“I am happy to inform all of the people living their Suburban Lifestyle Dream that you will no longer be bothered or financially hurt by having low income housing built in your neighborhood…”
President Donald J. Trump, July 29 on Twitter
Mayor of New Haven Justin Elicker’s recent op-ed of July 16, 2020 entitled “Let’s tax Connecticut’s Segregation” was, finally, a cogent and direct explanation of why Connecticut continues to have the highest minority achievement gap in the country, and why without addressing the issue of using property taxes to fund almost all local costs, Connecticut will continue to sustain the egregious state of keeping towns like Darien, Westport, New Canaan and so many others flush with amenities for their children, while other places with greater poverty can barely sustain the basics for their schools.
Marching for Black Lives Matter means nothing if these high-income towns continue to insulate themselves from the truth – their “empathy” for Black and brown children must be met with the truth of the communities in which they live – segregated communities that claim to welcome all, but provide no opportunity to do so through low-income housing.
As Elicker’s op-ed makes clear, in 1989 a law was passed requiring at least 10% of housing zoning for every town in the state be designated for low-income housing. In 31 years, few towns have met this requirement, using exclusionary zoning codes to keep low-income people from moving in, and in doing so, to keep Black and brown children from going to their schools, playing with their children, or simply providing the poor any opportunities of living in a town whose schools could potentially provide an equitable education for their children.
Thirty-one years is long enough. If these towns, who have skirted the law through exclusionary zoning, want to continue the practice, let’s call them out. Elicker is right. It is segregationist; it is structural racism.
High quality educational opportunities are critical to economic and social mobility. Places with greater poverty like New Haven do not have coffers filled with property tax dollars, because cities like New Haven provide and sustain much larger percentages of low-income housing. New Haven has had to raise taxes to extraordinary rates in order to simply cover basic services because of this system of reliance on local property taxes, leaving less and less for education.
How can these towns that have sustained exclusionary zoning for years be comfortable with providing so many additional amenities for their K-12 students — amenities like mock television stations and jazz bands and tennis and chess clubs and field trips for their children — while a few miles away, required special education services, social workers, school psychologists and other staffing needs often go unfilled in systems that desperately need them, but cannot afford them?
I wish I could take families from these segregationist towns on a field trip. I want them to walk through some of our less well-funded schools, to see how different they really are. To speak with principals and teachers and staff who, day in and day out, work so hard to meet the needs of kids who are living lives of desperation and poverty. They need to see how amazing these educators are, educators who are in the trenches, who have worked in what can only be called “triage mode” for years.
We have celebrated our health care workers during this pandemic, and rightly so, for giving everything of themselves to meet the current crisis. But I portend that many of our educators in these areas of poverty have been working in “educational triage” for years, without recognition, and without public support or additional financial help to ease the situation.
It is time. I have had this conversation before, with people I know from these predominately white towns. Their explanations of why their tax dollars are rightly supporting their schools, have become specious at best, and racist at worst. They do not think themselves racist – they are not unkind people. But they are lying to themselves if they say they care about racism in this country, and yet fail to address the exclusionary zoning practices they have supported, or the outcome of such practices over time – a minority achievement gap that is highest in the nation.
If these towns want to continue to live in a world cordoned off by wealth and privilege, then as Elicker proposes, it should at least be made public that they are flaunting the law, and supporting segregation in the process. If a town chooses not to meet the 10% low-income housing ruling, then let there be a tax sanction, as Elicker suggests. At this point, until a better solution arises, I would rather levy a fine on blatant white privilege than wait another 31 years to improve the basic services of our poorly funded school communities.
As you consider this piece, keep in mind President Trump tweeted just this week to continue structural racism in its most blatant form – exclusionary zoning. And with the recent death of John Lewis, my hope is that this op-ed provides for what Lewis would call “good trouble.” For it is not about having Black friends, or your individual kindnesses to people of color. It is about undoing the structures that keep equity out of reach. It is about structural racism, and we can do better in Connecticut.
Anne Dichele, Ph.D., lives in New Haven and is Quinnipiac University’s Dean of the School of Education