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Guest Post: Why It Takes More Than Changing Beliefs To End Racial Inequality

The following is a guest post by Clarissa Hayward:

“In Missouri, Race Complicates a Transfer to Better Schools.” That’s how the headline read last summer when the New York Times ran an article on the Missouri school transfer law that’s been in the news again these past few weeks.

Normandy Middle School school on Natural Bridge
Normandy Middle School school on Natural Bridge

State legislators have tried to amend the law, which allows students in disaccredited districts—this past year, Normandy, Riverview Gardens, and Kansas City—to transfer to public schools in accredited districts. Sending districts must pay tuition costs for the transfer, an expenditure that severely taxes these already-struggling systems. Last month the state Board of Education voted to lapse the Normandy District, which after a year of financing transfers, was near bankruptcy.

Of course, as the Times headline suggests, racial inequalities play an important role in the controversy. All three sending districts are majority African-American, as is St. Louis, which was at the center of the Turner v. Clayton case that first brought the transfer law to the State Supreme Court. Receiving districts are (as is Clayton) majority white.

Hence news coverage of the school transfer issues typically features comments from angry and anxious parents, white and black alike. Are white parents racists, one common worry is, who want to exclude transfer students because they’re African-American? In short, these stories suggest that race “complicates” the law because of what people believe, think, and say about race.

In a city with a long and storied history of racial segregation and racial inequality, the suggestion is that misguided ideas are the root of the problem. If only people would change their beliefs and their attitudes about race, the hope seems to be, racial justice will follow.

But it isn’t that easy. New beliefs alone cannot overcome practices that are deeply embedded in the institutions and the physical spaces in which St. Louisans live their daily lives.

I came to this conclusion while conducting research for my most recent book, How Americans Make Race. Let me explain with an example that is not from the last few weeks, but from the early part of the last century.

In the 1940s, dominant beliefs about race in this country changed radically. This was partly because scientists at the time came to reject the nineteenth century understanding of race as a biological fact. It was also because racial hierarchy came to seem repugnant to many white Americans, as they began to associate racism with Naziism.

But these new racial attitudes and beliefs didn’t obliterate racial inequality. They didn’t radically alter how we practice and live race in the United States. Why not?

Because when people construct identities—including racial identities—they don’t just use language and ideas. They also use institutions, like laws and rules and policies. And they use material forms, like the urban and suburban spaces that were built in and around St. Louis and other American metropolitan areas over the course of the twentieth century.

Here’s a concrete example of an institution that helped to construct race in St. Louis and other American cities: the underwriting guidelines created by the Federal Housing Administration starting in the 1930s. As many readers will recall, the FHA was established during the New Deal era—so in other words before mid-century changes in dominant racial beliefs—in order to help homebuyers by providing government-backed mortgages.

These underwriting standards were supposed to help the government identify which buyers and which properties would make good investments. But in fact, they did much more. They institutionalized pre-1940 racial beliefs by defining African-American buyers as an investment risk, and by identifying the exclusion of blacks from a neighborhood as a sign of its economic health and stability.

The historian Kenneth Jackson illustrates with an example from St. Louis. Government studies conducted by the Homeowners Loan Corporation in 1937 and 1940 gave the very highest ratings in the metro area to Ladue. Appraisers emphasized that Ladue was “highly restricted”—in other words, that racial deed restrictions prevented African-Americans and other minority groups from buying or owning houses there. They emphasized, in their words, that Ladue was not home to “a single foreigner or negro.”

The very few parts of St. Louis County that received the lowest ratings—signaling the highest investment risk, and prompting the FHA to avoid backing mortgages—were African-American.

In St. Louis city, the same racial patterns prevailed. Colin Gordon, in his masterful Mapping Decline: St. Louis and the Fate of the American City, notes that the only two areas in St. Louis to receive the highest rating in 1940 were “a few blocks on the County border west of Forest Park and a horseshoe of homes in the City’s still lightly and recently developed… southwest corner—both of which enjoyed the protection of restrictive deed covenants far removed from the contested neighborhoods of north St. Louis.”

Between 1934 and 1960 the federal government pumped more than $550 million in state-backed mortgages into homes in St. Louis County, investing almost $800 per capita. It spent just $94 million, or about $125 per capita, in St. Louis city.

The example makes clear why a change in beliefs is never enough. Imagine a white St. Louisan in the 1950s. Imagine that this particular individual is persuaded by the moral and scientific critiques of old racial ideas, but that she also wants to buy a house and needs an FHA mortgage to do so.

