Category: Opportunity Gap

Summer reading list: The book that (further) sold me on reparations.

Because the ed beat slows down a little in the summer, I have to keep myself busy doing other things. Most recently that’s meant covering immigration. But I also like to use to summer to read really enriching things that my brain totally cannot handle during the school year. 

First up, one that I’ve been anxious to get to, mostly because I felt like until I did, I was just walking around making a fool of myself.

Like most people, and nearly all white people, I’ve carried around some what-I-thought-were-truths about housing segregation in the US. Richard Rothstein’s The Color of Law has disabused me of some of those beliefs.

Housing is part of the education beat, because housing segregation leads to school segregation. In a city as sprawling as San Antonio, there are plenty of opportunities for those with means to escape the discomfort of being poverty-adjacent. However, when those who still have a lingering tinge of poverty move in next door to middle class families in the aging inner loop of the city, the trend continues northward. We call this de facto segregation. People are legally able to go to the same schools/live in the same places, but they choose not (i.e. white flight) to or are barred from doing so by economics (not laws).

Myth-I-believed #1: Changes in the law are the end of the story

White flight is not the whole story on how segregation works. That’s how it has worked in my life time. But everything about my lifestyle will tell you: what happened before I was born changed everything. 

I’ve never been salaried over the national average. If things keep going well this year I just miiiiight reach it. Combined with my husband’s salary, we do well. But our lifestyle way outstrips our income because of what we’ve inherited. Not just the actually inheritances, but the networks of people willing to give us a break on rent, the families who paid for college and continue to help out with camps for kids, vacations, etc. We were born into land wealth which translated into excellent dental and medical care, private schools, and summer jobs that were more about long term career goals or edifying experiences than they were about helping out with family income. We can afford maintenance on ourselves, our house, and our cars so that we do not have huge emergency costs from deferred maintenance. 

All of that is because our families have been landowners for generations. Or, as my husband put it, wryly remarking on how the deck is stacked in our favor: “The smartest thing you can do financially is to be rich.”  

Before I go on, I realize that not every white person benefits from generational wealth. Tragedy, crashing markets, changing work forces, and various forms of usury have taken their toll. However, we were never legally prohibited from advancing into middle class houses and schools. If you’re white, money is money. If you were a person of color in the 20th century, your money wasn’t always accepted currency.

I was once interviewing a city councilwoman from Austin, where they are fighting to preserve family homes of black residents on the uber-gentrified East Side. Without historical designations, many are not preserved from rezoning or demolition, and the market is now priced above entry for most young working class people. 

Councilwoman Ora Houston was born on the front end of the baby boom, just a smidge older than my own Boomer parents. She owns her home, and is trying to help others secure the same. When we were talking she said, “I’m just trying to do for my kids what your great-grandparents did for you.” 

Her parents and grandparents were not allowed to do that. They did not have access to the loans, neighborhoods, zoning protections, and housing stock that would create value over generations. 

In the two generations of buyers between government efforts to help white people own homes after the Great Depression and the Fair Housing Act (1968) you have my great-grandparents and grandparents accumulating wealth, and Ora Houston’s parents and grandparents being denied the same opportunity. 

If prosperity were a race, which capitalism has ensured that it is, my white family is two laps ahead of Ora Houston’s. We were two laps in when they fired the starting gun for her. 

Which is why housing is about more than the legal freedom to move where you want to move. It’s about the fact that we live in two different housing markets—one in which prices of our assets have inflated our prosperity, and the other where you get less for your money than ever before.  

So it’s sort of insulting when people who got a two lap head start (at least…I married into a few more bonus laps) look at the people who just started the race and say, “Why can’t you just catch up?” 

Myth-I-Believed #2 That de facto segregation is more damning than de jure segregation

I thought the fact that we had no legal excuse to divide the world into ghettos and enclaves—and yet continued— was a moral indictment. I thought that’s where we were as a society, just trying to make our final strides toward justice by winning hearts and minds. 

