Quality preschool access is also an important piece of this puzzle, as are community-based after school programs that can help identify at-risk students before they drop out completely.
But, again, there will be no end to school segregation if we do not also work on the problem of housing segregation. Residential segregation creates school segregation, by race and class. And such residential segregation is systemic. According to the Brookings Institute: “More than half of black or white residents in 70 of the 100 largest U.S. metro areas would need to move to a different census tract in order to integrate the metro.”
Thus, the federal government needs to comprehensively enforce, for essentially the first time, the Fair Housing Act of 1968. The potential for such enforcement was at least maintained by the Supreme Court’s 2015 decision in Texas Department of Housing and Urban Affairs v. The Inclusive Communities Project, which preserved the rights of plaintiffs to challenge government or private-sector policies that have a discriminatory effect, without having to show evidence of intentional discrimination.
As with education, the federal government needs to take the lead here. Enforcing the Fair Housing Act and making sure that state and local governments actually pursue racial and economic integration will help poor whites as well as poor minorities. Low-income whites make up more than a third of the poor families that receive federal housing assistance. They also will benefit from broader access to housing in healthier communities and consequent access to better schools and improved job opportunities.
Enforcing the Fair Housing Act and making sure that state and local governments actually pursue racial and economic integration will help poor whites as well as poor minorities.
One excellent model is Montgomery County, Maryland, which requires developers to set aside units for low-income families. Through residential integration, disadvantaged students were able to access better schools and the math achievement gap between the lower income youth and their middle class peers was reduced by half between 2001 and 2007, based on a RAND Corporation evaluation. The Montgomery County findings have been reinforced by Harvard University research elsewhere. Children whose families received federal assistance to move to better neighborhoods were more likely to attend college, attend better colleges and earn higher incomes than children whose families had not received the assistance.
After 50 years and little progress, we need a new national Kerner strategy. When the Reverend King was assassinated in 1968, his emerging vision was of a multiracial coalition for economic justice among the poor, the working class and the middle class. We need that coalition now, for minorities yes, but also for the approximately 18 million white Americans living in poverty, the millennials drowning in college loan debt and the formerly incarcerated unable to make a living wage.
As Robert F. Kennedy observed, quoting George Bernard Shaw, some people see things as they are and ask, “Why?” We must dream of things that never were and ask, “Why not?” Rev. King asked why not. To honor his legacy and the legacies of so many who have fought for equality in America, it’s time we ask the same.
Alan Curtis is the president and chief executive of the Eisenhower Foundation, the private-sector continuation of the 1968 Kerner Commission and the 1969 National Violence Commission. Fred Harris, a former senator from Oklahoma, is a professor emeritus of political science at the University of New Mexico and the lone surviving member of the Kerner Commission. The two are the co-authors of “Healing Our Divided Society: Investing in America Fifty Years After the Kerner Report.”