How Did New York Become So Segregated?


How did New York end up so segregated? As part of my NY Policy Fellowship, I did a little bit of research to try and answer this question.

The Great Migrations

During WWI, industrial urban cities in the North actively recruited Southern black laborers due to labor shortages and war production demand. By the 1920s, Harlem housed 200,000 African Americans and became an epicenter of black literature, music, and visual arts. NYC’s black population expanded from 140,000 in 1910 to 660,000 by 1940. Only a quarter of that 1940 population were born in New York. Economic demand during and after WWII similarly spurred a large influx from southern states. By 1970, NYC’s black population was at 2,350,000, and Buffalo’s at 108,000. Meanwhile, “NYC’s Hispanic population increased by almost twenty times between 1940 and 2010, while its total non-Hispanic White population decreased by over 60% over the same time period.”


After WWII, the Federal Housing Authority provided funding for homeownership for many white working class families. However, some banks would refuse to lend money to aspiring black homeowners. The practice of “redlining” refers to maps banks would keep of neighborhood racial demographics, which they would use to determine “bad investments.” Banks would then deny services to African American families, or selectively raise prices. This practice furthered racial segregation, and also guaranteed that many black neighborhoods were either underdeveloped or left in disrepair.

Urban Redevelopment and Highways

Robert Moses engineered passage and amendment to the 1942 Hampton-Mitchell Bill (enacted as the Urban Redevelopment Companies Law), which allowed the displacement of communities (typically low income) by private developers. The NY State Court of Appeals, in a 1949 case, Dorsey v. Stuyvesant Town Corp., later upheld the right of private property owners to discriminate by race. The court ruled: “It is well settled that the landlord of a private apartment or dwelling house may, without violating any provision of the Federal or State Constitutions, select tenants of its own choice because of race, color, creed or religion … Clearly, housing accommodation is not a recognized civil right.”

In a trend-setting development, Moses built the first highway through a crowded urban center, the Cross Bronx Expressway. This development, like the Stuyvesant development on the Lower East Side of Manhattan, resulted in the displacement of lower-income families and reinforced segregation.

Other cities in New York followed suit, with the Skyway in Buffalo and the I-81 in Syracuse similarly stranding low-income families in noisy, polluted inner cities, while creating swift escape routes for suburban commuters. Coupled with strict zoning rules and the lack of affordable housing and public transportation options in many suburban areas, poorer families found it difficult to gain the means either to leave or improve their high poverty neighborhoods.

Loss of Industrial Jobs

While the Fair Housing Act of 1968 made redlining practices illegal, the stagnation of the economy in the 1970s, coupled with deindustrialization, spurred the flight of white and middle class families to suburbs, leaving behind inner city neighborhoods with few employment opportunities and resources. According to EdBuild, twenty nine of the country’s 50 most extremely segregated school districts are in the Rust Belt, with New York State number 6 on that list.

Fruitless Fights for Integration

In the 1950s and 60s, a Reverend in Brooklyn, Milton Galamison, fought for integration, first as chair for the Education Chapter of the NAACP, then as founder of the Parent’s Workshop for Equality in New York City Schools. His group “presented a series of integration proposals to the New York City Board of Education, none of which were implemented.” In 1964, Galamison led a group of civil rights organizations to boycott NYC public schools, but he did not gain the support of the teacher’s union and later lost the support of national civil rights groups. In the late 60s, he began fighting for community control of schools, creating tension with the teacher’s union, the Al Shanker-led UFT. This tension came to a head in Ocean-Hill Brownsville in 1968. Tensions between labor rights and community control advocates, as well as between advocates of integration and of black separatism, created fissures in liberal thought that shifted key narratives and perceptions of public education. As Dana Goldstein notes in her book, Teacher Wars, “Ocean Hill-Brownsville created rifts between teacher unions and black civil rights groups, as well as between liberal elites and the union.” These rifts and tensions continue to reverberate today, especially via the critique of teachers unions and traditional district schools offered by parental choice and charter school advocates.

