In a radically unequal United States, schools are often key sites in which injustice grows. Ansley T. Erickson’s Making the Unequal Metropolis presents a broad, detailed, and damning argument about the inextricable interrelatedness of school policies and the persistence of metropolitan-scale inequality. While many accounts of education in urban and metropolitan contexts describe schools as the victims of forces beyond their control, Erickson shows the many ways that schools have been intertwined with these forces and have in fact—via land-use decisions, curricula, and other tools—helped sustain inequality.
Taking Nashville as her focus, Erickson uncovers the hidden policy choices that have until now been missing from popular and legal narratives of inequality. In her account, inequality emerges not only from individual racism and white communities’ resistance to desegregation, but as the result of long-standing linkages between schooling, property markets, labor markets, and the pursuit of economic growth. By making visible the full scope of the forces invested in and reinforcing inequality, Erickson reveals the complex history of, and broad culpability for, ongoing struggles in our schools.
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Metropolitan Visions of Segregation and Growth
In the post–World War II decades, in Nashville as in most American cities, highway construction, urban renewal, and public housing construction reorganized urban space, while the suburban landscape of tract housing spread ever farther outward. Both urban renewal and suburban expansion in Nashville provided venues for planners, developers, and educators to articulate how they understood the relationship between schools, neighborhoods, and segregation.
These years demonstrated clearly how interactions between schools and markets in land and housing made segregation and educational inequality. City planning practice used schools to define neighborhoods; city officials supported real estate developers in their efforts to link their new subdivisions to particular schools, and urban renewal projects joined construction of segregated schools and segregated public housing. Schools became entangled with — in fact, participated in — the making of segregation in land markets. The nexus of school, neighborhood, and segregation within government policy and practice built segregation into the metropolitan landscape in ways that later efforts at desegregation struggled, incompletely, to undo.
These decades also illustrate well the power of the pursuit of economic growth and its impact in shaping the landscape. Growth advocates put urban renewal to use toward growth, hoping to create a commercial downtown, industrial zones, and residential suburbs that could encourage new or relocating businesses to choose Nashville. Segregation was a goal and racism an enabler in growth-focused urban renewal. Segregation helped white elites consolidate the power needed to appropriate land for redevelopment, while portraying particular parts of the metropolitan landscape and their inhabitants less worthy, more appropriate for expropriation and displacement. Although the city's hope for a pro-business facade of moderation helped confront some of racism's manifestations — as when business and municipal leaders pushed to resolve student sit-in protests by desegregating downtown lunch counters — growth agendas more frequently reinforced rather than challenged racism and segregation.
Growth advocates not only remade the physical landscape of their city, but its municipal political landscape as well. The idea of metropolitan consolidation — joining a city and its surrounding county into a single municipal jurisdiction — drew interest and discussion in many American cities in the 1950s, but rarely came to pass. Beginning in the early 1950s, Nashville's elite explored the consolidation of the City of Nashville and surrounding Davidson County into a single metropolitan jurisdiction. After a failed referendum in 1958, consolidation's allies won in 1962, inaugurating in 1963 the "Metropolitan Government of Nashville–Davidson County." Some white and black leaders feared that economic decline and fiscal instability would come with a city core becoming more black, and more poor, as white out-migration continued. But the most powerful voices for consolidation were local growth-minded elites confident in both their own power and the deep foundation of segregation sub-dividing the metropolis. Segregation did not depend on the city line, and, as consolidation's longer trajectory ultimately showed, could remain firm without it.
Post–World War II Nashville
Historically a trading center rather than an industrial or manufacturing base, at the end of the war Nashville did not depend on one dominant economic sector. By 1950 the industrial landscape included AVCO, building aircraft and components; May Hosiery Mills, producing socks and clothing; and on the eastern shore of the Cumberland River as it curved past downtown, the Nashville Bridge Company, manufacturing steel components, ships and barges. Yet manufacturing never drove Nashville's economy. In 1950 the city and county's 34,400 manufacturing jobs were outmatched by the 75,350 in nonmanufacturing sectors. A fifth of those jobs came from government employment, both in city government and the state offices located around the Capitol. Another fifth were in retail trades, and a fifth in services.
The finance, insurance, and real estate sector reported only 5,700 employees in September 1950, but this sector — particularly its white male leadership — enjoyed outsized influence in local political affairs before and through World War II. Nashville functioned as a trade and finance center for southern agriculture from the nineteenth century. The city's two largest insurance firms, American Life and Casualty and National Life, saw significant growth during the war and just after. Their corporate heads, alongside bank presidents and real estate developers, became increasingly influential in municipal politics, backing successful candidates for mayor and galvanizing reforms that concentrated more municipal power in that office.