Rothstein, however, points out that in order to make racial disparities better on any meaningful scale, it is the de jure segregation that matters. 

That’s what the book is about. It wasn’t a bunch of racist people individually excluding black people between 1932 and 1968…it was a series of racist laws. As those discriminated against by the law, black people should be entitled to legal restitution. 

This is also a good time to point out that decrying de facto segregation is more to appease my white conscience, while confronting de jure segregation can get some stuff done. 

Not to worry, there’s plenty of cathartic self-flagellating to be done in de jure segregation. After all, who was making these laws? 

The 14th Amendment made, essentially, segregation Constitutionally untenable. It would take some time to get from segregation being mandatory to it being permissible to it being illegal. We have not quite figured out how to proactively encourage integration, but that’s the next step, and it probably involves reparations—incentives, subsidies, grants, scholarships, etc.

So the existence, however specific or local or de jure segregation is key to making good. However for justice to be complete, the will to make amends must touch the heart of de facto segregation—there’s going to have to be enforcement, which means that property owners, police forces, judges, and elected officials are going to determine the lived experience of those who would receive their legal due. For instance…Ruby Bridges got to go to school, but I’d hardly call her experience a laudable example of justice.

Myth-I-Believed-about-segregation #3 That progressives support integration 

Sometimes, as a guilty pleasure, I read the exchanges between historian Kevin Kruse and provocateur Dinesh D’Souza. One such exchange pointed out that Southern Democrats were the party of segregation, Jim Crow, etc. It was, as Kruse pointed out, a shallow, intellectually dishonest pot shot at current Democrats. 

Then, of course busing came up at the Democratic debate. 

You can be “progressive” and still uphold racist systems. You can be in favor of abortion, LGBTQIA rights, and environmental regulations and still not give a lick about brown people at all, in fact. You can even be for “the little guy” and limit that definition to just “the little white guy.” 

Right now, the deep blue cities are priced out of range for working class people. People who financially support Planned Parenthood and the ACLU won’t put their kids in schools where too many of the kids are poor. 

The examples Rothstein uses in the book aren’t all conservative strongholds like Birmingham, Atlanta, and Dallas. They are in the Bay Area and the Northeast. 

From Reconstruction to the Great Recession, the politicians trying to take care of the most people were often convinced—not saying how difficult it was to convince them—to trade the freedom of black people to live and go to school where they wanted to, for things that benefitted poor and working class white people. When they could rally support to give something to black people (i.e. public education, subsidized housing), it had to come with the promise to in no way increase white exposure to those black people. 

Integration—and any support for reparations that might lead to integration—is the ultimate test of hypocrisy. It asks not whether we believe that people of color deserve to vote, own property, or move freely throughout society—but whether we believe that they should be able to do so to the same degree that white people are, and whether we are willing to bridge the gap our laws created. 

On mobile apps and equity

A couple of weeks ago, Inga Cotton, aka San Antonio Charter Moms, launched a new app. It’s a school choice tool, listing all of the open enrollment programs in San Antonio—charter and district options. 

There’s a ton to say about this app. One could comment on female-led app development. Or the fact that it’s the first of its kind in San Antonio, which, until now has relied on the legwork of motivated parents to not just discover schools, but to figure out how they perform and what they offer. 

I could talk about all of that, and it would be worth noting. However, what struck me the most about the rollout of the app was this: equity is in the details. 

A lot of people have opinions about Cotton, the outspoken, hat-wearing charter school champion whose personal mission sprouted into a blog and blossomed into full blown advocacy. 

With my own ears I’ve heard criticisms from people who don’t like the way she operates. I’ve also seen the more subtle ways she’s been sidelined by people who don’t like what she represents. Watching her over the past few years, I’ve seen her sort of tiptoe into life as a public figure while her Facebook group exploded, while foundation money poured into the city, while school districts and charter networks duked it out at the Statehouse and elsewhere.