This would-be home buyer has to act as if she believes the old racial stories if she wants to qualify for an FHA mortgage. If she wants a government-backed loan, in other words, she needs to buy in a racially exclusive white neighborhood. She needs to do so even if she does not prefer or endorse racial residential segregation.

Of course, after the civil rights victories of the late 1960s, the U.S. government no longer participates in or condones racial residential segregation. So what does this example have to do with St. Louis today?

The larger point is that real racial justice, today like in 1950,  requires more than new racial attitudes and new racial beliefs. It requires new institutions, and it requires new ways of organizing urban and suburban space.

Think of the many local jurisdictions that are at the heart of the school transfer case. These are institutions that have a tremendous power to shape racial inequality. They do at least as much work in maintaining racial hierarchy in metropolitan St. Louis as do racist ideas and racist attitudes.

That’s why many political experts recommend centralizing important aspects of urban governance, such as schooling, to the metropolitan or even to the regional level. Others emphasize changing tax policies or the way we organize local elections.

Some recommend changing the physical spaces of our cities and suburbs, for example by encouraging the construction of affordable housing alongside market-rate units.

These are hotly contested proposals, which may or may not work for St. Louis and the St. Louis suburbs. But they have the virtue of raising important questions about how best to organize our urban institutions and spaces.

These are the kinds of questions we must grapple with, since changing racial beliefs and attitudes, by itself, won’t change racial injustice.

Clarissa Hayward is a political scientist on the faculty at Washington University in St. Louis. Her most recent book, How Americans Make Race, is in stock at Subterranean Books on the Delmar Loop and can be purchased from the publisher, Left Bank Books, Powell’s, and other online booksellers. You can follow her on Twitter @ClarissaHayward.

 

Edwardsville School Board Considering $1.3 Million for Elementary School Parking Lot, Razing Historic Church

Parking is a perceived issue all over the region, even in small towns like Edwardsville IL. The public school district is considering purchasing a historic church, and an adjacent house owned by the church, to create more parking for Columbus elementary school:

The general terms of the proposed sale, which are all subject to approval by both the First Presbyterian Church congregation and the District 7 Board of Education, are that the district will pay First Presbyterian Church $1.3 million from impact fees over a 10-year period. Impact fees are money collected from developers who build homes in Edwardsville and Glen Carbon. The fees can only be used for new construction or the purchase of property.

The other terms of the negotiation are that First Presbyterian Church would have four years to vacate the existing church facility, and the church would be responsible for preparing the ground to leave a clean, level site. (District 7 looks to turn church into parking lot)

The $1.3 million is just for the land, it’ll cost more to actually develop the parking lot.

Columbus Elementary just east of Main Street in downtown Edwardsville, click for map
Columbus Elementary just east of Main Street in downtown Edwardsville, click for map
Graphic showing staff parking (left) and parent parking (right)    Source: Edwardsville Intelligencer, click for story
Graphic showing staff parking (left) and parent parking (right)
Source: Edwardsville Intelligencer, click for story

A friend drove me over to Edwardsville last week so I could check it out in person. What we found is the school has a small parking lot for staff, a large asphalt playground, and has use of a couple of small parking lot owned by the church. No doubt when the church has a weekday event, like a funeral, parking gets tight. Otherwise both appear to have coexisted for decades.

Looking west on College, the church-owned lot on the left wasn't full at 9:15am last Thursday morning
Looking west on College, the church-owned lot on the left wasn’t full at 9:15am last Thursday morning
Back parking lot of school appeared full
Back parking lot of school appeared full
Parking on school grounds on the west side of the building was completely vacant
Parking on school grounds on the west side of the building was completely vacant

I don’t live in Edwardsville, nor am I a parent, so I turned to the Edwardsville School District 7 Parents group on Facebook to see the discussion. There were several postings, here’s some quotes I selected from hundreds:

Feb 26: “Anyone know why Columbus needs a $1.3 million parking lot? More than say, teams, all tenth graders on campus, enough honors classes, a daily middle school band/orchestra program?” — LW

“because there is ZERO parking at the school and the church next door was kind enough to let the school “share” their parking lot. The church is moving and the new owners may not be as accommodating!” — LC 

“We always parked in that lot…..sad to see the church go…I went to preschool in that church” — JG

