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The Lessons of Ferguson

Visiting Scholar Richard Rothstein explores the historical roots of the enduring segregation that undermines urban schools

October 28, 2014
Ferguson, Missouri

Visiting Scholar Richard Rothstein, a research associate of the Economic Policy Institute, sat down for an EdCast to talk about how decades of federal policy created conditions that fueled the ongoing unrest following the August 9 shooting of Michael Brown in Ferguson, Missouri. In a new article called “The Making of Ferguson,” published in The American Prospect, Rothstein argues that Ferguson has to be understood as an outgrowth of housing and zoning policies that promoted segregation — not just as a product of rogue policing or racial profiling.

The implications of those policies for schools and teachers, he says, can be seen in the achievement gap that isolates disadvantaged students, often students of color, in poor neighborhoods. It won’t be possible to close the achievement gap, he argues, without desegregating schools. “And we can’t desegregate schools in most of the metropolitan areas of this country without desegregating neighborhoods. The distances are just too great.”

So long as children are attending schools that are not segregated by law but are segregated because they’re located in segregated
communities, the benefits of integrated education that Brown v. Board of Education promised will never be realized.

When it comes to understanding why most cities continue to be so segregated, Rothstein says, “We have completely whitewashed our history.” Conventional wisdom has it that neighborhoods are segregated because poor families of color can’t afford to move to middle-class neighborhoods, or that when they do, white families leave. “But all of that is relatively minor,” Rothstein says, “compared to a century and a half of public policy — federal, state, and local policy — that was designed explicitly, purposefully, to create racially segregated metropolitan areas. Ferguson is an example of that policy, but it’s not unique. Every metropolitan area of the country suffered from the same federal, state, and local policies.”

Rothstein says that teachers have a role to play in making sure that this history — which includes the denial of public services to certain neighborhoods, the segregation of public housing, the awarding of building contracts for developments that would exclude African-Americans, among other things — is better known. It’s a difficult mandate, however, since current textbooks and curricula either ignore or misrepresent the truth of segregation’s origins. He urges educators to bypass the textbooks and dig deeper into the policies that created current conditions, as he does in his American Prospect piece.

“So long as children are attending schools that are not segregated by law but are segregated because they’re located in segregated communities, the benefits of integrated education that Brown v. Board of Education promised will never be realized,” he says. (Read Rothstein’s reflections on the unfulfilled legacy of Brown, 60 years after the case was decided.)

Photo credit (top): AP Photo / Charlie Riedel, File. Image also appeared with "The Making of Ferguson," The American Prospect. 

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