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

June 19, 2014 Education, Featured, Guest 13 Comments

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.


Currently there are "13 comments" on this Article:

  1. tonydoss says:

    good read, but nothing new for me. it took me leaving St Louis for 10 years to see just how racially segregated the region is. Until everyone ackowledges the problems are all of our problems, that includes people that live in the still majority white suburbs of Ladue and Chesterfield, we as a region will never move foward. It is incredible to me how we have moved in reverse, my parents, because of their race, only had 2 high schools to choose from, Vashon or Sumner, now there are only 3 public high schools left, Vashon, Sumner and Roosevelt. I guess mayor Slay’s mission to destroy the public school system is working.

    • Chuck Baker says:

      Where did you move to? I think the segregation is just as prevalent in many Southern cities I’ve visited/been through.

      Must be why the SEC welcomed in Mizzou. 😉

      As far as only 3 public high schools remaining, that’s just wrong. On this page of the SLPS website, you’ll see all FIFTEEN schools listed. http://www.slps.org/Page/16226

      • tonydoss says:

        I am not including charter and magnet schools you have to enter a lottery to attend a magnet school and the SLPS does not control the Charter schools. We just give them money. I went to California.

        • tonydoss says:

          Beaumont closed after this school semester, and is now an alternate edcutation school, the last graduating class did not even have sports teams for their last year. Every other school on that list, excluding Vashon, Sumner, and Roosevelt, are either a magnet school (lottery), or a charter school, not controlled by SLPS. Exceptional students only can attend Metro.

          • Chuck Baker says:

            I figured Beaumont was closing, which is why I only said fifteen. None of those listed are charter schools, these are all operated by SLPS.

            How are magnet schools any less public and available to african-americans? The success of the magnet schools in SLPS are the reason the district as a whole regained provisional accreditation

          • Chuck Baker says:

            I figured Beaumont was closing, which is why I only said fifteen. None of those listed are charter schools, these are all operated by SLPS.

            How are magnet schools any less public and available to african-americans? The success of the magnet schools in SLPS are the reason the district as a whole regained provisional accreditation.

          • tonydoss says:

            the african-aamerican kids have to go into a LOTTERY to attend a magnet school, white kids can go to the school of their choice, check it out, my point being is they have destroyed the whole notion of neighborhood schools which were much more sucessful, when I graduated all city schools were putting out 400 students with a diploma, policies have changed the neighborhoods for the worst, sending the kids on hour bus rides in one direction was not the way to go. I guess the magnet schools would save the district if you are controlling the number and type of student your admitting. The problem is we as a region have to tackle the problems, get the damn politics out of the mix.

  2. JZ71 says:

    Rehashing many old arguments here . . . I grew up in Louisville, Ky, and saw, first hand, how desegregation and integration worked with their school systems. Much like St. Louis, they had a city school system and systems in the surrounding county (Jefferson) – I was in the county system. The ultimate solution was to merge the city and the county, both as a school system and as a government. While that eliminated the us-versus-them funding and attendance issues, it did not address the reality of the county line – suburban sprawl has moved on to the surrounding counties, along with, I assume, many of the same deep-seated prejudices, on both sides. While I’ve seen generational changes, for the better, in prejudices, I’ll argue that every one of us continues to have prejudices – it’s not just black versus white, there are prejudices against Hispanics, Asians, Hoosiers, Gays, Rednecks, immigrants, obese people, rich people, poor people, political prejudices, religious prejudices – anyone that’s not just like us. We use these prejudices for both good and bad reasons, to “discriminate”, to enable us to interact successfully with people who are not just like us. Expecting a truly prejudice-free world is a fantasy. Expecting a world where everyone have equal opportunities should be the reality and the goal!

  3. JZ71 says:

    The other half of the argument being made by the author is that restrictive covenants should not be used as an indicator of economic stability or desirability. Once / as soon as you try to define parameters (for making loans, for instance), you’re going to discriminate. In the 1940’s, HISTORIC data showed city home values either declining or not increasing at as great a rate as suburban values. There were multiple reasons for that FACT, NOT just restrictions against Jews, blacks or whatever else – most St. Louis residents (no, not everyone) wanted to move out, and many did, for the then “ideal”, a new suburban, single-family home. My parents grew up in pre-war Chicago, in apartments, and the last thing they wanted to do was live in the “old” city – they wanted their own place, not something shared. Being white and well educated certainly made that goal easier to achieve, but I’d bet that just as many urban blacks wanted to escape to the suburbs as urban whites.