The roll out of the San Antonio Charter Moms app said a ton about who Cotton is and has become, and signaled her intent to stop tiptoeing and to start running. 

The app is all. about. parent. choice. The search filters allow parents to set the priorities. Cotton has always been clear about what she’s about, and she’s a true believer. You don’t have to like charter schools or magnet programs or choices within districts. But you can’t accuse Cotton of operating in bad faith. Lately I’ve seen a LOT of bad faith arguments going around. People who aren’t being up front about their true concerns or intentions. Cotton is not one of them.

The app was developed as a personal project by Cotton and a volunteer, and will be licensed for free to her non-profit, San Antonio Charter Moms. However, because she’s clear on her mission, people shouldn’t say, “gotcha!” when they see the non-profit and the app praised, funded, or conversing with foundations who like what Cotton is doing. 

Here’s something I once didn’t know this about foundations like Gates, Walton, Brackenridge, and others: when they like what you are doing, those foundations find you, and figure out how to keep you doing what you’re doing. I’ve watched this play out over and over in a handful of organizations. While it’s convenient to think of all funders as these big, dark organizations that put puppets in place all over the country…that’s just not what I’ve seen. I’m not saying it doesn’t ever happen, but seeing a foundation name linked to something is not a good enough reason to write it off as a puppet org, the finger tip of dark money, or some other nefarious metaphor.  

There’s nothing terribly spooky about the information in the app, mostly Texas Education Agency data. While there’s plenty not to like about how TEA ranks schools, and I agree that data doesn’t tell you the whole story, it does provide some outside measurement for how schools are doing meeting the most basic requirements. 

I want to digress a bit about the whole standardized test thing, especially as it relates to ed reform. I’m not a fan of standardized tests, not for my kids, not for anyone. I hate how they have taken over our schools. I think the current tests we used are too amenable to middle class advantages. We need a better system. 

That said, we absolutely must have objective measurements for student achievement. 

We cannot go back to a system where the quality of education varies from state to state, district to district, school to school, classroom to classroom with no way prove it. We cannot allow the criteria to lean toward the subjective. Because history shows us that those with the power to evaluate are not always able to correctly assess students from culture other than their own. Think of it like the long jump vs. figure skating. Even if some kids have to jump from further back, at least their performance is measured by feet and inches. If we go to a panel of judges, we have to reckon with the history of docking points for income and skin color.

I’m all for figuring out how to help kids all jump from the same foul line. I’m all for reckoning with our history of biased judging. But there are more people succeeding at the former than the latter right now.  

Back to apps and equity.

The app is on mobile (iPhone and Android), is being translated into Spanish, and you can sign up for push notifications for schools that interest you. Accessibility is everything in equity. Cotton’s own experience with her son, who is on the autism spectrum, convinced her that not every school will be able to serve every kid, regardless of what the Texas Constitution says they should do. It would be nice, but it’s not happening this year. However, she also saw how much of her educated, privileged capacity was spent finding that school. Had she been required to work 12 hour days, had she not spoken English, had she not had access to a home computer with reliable internet…the search would have been infinitely more difficult, if not impossible. 

We tend to see “convenience” as a word for the wealthy. Like it’s something that rightfully carries a price tag. Like people with less resources should have to search longer, wait longer, travel further, follow up more frequently. This mindset is how the school choice movement got hijacked. How lottery systems grew overloaded with people with 100 good options, instead of those with one. Getting information into the hands of everyone, having that information meet them where they are, reminding them of application deadlines, lottery dates, and waitlist announcements—that’s big for equity. 

I’ve downloaded the app. It’s easy to use, and sort of fun, in the way that all search tools are fun. But it also does something to level the playing field. Like Cotton, I’ve had the advantage of being vocationally tasked with learning about schools. It made my own school choice journey highly informed, as hers was. Apps like this take that knowledge and tools gleaned from years of full time digging, and make it available to anyone who wants it, and especially to those who need it.