In the popular imagination, Westchester County, just north of New York City, is a land of endless picket fences and backyard swimming pools. My hometown of Ossining, New York, is where John Cheever, chronicler of white suburban malaise, lived and set some of his stories. On cable TV's Mad Men, Ossining is depicted as a bedroom community where wives ride horses, husbands drown their sexual frustrations in after-work cocktails, and children attend lily-white schools.
Westchester is a real place, though, and like most American places, its demographics have become far more complex over the last half-century. In search of the American dream of safe streets and decent schools, increasing numbers of African American families have migrated from inner-city New York to Westchester. In the 1980s and 1990s, Hispanic immigrants joined them, and some towns became magnets for day laborers.
Through all these changes, Westchester has retained its picket fences and country clubs -- it's just become more and more racially and socioeconomically segregated. Über-affluent villages such as Briarcliff Manor, Scarsdale, and Chappaqua put zoning laws on the books preventing the construction of affordable, high-density rental housing. The county never intervened. Meanwhile, affordable housing was erected in towns that already had significant black and Hispanic populations and less-elite schools, such as Yonkers, Mount Vernon, and Ossining -- which was always more of a working-class town than the tony enclave imagined in Mad Men.
Since President Lyndon Johnson signed the Fair Housing Act of 1968 into law, this type of deliberately segregationist urban planning has been illegal. But the law has gone unenforced. In February federal Judge Denise Cote ruled that Westchester had "utterly failed" to meet the government's fair--housing regulations and that the Department of Housing and Urban Development had turned a blind eye to a series of "false or fraudulent" documents from the county claiming it was furthering fair-housing goals.
Instead of defending the agency's prerogative to sweep segregation under the rug, as the Bush and Clinton administrations did, President Barack Obama's HUD swooped in to negotiate a settlement between Westchester and the Anti-Discrimination Center, the nonprofit that filed the case. That settlement is historic: It requires Westchester to construct 630 affordable homes or apartments in communities that are currently less than 3 percent black and less than 7 percent Hispanic. HUD Deputy Secretary Ron Sims says the agency will devote staff hours to ensuring every jurisdiction in the United States follows Westchester's lead. Fair-housing advocates are hopeful there will finally be a major federal crackdown on segregationist planning.
As encouraging as this news is, the Obama administration hasn't demonstrated a similar commitment to integration across other policy areas, namely education. Secretary of Education Arne Duncan is promoting a series of new federal grant programs intended to foster school "reform" and "innovation" at the local level. But none of these programs prioritize -- or even mention -- school integration. The Department of Education refuses to acknowledge that with a few high-profile exceptions -- such as the small network of KIPP charter schools -- segregated schools simply aren't working for kids.
In 2002 the Charlotte-Mecklenburg District in North Carolina ended a 30-year busing program and reverted back to racially segregated neighborhood schools. New research from Cornell University shows that after the change, the best teachers migrated away from predominantly black schools and toward predominantly white ones. That fits with what we already know about teachers: Although they would like to earn more money, most say "working conditions," including student discipline and parental involvement, are more important to them than any other factor in choosing a job site. Segregation makes it harder to get good teachers in front of poor kids, which is a stated goal of Duncan's education reforms.
Policy solutions exist. Contrary to conservatives' warnings, school integration doesn't have to mean a retread of the busing wars of the 1960s and 1970s. Magnet schools and voluntary inter-district transfer programs have been successful at reducing segregation in places like Hartford, Connecticut, and Cambridge, Massachusetts.
An agenda that puts pressure on suburbs to build integrated housing, while ignoring their history of segregated schooling, simply isn't consistent. We can't afford to wait for every neighborhood in America to desegregate residentially, because racial and socioeconomic isolation are restricting children's opportunities right now.