Williams: Richmond region's education will never be equal as long as we live separately

We won’t stem the cycle of poverty in metro Richmond until we address the cycle of housing segregation.

It asks the question: Can we learn and live together?

“School segregation flows from residential segregation — especially when proximity drives student assignment policy,” the report says.

“And as long as today’s exclusionary housing policies prevent working-class families from moving into wealthier communities, those communities — and schools — will remain out of reach,” says the report by authors from Housing Opportunities Made Equal, the University of Richmond’s School of Professional and Continuing Studies, and Virginia Commonwealth University’s School of Education.

Housing is on the minds of city officials as Richmond prepares for a housing summit on Oct. 31. And the issues of housing, poverty and public education are joined at the hip.

Richmond officials, academics and housing officials are far from alone in engaging these topics.

Richard Rothstein, author of the recently released book “The Color of Law,” indicts local, state and federal governments for their role in creating housing segregation. Richard D. Kahlenberg, a senior fellow at The Century Foundation, has called for an Economic Fair Housing Act to combat exclusionary zoning practices — such as the barring of town houses and apartments — that reduce affordable housing options. He cites Montgomery County, Md., and Mount Laurel, N.J., as successful examples of jurisdictions whose inclusive housing policies have reduced socio-economic segregation.

Our region could use more inclusive housing policies. Richmond, with its high concentration of public housing, is home to a disproportionate share of the region’s poverty within its 62½ square miles.

Even within our suburban jurisdictions, the politics of school zoning and development plays out in a way that promotes economic segregation.

Plans for the River Mill development along the Chickahominy River in northern Henrico County appeared to hinge on whether its students would be zoned into Hungary Creek Middle and Glen Allen High schools. A clearly less appealing option was Hermitage High, whose relative affluence was siphoned off when Glen Allen opened seven years ago.

We tried during the early 1970s to work around residential segregation and white suburban flight with a plan to consolidate the school districts of Richmond and the counties of Chesterfield and Henrico. But that plan by U.S. District Judge Robert R. Merhige Jr. went down in flames at the U.S. Supreme Court. Milliken v. Bradley, a subsequent court decision that killed a city-suburban desegregation plan in Detroit, had an even more devastating long-term effect on consolidation efforts.

Metro Richmond looks different today than the largely black-white binary of the 1970s.

The city’s surrounding counties are increasingly diverse, with substantial numbers of African-American, Asian and Hispanic students. Henrico’s school district is majority-minority.

According to the school and housing segregation report, Asians made up more than 27 percent of new residents in Henrico. In Chesterfield, 27 percent of new residents were Hispanics. The suburbs are increasingly browner and more impoverished; Richmond, whiter.

Paradoxically, school segregation by race and poverty remains entrenched amid the region’s growing diversity.

In 2014, white students made up 48 percent of the region’s enrollment, but a typical white student attended a school that was 64 percent white. Black and Hispanic students also attend school disproportionately with schoolmates of the same race, with the isolation of Hispanic students increasing, according to the report.

Black and Hispanic students remain concentrated in communities with the lowest opportunity, while white and Asian students are more likely to live in high- or very high-opportunity communities, according to the report. Low-opportunity communities tend to surround low-opportunity schools.

None of this happened by accident. Richmond’s public housing communities did not build themselves. Richmond, as the report points out, has a history of mandated racial exclusion dating back to 1911, when Richmond became the second city in the U.S. to zone neighborhoods as “black” or “white.”

That law was struck down by the Supreme Court six years later, but city, state and federal governments, banks and the real estate industry — through laws, restrictive covenants, red-lining and highway construction — would perpetuate segregation. This legacy of intentional segregation will not abate without intentional strategies to combat it.

On this front, the region has lacked will. One of the remedies prescribed in the report — inclusionary housing policies in the suburbs that would require that a percentage of affordable housing be set aside in new developments — has been a non-starter.

The city is focused on the reinvention of public housing communities as mixed-income developments. But the desegregation of housing — like the amelioration of poverty and, I fear, the enhancement of public education in Richmond — has little chance of success without a regional approach.

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