Remembering Brown v. Board of Education: Confronting Residential Segregation in Wisconsin

Today, as we commemorate the 69th anniversary of Brown v. Board of Education, we are reminded of our nation's ongoing struggle for racial equity. In 1954, this landmark case led the Supreme Court to declare that "separate educational facilities are inherently unequal," thereby making racial segregation in public schools unconstitutional. Despite this significant step forward, our struggle for true equality continues, with systemic inequalities still deeply rooted in our society, particularly in housing.

In Wisconsin, the scars of residential segregation are painfully visible, especially in our urban areas like Milwaukee and Madison. Milwaukee, our largest city, has earned the dubious title of one of the worst cities for African Americans in the U.S., largely due to systemic and deeply entrenched segregation. The racial divide in Madison is equally stark, with racial disparities in housing creating a shocking divide in quality of life, access to education, employment opportunities, and healthcare.

Indeed, the echoes of racial segregation continue to resonate in our neighborhoods today. The premise is that government-sanctioned racial segregation of neighborhoods underlies many of the most pressing social issues we face. The enduring legacy of residential segregation directly impacts multi-generational poverty. The limiting confines of segregated neighborhoods often leave African Americans with little access to the formal economy, fostering an environment with minimal hope for improvement.

Studies suggest that African Americans growing up in segregated neighborhoods have lower odds of achieving middle-class incomes as adults compared to their counterparts in less segregated areas. Moreover, life expectancy and health disparities between African Americans and whites can be traced back to segregated neighborhoods. The incarceration rate among African American men and the conflicts between police and young men in black neighborhoods are also rooted in this systemic residential segregation.

A child's social and economic conditions, closely tied to racial segregation, primarily contribute to the education achievement gap between African American and white children. For instance, African American children in urban areas are four times as likely to have asthma than white middle-class children, largely due to poor environmental conditions in their homes and neighborhoods. Asthma, being the most common cause of chronic school absenteeism in the U.S., consequently affects the academic performance of these children.

Moreover, schools where every child has such disadvantages, often due to neighborhood segregation, are referred to as “segregated schools.” In fact, schools are more segregated today than they have been at any time in the last 45 years, a reality that underscores the persistence of neighborhood segregation.

As a nation, we have dedicated too much energy to dealing with the symptoms of segregation rather than addressing the underlying cause, which is government policy. For a more profound understanding, there is a need for an honest teaching of the history of housing policy, including the New Deal policies that played a pivotal role in creating contemporary segregation. Without this understanding, addressing the underlying causes of residential segregation is unlikely.

By acknowledging the significant role of government policy in creating residential segregation, we are driven to explore potential policy interventions that could help redress it. Remedies could involve modifying the Low Income Housing Tax Credit and the Housing Choice Voucher Program (Section 8) to reduce residential segregation.

Even the mortgage interest deduction, the largest federal housing program, could be leveraged to promote desegregation. One suggestion is that this deduction could be withheld from families living in suburbs that refuse to take steps toward racial and economic integration.

Our work, building on the insights of scholars and experts, underscores the crucial importance of addressing residential segregation through public policy. It is our hope that these insights inspire us to envision a path towards desegregation and housing justice. This path requires the courage to confront our history and the will to demand change.

We invite you to join us in this endeavor. Be a part of our Spring Gathering on May 20, 2023, where we will discuss these issues and strategize on promoting affordable housing and challenging systemic racism in our housing systems. RSVP today, and together, let's make a difference. As we honor the legacy of Brown v. Board of Education, let's strive to extend its principles of equality and justice into every facet of our society, especially housing. Remember, the fight for equality is far from over.

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