At the close of the war, the finance, insurance, and real estate leadership stood generally — if not unanimously — in favor of Nashville's economic expansion and the use of municipal government in this direction. Their views accorded with the editorial stance of the Nashville morning paper, the Tennessean; the afternoon Nashville Banner remained more skeptical about aligning government power behind growth. Some manufacturers also expressed less enthusiasm about the growth efforts of groups like the chamber of commerce, fearing competition for the area's workers.
If Nashville's white elite left World War II focused on growth, many black Nashville residents — like their counterparts nationwide — exited the war further energized to achieve political equality and representation commensurate with their one-third share of the city population. Although Davidson County ended the local poll tax in 1943 (to combat the influence of political machines that paid voters' poll taxes en masse), the state of Tennessee increased its poll tax in 1945. The Globe newspaper, published by the National Baptist Publishing Board's Boyd family and edited by the president of the Nashville NAACP, expressed resentment at the assumption that all black Tennesseans were poor and could be so easily disfranchised. The tax increase energized registration drives and black political organizing. In one majority-black city ward from 1948 to 1952, registered black voters more than doubled. Black political views were not monolithic. The City-County Democratic Civic League drew the majority of black supporters, while attorney Coyness Ennix led a "separatist" Solid Block organization in 1947, criticizing the "traditional" League.
Black Nashvillians did not drive city politics, but they organized themselves into a needed part of the city's governing coalition. A 1949 charter amendment, for which then Vice Mayor Raphael Benjamin (Ben) West claimed credit, made council seats district (rather than larger ward) based. Two districts chose Z. Alexander Looby and Robert E. Lillard as councilmen, the city's first black elected representatives since Reconstruction. Looby and Lillard were strong and respected members of local government, but with only two voices on a twenty-one-member body, their power remained disproportionately limited even if they voted together across their differences. In citywide politics, black voters' power to tip an election yielded a mix of real gains and empty promises. Mayor West, who took office in 1951, appointed Ennix to the city school board, and later in the decade desegregated the city golf course and municipally run restaurants. West was the first mayoral candidate to speak at Fisk University's Race Relations Institute and cultivated a sense of responsiveness to black constituents' interests. But he never delivered on many promises, including desperately needed infrastructure improvements in historically black city neighborhoods.
Emerging from the war years, Nashville had much more political will to use government to make change. But for whom, and to what ends? In city planning practice that bound together neighborhood development, schools, and segregation; in urban renewal projects that relocated or refined segregation; and in the new architecture of a consolidated metropolitan government, Nashville's government went to work in favor of growing a segregated metropolis.
How Planners Saw Schools in the Metropolis
Although historical studies of education have paid little attention to city planners, both planning thought and planning practice knew the power of schools to mark and shape the landscape, at times in ways that encouraged segregation and inequality. The Planning Commission of Nashville and Davidson County came into its own in the late 1940s and 1950s, and, alongside the Nashville Housing Authority, gained increasing influence as federal housing and urban renewal dollars flowed into the city. Both agencies drew on concepts and traditions circulating in planning practice nationally to shape the local built environment through school construction, highway building, urban renewal, and public housing. In the process, planners reinforced enduring tropes about different constituents in the metropolis: of urban poor people as burdensome and businesses and outlying areas as contributory and productive; of individual fault rather than systemic neglect. When these ideas mixed with planning commitments to homogeneity in population and land use, they cast segregation as both natural and a necessary condition for growth.
As city planning defined itself as a profession in the early decades of the twentieth century, pioneering planners imagined cities tidily sorted into separate and homogenous districts both by land use and types of people. They had a prescriptive vision of the city, one that reflected their progressive-minded "search for order." National planning leaders like John Nolen and Harland Bartholomew went beyond dividing residential from industrial and commercial uses to suggest separate neighborhoods: one space for blue-collar white workers, another "segregated fine residence section," separate from a "Negro neighborhood." This vision of the subdivided city found support in local zoning codes that, in Nashville as elsewhere, were heavily influenced by real estate developers invested in segregation. Both real estate markets and planning practices operated in line with the "racial theory of property value," equating segregated white spaces with higher property values and black residence as a threat to this value.
Subdividing the city had a long history in social science research that aimed to describe the city, to create an empirical base from which to prescribe social reform. In turn-of-the-century New York's Lower East Side, reformers mapped the concentration of health problems like the incidence of tuberculosis. W. E. B. DuBois conducted a house-by-house survey of physical and social conditions, published in 1899 as The Philadelphia Negro. In 1907, the Russell Sage Foundation helped to expand this approach to document an entire city in its Pittsburgh Survey.
City planners picked up on this effort to make empirical, even scientific, descriptions of the city and use them to support their own prescriptions. In St. Louis, Bartholomew generated detailed maps showing districts where houses lacked bathrooms. He also created charts comparing city revenue generated from, and expenses needed on behalf of, each city district, which set the groundwork for later judgments about who was deserving of what services. Systematic spatial understandings of urban life became available both for social reform and for growth-minded development.
