Brad Lander for NYC

Words and Updates from Brad Lander


The desolate valley of segregation, 50 years later

desegregating NYC.png

Fifty years ago this month, Congress passed the Fair Housing Act in 1968. The law was passed just days after Dr. King was killed, inspired by his words:  

“Now is the time to make real the promises of democracy. Now is the time to rise from the dark and desolate valley of segregation to the sunlit path of racial justice.”

Unfortunately, 50 years later, we are still stuck in that desolate valley, right here in New York City.

While residential segregation for American cities on average fell from 73% to 59% between 1980 and 2010, it remained stagnant at a stubborn 82% in New York City. In 2014, the UCLA Civil Rights Project exposed the reality that New York's schools are among the most segregated in the country, with 75% of students of color attending racially isolated schools.

That’s why last week my office released Desegregating NYC: 12 Steps Toward a More Inclusive City. The report -- inspired the work of activists, young people, and some incisive research and journalism -- outlines a set of public policies to help us achieve a more integrated and inclusive city.  

I had the chance to talk about the report with Errol Louis on Inside City Hall, and it was featured in Politico, the New York Daily NewsCity Limits, and Curbed. I hope you’ll take a look, and join the effort to desegregate our city.

Why does segregation matter?

Amidst the diversity of our subways and sidewalks, it’s easy to miss. But that diversity doesn’t make it to the two most important places: our neighborhoods and our schools.

Whiter neighborhoods feature well-tended parks; health food stores and gyms; good transit connections, and high-quality schools (with well-funded PTAs) that are more likely to prepare students for college. Communities of color are disproportionately transit deserts, with higher poverty, crime and asthma rates, and lower rates of homeownership. Segregation blocks social mobility and is a fundamental violation of Americans' civil rights.

As Dr. King said, “Segregation...not only harms one physically but injures one spiritually...It scars the soul...It is a system which forever stares the segregated in the face, saying 'You are less than’...'’You are not equal to...'”

As Community Service Society President David R. Jones and I wrote in the New York Daily News, segregation is corrosive, for both equal opportunity and inclusive democracy.

So, where do we go from here?

In the report, we lay out a 12-step program toward desegregating New York. If we can get past denial, we could take real action toward a city that lives up to the Rev. Martin Luther King Jr.'s dream.

We should make sure that neighborhood rezonings to create affordable housing take place in whiter, wealthier neighborhoods, not just in low-income communities of color. (That’s a big part of why I’ve been pushing us to plan for a more inclusive future in Gowanus).

We should require co-op boards to give a reason for denying applicants to help prevent discrimination and open up homeownership opportunities.

Albany should close the loopholes in our rent regulations as a strategy for integration without displacement.

The report includes recommendations for desegregating our schools more boldly than the small steps we have taken so far. I’m enthusiastic about the District 15 middle-school diversity planning process (the next meeting is Saturday May 12th), and hope it will be a model for change across the city.

It’s worth remembering that we assign all the students to all the public schools. So if we believe, as the young people of IntegrateNYC say, that separate is #StillNotEqual, we could make integrated schools a reality.   

I hope you’ll read the rest of the recommendations in the report, check out this summary, orwatch my conversation with Errol Louis. Public policies in housing, education and infrastructure helped to create a segregated New York City. Now they must help to desegregate it as well.

At this moment in history, in a nation and world increasingly motivated by tribalism, New York City has a profound opportunity. We can show that it is possible to have a vibrant, creative, inclusive city where no one race or ethnicity is in the majority, where equal opportunity is real, and where the diversity of our schools and neighborhoods reflects the diversity of our city.

As James Baldwin wrote: “Not everything which is faced can be changed. But nothing can be changed until it is faced.”