A time for courage

In 1974, a landmark decision by the US Supreme Court (Milliken v Bradley) allowed suburban schools in Detroit, Michigan, to be protected from a metropolitan desegregation plan. It set the pattern for a national trend that enabled local jurisdictions to act as “racial Berlin walls,” according to Tom Pettigrew, a leading researcher and social psychologist. 

Forty years later, a bankruptcy lawyer has been appointed by the state of

Michigan as an unelected emergency manager for Detroit,

which experienced a 25 percent population drop in the past decade and is facing daunting financial challenges. A higher percentage of children live in poverty than in any other large city in America.

Detroit is a graphic example of the interaction of race and poverty and it demonstrates what many urban experts tell us: fragmented metropolitan regions do not thrive. It is impossible to build a healthy region with a deeply segregated school system.

Last month Gary Orfield, co-director of the Civil Rights Project at UCLA

and  a prolific author on the topic of school segregation, was in Richmond, Va,  to kick off “Looking Back, Moving Forward: a Conference on Race, Class, Opportunity, and School Boundaries in the Richmond Region.” 

Like Detroit, the Richmond region resisted school integration and a Supreme Court decision struck down the proposed merger between city and surrounding county systems. Today the once largely white counties have a vastly more diverse population and there is a growing tendency to re-segregate by race and class within school districts.

“We have never had a long-term commitment to integration except in a few places like the US Army,” said Orfield. One of his core arguments for integration is that “if you concentrate disadvantage in schools, you create machines to perpetuate poverty.”

Case studies from several cities (Louisville, Hartford, and Omaha) provided some hopeful pointers. Suggestions for Richmond included cross-jurisdictional magnet schools; a regional dual language (English-Spanish) immersion school; or a school created by one of the universities. We also heard that citizens need to exert pressure on their elected officials at the state level.

The conference was largely driven by the conviction of Genevieve Siegel-Hawley, who teaches educational policy at Virginia Commonwealth University and who was a classmate of one of our sons in middle school. She is co-author of a new study examining school enrollment in Virginia from 1989 through 2010

Law professor Jim Ryan noted that citizens must accept responsibility for choices they make and not look to courts or other outside forces for solutions. “It really comes down to political will.”

An example of courageous citizen action was highlighted by Richmond School Board Vice Chairman Donald Coleman. He praised some young professional couples who chose to live in the city’s east end and to enroll their young children in the local elementary school – where most of the students are black and from families below the poverty line – and are working for its success.

Four young couples, graduates of the University of Virginia, decided to live out their Christian principles and belief in community development by investing their families in northeastern Church Hill. The men had been housemates at college. Two are doctors,

one a pastor and another is a financial adviser.

Romesh Wijesooriya, who is interim chief of pediatrics at Virginia Commonwealth University Medical Center, told the Richmond Times-Dispatch

: “My greatest vision is that people with resources, people without resources, people of different racial and ethnic backgrounds, could live together and go to school together. There would be homes for old folks, student apartments, and single-family homes in the same community. Businesses would be thriving there. I get pretty pumped. There’s a ton of barriers and a ton of hurt and a lot of brokenness, but also a great potential for hope and healing.”

Richmond, like Detroit and every city in America, needs more people with this kind of vision and commitment. It’s a time for courage.