Perhaps Gov. Malloy should have avoided calling school zone drug laws “racist in outcome if not intent.”

The governor’s comment gave Republicans in the legislature ammunition to walk indignantly out of session and play victims for having been called racists, which likely didn’t help the project of passing the governor’s legislation. Politics sometimes requires that its practitioners speak gently in the service of progress.

But the dust-up points to a fundamental truth about the relationship between ongoing racial segregation and our structure of local governance in Connecticut: we know it’s there, and we know that it benefits many of us, but we don’t know how to talk about it honestly.

The Hartford Courant chided the governor for his lack of diplomacy, but along the way employed the following sentence, which sums up prevailing attitudes about this issue: “There’s a difference, however, between saying that a law has a disparate racial impact and saying that it’s racist in outcome if not intent.”

What’s telling about that statement is that it’s entirely wrong. There is no difference. School zone laws make drug penalties harsher in more densely populated areas. In Connecticut, our more densely populated areas are, almost without exception, our least white areas. That means we have a law that punishes people of color more harshly than white people for the same conduct. “Racist in outcome if not intent” is precisely the right way to describe that.

We should take Gov. Malloy’s bluntness – and the Republicans’ disproportionate show of hurt feelings – as an opportunity for an unflinching examination of how our state’s system of town governments perpetuates the legal segregation of an earlier era. Historical factors and policies, many of them explicitly racist, have made Connecticut’s large cities predominantly non-white and predominantly poor, while its suburbs are predominantly white and better off.

Our town borders may have interesting roots in the colonial era, but they are also tied up with our country’s history of racism and segregation. By administering essential services according to those borders, the town government system cements a legacy of racism.

We know that there are no longer laws that prevent people of any race from living wherever they choose. But as recently as 40 years ago, there were all manner of legal restrictions on the local and federal level, from restrictive covenants in deeds to race-based federal lending guidelines, that kept people of color from owning homes in areas where those homes were more likely to appreciate in value.

That created both physical separation and a huge wealth deficit between white people and people of color: middle-class whites have been able to build and pass on wealth from one generation to the next, mostly through real estate; middle-class people of color largely have not.

Look at Hartford and West Hartford – separated only by a strip of asphalt. The black and Hispanic families who own houses off Capitol Avenue in Hartford and the white families with houses a few blocks away on Boulevard in West Hartford, through no fault of any of them, will have access to an entirely different set of schools and municipal services.

That difference will present extra challenges for the Hartford children in doing well academically and reaching college. It will keep the values of the Hartford families’ homes low, which will make it harder for them to pay for college or help their kids with a down payment on houses of their own. In this way, the racism of the past will have economic effects into the future – economic effects that have a disparate impact on people of color.

The West Hartford families can look at Hartford’s fiscal woes and say, “That is not our problem. We have our own schools and garbage collection and mill rate to worry about.”

Of course, that doesn’t make them racists. But it does mean they are benefiting unfairly from a system that was racist in its creation and remains racially disparate in its effects.

The same is true of white suburbanites in the drug-free school zone debate: statistically, we know that they use drugs at the same rate as people of color. But school zone laws make it so that urban drug users receive harsher penalties than their suburban counterparts. And because of our history of segregation, suburbanites are mostly white and urbanites are mostly people of color.

Is it fair that white people of good conscience were born into a racist system? Not at all. Does being unwilling beneficiaries of that system make them racists? Of course not. But the system and the history are racist.

At some point, if the people who enjoy the benefits of that system and understand its effects insist on complaining about the word “racism” instead of working to undo the actual effects of racism, they will earn the title they’re so afraid of.

Leave a comment