“The church isn’t moving unless the building is purchased. We’ve always worked with the district for parking and that’s not a big deal. My ‘big deal’ is a $1.3 million parking lot. I have a 7th grader who can’t have team teaching or have band every day because there’s no money, a junior who spent 40 minute a day last year being transported off campus because there weren’t enough classrooms, and it makes no sense financially. If there’s money to buy property and or build something with, maybe an addition to the high school would be a goal to look toward.” — LW

Feb 26: “Is it true that the Presbyterian Church property was assessed at $750,000? If so, wouldn’t that lend one to believe that the tax payers are indeed paying for demolition?” — TM

It appears the parents in the district are split; some say the parking situation is poor, while others say parking has always been bad but the district has higher priorities. I do know the school & church have managed to share parking in the area for years but it the church is razed much of the parking will sit empty each day.

This is all possible because some members of the dwindling congregation at the First Presbyterian Church of Edwardsville want to build a new church nearly 4 miles away. This isn’t new, they bought 28+ acres of farmland in January 2000, paying $390,000. In November 2006 I posted how they voted to build on the farmland.

The future church location is on the far east edge of town, away from downtown and the new sprawl shopping.
The future church location is on the far east edge of town, away from downtown Edwardsville and their new shopping area. Click image to view map.
The church hopes to sell 20 acres to partially  fund the new building on the remaining land
The church hopes to sell 20 acres to partially fund the new building on the remaining land
First Presbyterian was founded in 1819, moved to this site in 1885. The current building was dedicated on the same site in 1924.
First Presbyterian was founded in 1819, moved to this site in 1885. The current building was dedicated on the same site in 1924.

Attendance at the church has reportedly dropped in the 7 years since voting to proceed with the plan to build a new church.  I can see the church agreeing to sell  — but in four years still not having a new building ready. Then what? Also, does the school district not have more pressing building needs?

— Steve Patterson

 

The Central Library Reopened One Year Ago

December 9, 2013 Downtown, Education, Featured 3 Comments

One  year ago our central library reopened after receiving a much-needed renovation:

The library closed almost three years ago for a $70-million renovation. The results of that work are now open to the public, and the 190,000-square-foot building is the most gorgeous — and usable — library I have ever seen.

The 1912 Beaux Arts building, which takes a full city block, was originally designed by Cass Gilbert, who also designed the U.S. Supreme Court. Andrew Carnegie provided the seed money — part of his campaign to build 1,600 libraries in America — and taxpayers provided the rest. (Washington Post)

The results were impressive, readers thought the library renovation was a good investment.

Main facade of the Central Library
Main facade of the Central Library
To my knowledge, the planned cafe space doesn't have an operator.
To my knowledge, the planned cafe space doesn’t have an operator.

I haven’t spent as much time in the library as I thought I would, but I’m still impressed by the exterior lighting as I pass by it several nights per week. I need to see if anyone is operating the cafe inside, that would get me in the door more often. My fiancee is an avid reader, he’s used the library far more than I have.  In June I posted how the Central Library after hours book return is for motorists, not pedestrians.

What has been your experience over the last year?

— Steve Patterson

 

Readers: Schools Should Be Forced To Take Students From Unaccredited Districts

School district boundaries are arbitrary, but many act like they’re etched in stone. Thankfully slightly more than half the readers who voted in the unscientific poll last week are ok with forcing districts to take students from unaccredited districts:

Q: Should schools be forced to take students from unaccredited districts?

  • Yes, education is that important 38 [54.29%]
  • No, it isn’t fair to taxpayers and students 32 [45.71%]

This is the opposite of the results from the original poll on the St. Louis Business Journal where only 37% voted yes.

That said, the process this year was anything but ideal. Hopefully state & local leaders can find ways to ensure every child gets a good public education.

— Steve Patterson

 

Poll: Should schools be forced to take students from unaccredited districts?

The poll this week is an exact duplicate of a poll run by the St. Louis Business Journal in June:

Should schools be forced to take students from unaccredited districts?

  • Yes, education is that important
  • No, it isn’t fair to taxpayers and students

I couldn’t come up with any better phrasing, so it’ll have to do.

STLSPJ
Left to right: Sharon Reed (KMOV), Eric Knost, Mehlville superintendent, Ty McNichols, Normandy superintendent, and moderator from St. Louis Chapter of the Society of Professional Journalists

Unaccredited schools are now paying overcrowded schools to accept transfer students. The transfer process was chaotic. Is this really the best we can do as a region?

The poll is in the right sidebar for a week.

— Steve Patterson

 

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