NYC has never been under a desegregation order. There were a few efforts made to increase diversity through an open enrollment program or by shifting zone lines, but the fiscal crisis of the 1970s and subsequent white flight ended any further efforts until very recently.

In 2014, State Commissioner John King and Board of Regents Chancellor Merryl Tisch initiated the Socioeconomic Integration Pilot Program (SIPP), providing grant funding to school districts that sought to integrate student populations by socioeconomic status. A number of school districts are now implementing programs, including Manhattan District 1.

Beyond Race & Class: Special Education Segregation

From 1894 through the mid 1900s in New York state, increasing attention was paid to the identification and specialized support for students with disabilities due to legislation. In 1967, a “handicapped child” was definedas an individual who ‘because of mental, physical or emotional reasons, cannot be educated in regular classes but can benefit by special services and programs.’ This definition summarized state policy, which since the early years of the century had favored removing handicapped children from regular classrooms and schools, and placing them in ‘special classes,’ home teaching, or private schools.” The policy of segregation and outsourcing of support began shifting in the 1960s. Federal legislation, culminating in the 1990 IDEA act, pushed states towards inclusion in a “least restrictive setting,” and NCLB in 2001 introduced school accountability for educating students with disabilities. However, in an IBO report as of 2013, 25% of students identified with a disability continue to be educated in separate, “self-contained” programs. The outcomes for self-contained students are not positive, while some research seems to suggest that including students with disabilities in general education classrooms has more positive outcomes for them, while not harming the outcomes of general education students. Yet the populations of students with disabilities are far from evenly distributed between schools.

Smorgasbord: Differences, and Teaching for All

“1960s Ann Arbor Town Club smorgasbord — advertising postcard.” by Wystan is licensed under CC BY 2.0

People raised in different contexts think differently

Western and Eastern societies see the world differently. “If we are what we see, and we are attending to different stuff, then we are living in different worlds.” It may even come down to the difference between a historical context of growing wheat vs. growing rice. BBC

Rich people and poor people see the world differently. Poor people pay much more attention to other people around them. Science of Us

Risk-taking is an adaptive strategy when raised in chaotic environments. “Given that fast life-history strategies are triggered in uncertain situations, a stable environment can work wonders.Nautilus

So you want to become rich in the United States? The best way is to become rich is to be born into the right set of parents. The second best way is to find a rich spouse. The Economist

And the rich are more likely to become entrepreneurs. The Guardian

How we self-classify our own race is problematic for assertions based on race. There’s a tendency for those of mixed descent to self-classify as white. American Prospect

And maybe instead of classifying animals into species, we’d do better to identify them by their key traits and characteristics. RealClearScience

Men’s brains are bigger than women’s. Mindhacks

But there are few differences in cognitive ability between men and women.

Men and women require different types of check-ins to keep long-distance relationships going. Men need face-to-face check-ins, while a phone call is enough for women. The Guardian

Therefore, promoting diversity is key

Once trees in the rainforest are connected with vines, they don’t function as individual trees anymore—at least from the perspective of ant diversity. The Atlantic

Highways may have contributed to rural and urban division in American politics, as revealed by maps. National Geographic

School choice may lead to more segregation. CityLab

As demonstrated by Denver, a much lauded exemplar of school choice. NPR Ed

“The Waltons would have a more dramatic impact on the well-being of children by paying their workers a minimum wage of $15 an hour than they do by opening charter schools and enfeebling community public schools.” The NY Review of Books

Though the use of vouchers may possibly reduce some racial stratification, in a convoluted sort of way. The Atlantic

But vouchers are viewed as problematic even by many of those within the “school choice” charter community. “I’ve worked in charter schools nationally for two decades, and the vast majority of people I know who work in and support charters are deeply troubled by vouchers.” Ascend Learning blog:

Ben Carson could undo past efforts at housing desegregation. The New York Times

A challenge to previous research that suggested that greater diversity generates distrust. The distrust may simply stem from good old prejudice. Scientific American

Unfortunately, training may not be enough to remove racial bias. “There’s no good proof that implicit bias can be permanently unlearned, and little evidence about the best way to unlearn it.” Nautilus

