When critics of the Buffalo School Board majority’s plan to install a handpicked superintendent with no community input invoked Baltimore’s eruption, it surely struck some as far-fetched.
But the same combination of poverty and social disadvantage that provides the backdrop for Baltimore exists here and across the nation, a legacy of government-sponsored segregation.
In fact, in a series of papers laying out the consequences of those policies – for both cities and schools – Economic Policy Institute research associate Richard Rothstein could have been talking about Buffalo.
“I am,” Rothstein said by phone. “I’m talking about every metropolitan area in the country.”
Ours is repeatedly ranked among the most segregated, with a predominantly black central city school system in which the state deems 44 of the 56 schools subpar. We could have been Rothstein’s case study for the educational vestiges of segregation: Less access to medical care, resulting in high absenteeism and less learning. Fewer literate parents who can expose kids to reading and vocabulary at home. Poor housing, causing students to move more often and switch schools.
He describes the predictable results: “Remediation becomes the norm … teachers spend more time repeating lessons for newcomers … (and kids living amid crime) suffer from greater stress that interferes with learning.”
It is a civic death spiral traced back to New Deal-era policies that shut black laborers out of Social Security and made FHA loan guarantees that built the suburbs available only for whites, while Rothstein notes that the agency “refused to insure individual mortgages for African Americans in white neighborhoods.”
Such policies are why whites today have 13 times the wealth of blacks, and why Rothstein says Baltimore’s eruption was about more than just policing, and closing the racial achievement gap is about more than just school reform.
It is about rectifying the impact of long-ago policy that resulted in Buffalo schools being as segregated now as decades ago and the Urban Institute ranking this area 98th out of 100 in black-white socioeconomic equity.
The risk in all of that is apparent.
“Baltimore is a bigger Buffalo,” said pastor and Common Council President Darius Pridgen, who went there Sunday for a clergy rally. He was struck by how the focus was not so much the death of Freddie Gray as it was these larger issues of education and inequality.
“If I had closed my eyes, I would have thought I was in Western New York a little bit because it sounded like the same challenges,” Pridgen said.
But these disparities are not new; they’ve been outlined here and elsewhere for years, most pithily summed up in the title of Columbia University professor Ira Katznelson’s 2005 book, “When Affirmative Action Was White.”
Yet there is no public will to address them until some incident ignites the underlying tinderbox. Rothstein attributes that to textbooks that teach about Martin Luther King and Rosa Parks but ignore the fact that ghettos were “created by government policy.”
“Ultimately, we need to desegregate metropolitan areas,” he said.
But we can’t do that until there is a renewed understanding of how areas such as ours got segregated in the first place. We can honestly face up to it – or we can wait for the next Baltimore.