Alabama Governor George Wallace famously pledged "segregation forever" in 1963, only to watch Jim Crow dismantled by federal law over the next few years. In the history books, and now at a multiplex near you, Wallace lost and Martin Luther King, Jr. won.
In fact, though, we all know there's been no such storybook ending—especially when it comes to the segregation of America's neighborhoods and schools. Instead, Wallace's promise for the future has largely come true, minus the "Whites Only" signs—as documented by an endless stream of studies. One 2013 study, by Richard Rothstein and the Economic Policy Institute, put things this way:
Racial isolation of African American children in separate schools located in separate neighborhoods has become a permanent feature of our landscape. Today, African American students are more isolated than they were 40 years ago, while most education policymakers and reformers have abandoned integration as a cause.
An exhaustive and disturbing series by ProPublica, Segregation Now, has made essentially the same point about U.S. schools, while also showing why efforts to desegregate neighborhoods through the Fair Housing Act have largely gone nowhere.
So as we observe Martin Luther King, Jr.'s birthday, we confront the question: Just what is philanthropy doing to challenge the entrenched segregation of America's schools and neighborhoods?
Not a whole lot, actually. Rothstein is right that most elites have abandoned segregation as an issue, and that includes funders.
Yet as we've noted elsewhere, the funding community is actually more focused on race now than it has been for a while. Ten major foundations are participating in My Brother's Keeper, and a number of those same funders have mounted their own robust efforts to advance racial equity, most notably the W.K. Kellogg Foundation.
So the problem is not that the funding community has tuned out race as an issue. Rather, it's that challenging segregation is a low priority compared to other things, starting with the inequities in the criminal justice system—which Michelle Alexander has called the "New Jim Crow."
Funders have spent heavily to reform this unjust system, pushing common-sense ideas that are starting to have an impact, such as loosening Draconian drug laws and ending harsh school disciplinary policies that embroil many young kids of color early in the criminal justice system.
In contrast, segregation is a much harder problem to tackle, and my sense is that many funders feel as hopeless about making progress in this area as most other policy elites. You can kind of see why, too. Residential segregation, a prime driver of school segregation, is reflective of class inequities that track closely with race. Low-income people can only afford to live in poor and mostly non-white communities, and so the schools in those places are often almost entirely filled with non-white students. Market forces ensure today's segregation, not overt racism, and many people aren't quite sure what to do about that—besides backing efforts to expand economic opportunity, as a great many funders do.
Some progress can be made by enabling students to be more mobile, and to attend whiter schools outside their communities, but as long as residential segregation is so entrenched, school segregation will remain pervasive—and in all parts of the country. A 2014 report, for example, found that New York State has the most segregated schools in the country. This, in turn, reflects a state with intense residential segregation. Exclusionary covenants may be long gone from New York housing deeds, but it doesn't much matter, since many people of color are locked out of the suburbs with the best schools. Major federal lawsuits to reduce residential segregation, most notably in Westchester, have dragged on for years. The Obama administration has belatedly tried to breathe new life into the Fair Housing Act, but the law still falls far short of its potential, as ProPublica has documented.
The damaging effects of segregation are better documented today than they were when Brown v. Board was decided. And yet there aren't a lot of foundations that are specifically targeting segregation with major initiatives. A notable exception here is the Kellogg Foundation, with its a far-ranging effort to attack structural racism. In an interview with The Root, the director of this initiative, Gail Christopher, noted how the U.S. had failed on segregation and how the foundation was grappling with the challenge:
We don’t have a policy, really, and a strategy for reducing levels of ... residential racial segregation in this country, and we’re trying to explore how to be most effective in that,” she explained. “We have funded grantees that have worked hard to develop new guidelines and new rules to help communities or to give communities permission to work on intentional and affirmative fair housing. We’re happy about that. The Poverty & Race Research Action Council has led some of that work. But if I had to say ... what would change things in this country, I think we’d have to deal with residential segregation.”
Other funders are also backing important work that gets at segregation, including the Ford Foundation, with grantmaking on both housing and civil rights. Ford also supported ProPublica's investigation of segregation, perhaps the deepest dig into this issue ever mounted by a media organization.
All that said, it's clear that funders worried about race have been focusing in areas where they're confident they can make progress, while sidestepping the more intractable problem of separate and unequal Americas.
Eventually, though, foundations will have to confront this challenge in a bigger way. I agree with Michelle Alexander about the criminal justice system, but if you ask me, it's entrenched segregation that's really the "New Jim Crow"—with today's system sharing many of the patterns of the old Jim Crow in structuring how many Americans live.
One place where funders could make a useful push is in challenging restrictive zoning laws, which have effectively replaced covenants as a way to keep people of color out of the suburbs. By banning multi-family housing units, which are far more affordable, largely white suburban communities ensure that newcomers of more modest means can't move to town and send their children to public schools. The details of these exclusionary systems were recently documented in a disturbing book, Snob Zones: Fear, Prejudice, and Real Estate by Lisa Prevost.
A big foundation initiative to go after those rules could make a lot of waves—and maybe a real difference, too. But such efforts could also trigger battles among progressives, since zoning laws are also a way to slow growth and preserve green space. Of course, plenty of of white liberals also like keeping non-whites at a distance, even as they embrace racial equity in theory.