How New Jersey’s Segregation affects Schools, Businesses and Beyond

Today NJ Spotlight’s John Mooney highlights the Civil Rights Project at UCLA, and its research that New Jersey has the most segregated schools in the country. It’s a sobering report, that shows the challenges the state’s schools have, and hints at the wider challenges that segregation causes for businesses, people of color, and beyond. Segregation is a challenge because of injustice that stems from exclusion, but it also deeply rooted in how discrimination manifests in market choices. That cocktail of choice, discrimination and exclusion impacts many sectors of New Jersey, not just education.

It’s important to link the segregation in New Jersey’s schools to the segregation in housing. These issues are clearly related, with New Jersey’s legacy of Home Rule and exclusionary zoning having contributed to sharply segregated communities. That housing segregation was explicitly racial, as the region’s red-lining maps attest, and people of color were explicitly locked out of both middle-class communities and the opportunities to build wealth that came with a booming housing market. At the same time, discrimination reified under market logic — whites moved out of neighborhoods when blacks moved in, depressing housing values there. Which, in turn, intersected with school funding (based on those same housing values). The cocktail of choice, discrimination and exclusion resulted in not just segregated communities or schools, but segregated social challenges.

This impacts education in a host of difficult ways. Segregated schools face disproportionate poverty and special needs students. But it’s important to note that the same cocktail undermines businesses and more. For example, businesses in Camden City (where I live) often have particularly strange opening hours. Few of the downtown restaurants stay open in the evening, because segregative housing patterns mean that there is little demand. The opposite problem happens in Camden’s neighborhoods, where restaurants struggle to attract a wider base of customers because of suburban perceptions of the city’s neighborhoods.

Something similar happens with unwanted government (or private) facilities. Cities facing extreme economic and racial segregation have smaller tax bases. That puts them at a unique disadvantage when it comes to negotiations over noxious facilities such as prisons, heavy industry. That’s how Camden ended up with multiple prisons in its downtown (one has since been demolished).

The same filters into the nonprofit sector, where the concentration of challenges in segregated communities lead to the location of services (think homeless shelters) that NIMBY middle-class communities don’t want in their own communities.

The result of these (and many other) trends is a segregation not just of race and economics, but of services and challenges. Certain communities are able to outsource their own problems into other communities. The residential, school, and NIMBY choices of these communities are built upon this outsourcing — they are built upon other communities bearing the concentrated weight of these challenges.

Mooney is right to point to legal opportunities to address this. The New Jersey Supreme Court — with its Mt. Laurel case mandating affordable housing in communities, and the Abbott District case mandating more equatable school funding — has tried to address these issues legally. And it’s certainly true that nationally, the courts have been important for addressing issues of segregation.

But it’s worth taking a moment to talk about why. The “why” of courts addressing segregation is because there is rarely the political will to address these issues — in part because some communities that contribute to segregation also benefit from it, and in part because segregation is rooted in discrimination. Those same factors are the reasons that the problems of segregation (here and elsewhere) are so sticky — courts can only do so much when there are large swathes of the public invested in keeping segregation the same for both discriminatory and mundane reasons (such as investing — perhaps beyond their means — in a community where there are fewer social ills).

The legal efforts to break down such segregation are important, as are efforts on the back end to support businesses, schools and communities affected by them. But there is also work to do in communities that choose exclusion in subtle and not-so-subtle ways. The work of showing how affordable housing can increase a community’s ability to keep its workforce. The work of showing how integrated communities such as Mt. Laurel can be stronger, how integrated schools can be stronger, and how businesses across communities can be both engines for growth and fantastic local gems. And the work of showing the injustice of placing your homeless, your addicted, your struggling in someone else’s backyard, rather than allowing them to stay in their own community where they have the most support.

That work is cultural, slow, and ever so necessary.

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