“Having a shared sense of identity, norms, and history generally promotes trust.” The American Interest

“Americans can do better. Remember: America doesn’t just have arguments; America is an argument—between Federalist and Anti-Federalist world views, strong national government and local control, liberty and equality, individual rights and collective responsibility, color-blindness and color-consciousness, Pluribus and Unum.” The Atlantic

And teach everyone well

A project-based learning critique: “if we’re designing schools and syllabus for the real word, that means teaching everyone well, not just a fraction of the lucky sperm club.” Tom Bennett’s blog:

The JUMP Math curriculum speaks to just that type of whole-class design, and is showing strong signs of success. “Our data shows that if you teach to the whole class, the whole class does better.” Quartz

Along the same lines, I argue for a focus on an inclusive, rigorous curriculum and expectations for all students as the best way to support students with disabilities, rather than focusing on abstract, idealized models. Schools & Ecosystems

Acquiring knowledge and then thinking about how it fits into what we already know helps boost our attention. PsyBlog

Here’s 20 observable characteristics of effective teaching. TeachThought

For faster learning, interleave studying with sleep. BPS Research Digest

Napping, after all, is just as effective as cramming. BigThink

And if you want to grow new brain cells, go running instead of lifting weights: PsyBlog

“a well-targeted tree campaign could be of the smartest investments a hot, polluted city can make.” And those plantings should be well-targeted to improve air quality for schools. Vox

Another smart investment? The buildings we house students in. “People know that their physician plays an important role in their health, but sometimes building managers can play a nearly equal role,” says Allen. “The janitor of a school, for example, has a big impact on the health of those kids.” National Geographic



Highways Destroyed America’s Cities. So Let’s Tear Them Down

“…highways also created problems, some of which have become much worse in the years since. Urban freeways displaced communities and created air and noise pollution in downtown areas. They made it easier for suburban commuters to “zip to their suburban homes at the end of the work day, encouraging those with means to abandon the urban core,” Ted Shelton and Amanda Gann of the University of Tennessee wrote in a paper about urban freeways. . .

“Where urban highway construction did occur, in urban design terms, it was highly detrimental to the urban fabric; creating physical and psychological rifts that are extremely difficult to bridge and introducing a substantial source of noise and air pollution,” Shelton and Gann wrote. “Cities across the country continue to struggle with this legacy.”

The quote above comes from Alana Semuels’ article on The Atlantic, “Highways Destroyed America’s Cities” which pairs well with her prior piece on Syracuse,”How to Decimate a City.”

I find this relation between highways and segregation to be illuminating, especially when I consider a local area I used to work in, East Tremont, and how it has been impacted by the Cross Bronx Expressway.

Some connections, like highways, are not universally beneficial — it depends upon whom is being connected, and how. Highways provide a clear short-term benefit to those with means, while further isolating others. The tragic irony is that in the long term, most everyone ends up further disconnected. Witness the standing lines of cars each morning and evening, commuters sitting bathed in fumes, stressed out, paying exorbitant fees for parking and maintenance of a vehicle no longer a luxury, but a burden — and a dangerous one at that.

I take the public bus to work each day. It might be stressful sometimes when it’s most crowded and the doors won’t close because of that last desperate commuter trying to cram in. But I’d take that bus over an isolated, stressful, dangerous commute in by car any day.

And while there is always a part of me that craves escape from my noisy nook in this city, and envisions my own backyard, in some quiet haven where there’s no panhandlers, and no loud music, and no pollution, and lots of trees — I also know there’s a cruel trade off to such an escape (assuming I could even afford such luxury). It means losing access to the riches in diversity of connections, cultures and experiences that this city affords me.

Maybe I’m just strange, but I believe that I am a better person, that I am enriched, when I’m able to interact, live, and work with people who are different than me. It’s why I love working with children, why I love working in the field of special education, why I love working in the Bronx, and why I begrudgingly love NYC (though this former Californian misses — sometimes achingly so — the vast spaces and mountains and coast of the West).

