the noted urban analyst and director of the University of Minnesota Law School’s Institute of Metropolitan Opportunity blames the affordable housing and school-choice “reforms” embraced by his fellow liberals for further isolating racial minorities and widening the notorious achievement gaps that continue to separate whites and people of color in the Minneapolis-St. Paul metro area.
If, during the 1980s and ’90s, political leaders had stuck to the painstaking task of integrating housing and public schools, then African-Americans and other disproportionately poor Minnesotans would now be closer to achieving mainstream lives, the report suggests. Instead, state and metro leaders shifted affordable housing investments away from white, middle-class suburbs to central-city neighborhoods that were already poor, creating larger and more intractable concentrations of urban poverty. As a result, urban public schools became ever more segregated by race and income while recording abysmal test scores and graduation rates.
The report asserts, moreover, that the highly acclaimed open enrollment and charter school strategies begun 30 years ago backfired, working mainly to drive white students out of integrated suburban districts, while allowing inner-city charters to create themed, single-race schools that score lower than even the most severely segregated traditional public schools. All together, these schools have set off “a race to the bottom rather than a race to the top,” the report says.
In a nutshell, Orfield’s study describes the local version of a discouraging national trend — the resegregation of American life and, in a sense, the repudiation of the civil rights gains of the 1950s and ’60s. As the nation took a conservative turn in the 1980s, the U.S. Justice Department and the federal courts began relaxing desegregation remedies, returning hundreds of school systems to local control.
Housing policies followed a similar path. The Orfield report zeros in on the rise of an affordable housing industry in the 1980s that helped shift policy away from suburban “dispersal” and toward more subsidized housing in already-poor urban neighborhoods. The effect, both locally and nationally, was to cluster and isolate impoverished black and Latino populations.
Research suggests that the impact of these concentrations of racial poverty has been devastating to poor, minority populations. A new study from the University of California, Berkeley, shows clearly that black students in resegregated schools are less likely to graduate, go to college, earn a degree, make a decent living and avoid jail than similar students educated in integrated settings.
These are touchy conclusions that offend racial sensibilities. But Orfield’s analysis strikes other incendiary notes, among them that a Twin Cities anti-poverty “industry” is focused more on self-interest than on improving outcomes for poor minorities.
Orfield’s critics suggest that he’s living in the past and clinging to unrealistic ideals. We think his report adds candor to the disparities debate. The consequences of abandoning racial integration may have been unintended, but they are consequences nonetheless.