  4. Dan McGrath says:

    Parochial schools should be subsidized by the State. This is done in Europe and works magnificently. All schools are subsidized by the State regardless of affiliation.

    Second, St. Louis City needs regentrification. We’re almost completely there in Soulard and Tower Grove neighborhoods. Now need to clean house in South City a little more and then push north.

  5. Clarissa Hayward says:

    Thanks for these comments, which I enjoyed reading! Tony and Chuck, St. Louis is actually one of the most racially segregated cities in the
    US. It remains among the ten most racially segregated after the most recent census. The only cities that are more racially segregated are Cleveland, Miami, Philadelphia (my home town), Chicago, New York, Newark, Milwaukee, and Detroit. There is a terrific book with a lot of background on how demographers measure segregation, and with both empirical data and also terrific historical information on segregation, which I recommend if you’re interested. It’s Douglas Massey and Nancy Denton’s American Apartheid.

    JZ, it’s not uncommon to believe that people’s preferences and choices, free from state influence, were what drove white flight. But it’s
    not correct! The FHA and other New Deal housing programs (e.g. the VA program) represented a massive investment of public resources in postwar suburban housing. I mentioned the racist character of FHA underwriting guidelines in this post. But they were also strongly biased in favor of large-scale suburban development. They didn’t simply reflect preferences. They actually helped shape them. So staying in the “old” city wasn’t an option even for those who wanted to, since FHA loans weren’t readily available there. The second half of my book (which I didn’t have time to mention in this post) focuses on home ownership policies in the postwar US—a very interesting time period and topic, so I
    appreciate your comments.

    • JZ71 says:

      I agree, both the VA and FHA had a huge impact on post-war housing, but so did the interstate highway system and the increasing availability of personal auto ownership, tied to a decline in public transit use. Yes, the VA and FHA put a lot of money into suburban tract housing – there was a huge pent-up demand for new housing (the Depression followed by WW II essentially stopped new residential construction for nearly two decades), and it was the most efficient way to deliver many units very quickly at affordable prices. The world people lived in in 1948 was completely different than the world people lived in in 1928, and mass production had been refined during WW II, so it should be no surprise that its principles were applied to housing.

      While I agree that racism was more prevalent and blatant in the 1950’s than it is today, I’m going to continue to disagree that it was the primary reason that many African Americans were unable to follow Caucasians out to the suburbs. The primary metric was not racial, it was economic – whites were generally paid better than blacks, so they were able to qualify for larger monthly payments. Was this income disparity racially driven? Undoubtedly! Did block busting occur? Absolutely! But that was not driven by the government, that was driven by local real estate agents and a bunch of scared white people, based on their own, individual prejudices.

      I was born in 1953. Both my grandfathers were involved in real estate, so I was exposed to a lot of their thinking back in the late ’50’s and into the ’60’s. Racism was much more blatant back then, and it was even targeted toward subsets of the “white” population (Jews, Pollacks and Italians, to name three) but I’d argue that racism is nearly as prevalent today as it was back then, only that it takes different forms and is much more subtle today. And I agree that St. Louis is one of the more racist areas I’ve lived in, especially toward African Americans. (In Denver, the racism is more intensely driven toward Hispanics, likely because they’re a much bigger minority.)

      And while truly equal “opportunity” remains the elusive goal, I also see how various groups choose to blend (or not) into the great American melting pot as an equally challenging issue. Choosing “normal” names, learning to speak “proper” English and getting as much education as you can will do more to improve your chances in life than expecting society to adapt to your chosen, narrow social norms. “No Irish Need Apply” went away when they chose to be viewed as Americans, not as Irish. Many Bosnians are going through the same transformation, here, just like many African Americans are in areas like Atlanta, suburban New York and many parts of California. Money talks – be successful in your chosen career and it doesn’t matter what color you are when it comes to “success” in both housing and life!

  6. Terence D says:

    Really appreciated this post and the nod to “Mapping Decline” – a book that opened my eyes to a lot. I look forward to reading “How Americans Make Race”. Thanks, Clarissa.


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