I’m thankful to live in a city where there are many public transportation options, and while I miss California, I don’t miss the general lack of public infrastructure there. I like driving just as much as anyone, when the roads are clear, but being stuck in traffic and driving around a vehicle I don’t know how to fix myself is not how I wish to spend most of my money and my life.

But I’m going off on a navel gazing tangent. The point is that building highways to ease the flight of well-off suburbanites damages our greater social fabric. In fact, building more roads even makes congestion worse, not better. Rather than establishing routes for middle and upper class people to “escape” the city, Semuel’s presents a sensible solution, in the case of Syracuse in “How to Decimate a City“:

“What Syracuse needs, more than anything else, is a way to knit back together a region torn asunder by the construction of an urban highway and the outmigration that followed. That means more affordable housing in the suburbs, more access to transportation to outlying areas, and better jobs and housing in the urban core.” [Bold added]

These ideas parallel ideas for fighting desegregation. I would also add to that list “better schools.”

Forget building highways. Let’s tear them down, and build more parks, profuse protected bike lanes, and Googleplex-style schools that act as centers of their communities, flooded with natural light, greenery, and fresh air. Let’s ensure affordable housing is available everywhere. And let’s design our schools and admissions processes to include, rather than exclude.

Planning for Resiliency and Robustness

In a recent post, “Coping With Complexity,” we examined dealing positively with complexity, and I generalized that given the strength of the chaotic unknown and the tendency towards entropy, we must try multiple strategies, while looking for long-term trends, and demonstrate a willingness to stick to those strategies even when, in the short-term, some might fail.

Building on that idea, here are some insights on cultivating resilience in cities. Acknowledging that complexity necessitates that there is no one ideal, stable state, Marina Alberti suggests policies for robustness, rather than optimality in her article on “The Nature of Cities”: Planning Under Uncertainty: Regime Shifts, Resilience, and Innovation in Urban Ecosystems

The idea of optimality—that one can find the optimum among a set of possible alternatives given a set of conditions—is a direct consequence of the steady-state paradigm.  Planners come to assume that an optimal solution exists.  Decisions based on seeking the optimum assume that we can quantify risks.  However, in the presence of irreducible uncertainties, we encounter multiple plausible futures whose relative probabilities are unknown.  The farther we look into the future, the more the uncertainty increases—and it may increase even more with new understanding from advancement in scientific research.  For systems to function in an uncertain environment, robustness rather than optimality is a more appropriate target for planning and decision-making.

 Evidence emerging from the study of complex systems can provide insights for planning and management. In a recent paper in Science, Sheffer et al. (2012) suggest that system shifts may result either from unpredictable external shocks or from critical transitions.  Drawing on two separate lines of investigation—on complex networks and on the proximity of critical thresholds—they suggest that both the heterogeneity of the components and their connectivity affect the stability of systems on the long run.  By building on such observations in ecological systems, we can develop hypotheses about the fragility and robustness of coupled human-natural systems and test them in urban ecological systems.

There’s a lot to ponder even in these two paragraphs, but I’d like to highlight some points that connect to concepts we’ve explored here on Schools as Ecosystems.

1) There is no one-size-fits-all solution. “Give up romantic notions of a stable Eden,” as Emma Marris puts it
2)  We cannot quantify everything, given the scale of the unknown
3) We can’t make accurate predictions. Therefore, we must plan for resiliency.
4) Diversity, interconnectivity, and redundancy will better build resiliency and robustness.

Alberti then outlines some recommendations for planning and building for robustness in an urban ecosystem. I would suggest that all of these points are salient to education policy and planning:

  • Create and maintain diverse development patterns that support diverse human and ecosystem functions
  • Focus on maintaining self-organization and increasing adaptation capacity instead of aiming to control change and to reduce uncertainty.
  • Expand the consideration of uncertainty and surprise by designing strategies that will be robust under the most divergent but plausible futures.
  • Create options for learning through experiments, and opportunities to adapt thorough flexible policies and strategies that mimic the diversity of environmental and human communities.
  • Expand the capacity for change through transformative learning by challenging assumptions and actively reconfiguring problem definition and policy action.