Nashville's planning community, among the more active nationally, adapted planning practices from elsewhere and helped to further them. In the late 1920s, downtown construction and congestion prompted the Nashville Chamber of Commerce to push for a city charter amendment to create a planning commission, a goal of business progressives in many other cities of the day. The first head of the commission was Gerald Gimre, a University of Illinois–trained planner who dominated Nashville's planning activities from 1931 through the 1960s. Like Gimre, some key planners were recruited to their posts by the chamber. And like Gimre, many came from outside the South, and had studied or worked elsewhere before coming to Nashville. Their work was not uniquely southern, shaped instead by the interaction of national planning trends and local conditions.
Nashville's planners and its social reformers both tried to map and rationalize their understandings of the city. Planner Gimre launched a detailed survey of housing conditions and the distribution of black and white families and individuals. Meanwhile local sociologists led the effort to create census tract boundaries for Nashville, the first city in the South to have these instead of the larger ward boundaries. Vanderbilt sociologist Walter Reckless explained that ward units "did not show the natural distribution of social phenomena of the city since they so frequently cut across local segregations of population." Mapping and census work appealed as well to Charles S. Johnson of Fisk University's Department of Social Sciences and later head of its Race Relations Institute and Department. Like DuBois before him, Johnson made the study of black peoples' lives in Nashville one of the centerpieces of his research program at Fisk and wanted to survey and describe "the city and the Negro areas of the city" for both research and activist purposes. Working in the mid-1930s amid frank Jim Crow segregation, Johnson and Reckless hoped that census tracks more precisely aligned to homogenous population groupings by race would further their ability to see and then remedy the needs of Nashville's black residents. Gimre and other planners approached mapping and the matter of homogeneity differently than did Reckless and Johnson. The social-science and social-reform interest in description became intertwined with later planners' highly prescriptive and at times frankly segregating notions of the city.
The nationally influential planning concept of the "neighborhood unit" stood at the intersection of descriptive efforts to map the city and prescriptive efforts to create a city ordered by distinct and homogenously grouped, meaning segregated, land uses. It guided how Nashville planners thought about land use and residence. In the 1920s, New York–based planner Clarence A. Perry diagrammed an ideal neighborhood in his work on the influential Regional Plan of New York. Like other planners — including the British planners Clarence Stein and Ebenezer Howard, who offered their own vision of the unit — Perry made the neighborhood the fundamental building block of the city.
Schools were at the literal and figurative center of Perry's and his colleagues' neighborhood unit. The school, and particularly an elementary school to serve the neighborhood's young children, defined the population and expanse of the neighborhood. For Perry and others, the neighborhood was the area within a half-mile radius around an elementary school, "preferably 160 acres," but "in any case ... enough people to require one elementary school." Three elementary school–based neighborhoods would join together to support a local high school. And ideally, neighborhood institutions (like schools and churches) would occupy the geographic center of the unit. Sitting at the literal and figurative center of neighborhood community, schools became the binding agent for residence and community in Perry's and his colleagues' neighborhood unit.
Linking school and neighborhood through proximity seems commonsensical. However, the notion of neighborhood involved presumed homogeneity along a variety of measures. Homogeneity was in fact crucial to many planners' lofty goals for neighborhood units, which by the late 1940s they saw as part of the prescription to counter the ills of postwar life. The neighborhood, with its comfortable community ethos, could counter isolation in a culture that has "created a way of life hostile to neighborliness" which tended "to create mass men in a mass culture — the raw material for a totalitarian society." Perry argued that the neighborhood unit's homogeneity would protect property values and enable positive interactions between people who felt they were part of a community — interactions that he implied could not happen without homogeneity. Mixing his commitments to segregation and the centrality of schools, Perry explained, "The great foe to community life is heterogeneity. The [neighborhood unit] ... produces homogeneity. Put like people together and give them common facilities to care for and associations among them are bound to spring into existence." Perry was even more blunt elsewhere, identifying "racial and social homogeneity" as necessary for community development. Schools, as a central, defining element of the neighborhood unit, were the ideal "common facilities to care for."
Excerpted from "Making the Unequal Metropolis"
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Table of ContentsList of Illustrations
List of Abbreviations
Part I: Making Inequality, 1945–1968
1 / Metropolitan Visions of Segregation and Growth
2 / Desegregation from Tokenism to Moderation
3 / The Curricular Organization of Segregated Schooling
4 / The Spatial Organization of Schooling and Urban Renewal
Part II: Remaking Inequality, 1968–1998
5 / The Road to Busing
6 / Busing Resisted and Transformed
7 / Busing Lived and Imagined
8 / Busing Renegotiated
9 / The Long Road to the End of Desegregation
List of Oral History and Interview Participants