President Trump regularly sows racial division and fear, invoking age-old stereotypes through his words and policy. It was clear he was promising to protect suburban whites from an incursion of Black and Brown people when he wrote in his now infamous tweet about the “Suburban Lifestyle Dream” that suburbanites would “no longer be bothered or financially hurt by having low income housing built in your neighborhood.” This isn’t dog-whistle language. We all hear and recognize the racist undertones of the policy he was pushing.
The Trump administration’s new housing rule is titled “Preserving Community and Neighborhood Choice.” It rescinds an Obama-era mandate that encouraged local municipalities that receive federal funds to address systemic bias. Trump promised housing prices will go up and crime will go down in the suburbs, once the rule, meant to make housing more equitable, was removed.
This is poorly veiled bigotry rooted in negative perceptions about poor and Black people. No, poor and Black people don’t bring housing prices down. Negative beliefs about Black people do. Similarly, Black schools aren’t failing: They’ve been starved of needed resources and hampered by prejudice and systems organized against their success.
“Choice” has always been a term a racist can love. In theory, choice means allowing people the freedom to choose the home, neighborhood and school that’s best for them. In practice, choice is frequently a code word for preserving white preferences — in housing and schooling — and excluding Black and Brown people. In education, the word “choice” too often accompanies statements about the need to escape failing schools and zip codes. Read: Black schools and neighborhoods.
People wrongly use passive language about students being trapped in failing schools as if we don’t know the source of inequality.
In a February 2020 op-ed published in the South Florida Sun Sentinel, Mercedes Schlapp, formerly the White House Director of Strategic Communications in the Trump administration, accused Democrats who oppose school choice of wanting to keep “children trapped in failing schools with insufficient resources.” Similar language has been used on the opposite end of the political spectrum. Shavar Jeffries, national president of Democrats for Education Reform, wrote about the need for choice to avoid children being “trapped in a persistently failing educational system.”
In spite of the long-standing history of white aggression against predominantly Black schools and neighborhoods, people wrongly use passive language about students being trapped in failing schools as if we don’t know the source of inequality: discriminatory policies.
Related: Defund the private schools
The nonprofit EdBuild found that predominantly white school districts received $23 billion more in funding in the 2015-16 school year than districts that serve mostly students of color. This is largely a result of the choice made by many white people to live in segregated housing and in gerrymandered districts that hoard resources for those communities.
Black advocates of school choice have hoped to turn this legacy on its head, dismantling traditional systems because of their oppressive design and giving Black families choices they’ve been denied. But the history of choice is too laden with anti-Black bigotry for it to be considered liberating. Black people don’t need to escape schools and neighborhoods as much as we need to be freed from racism.
Trump didn’t brand choice, he’s leveraging it. He and the people in his administration know choice won’t solve the problem of structural racism. It will reinforce it. School choice will continue to be ineffective if it continues to sidestep the root causes of disparities in schools – policy choices that privilege whiteness.
And there’s another problem with Trump’s racist language: It is not only racist in content, but based on a racist assumption that suburbia remains lily white. But that is no longer true. Plenty of Black people have already exercised the choice to move to the suburbs. A new great migration and movement within metropolitan areas have reshaped urban, rural and suburban communities, but this has yet to transform our country’s deeply held racism.
As of the latest census estimates (2017), there are 1,262 black-majority municipalities, an increase of more than 100 during this decade alone, according to research I conducted, along with my Brookings Institution colleague, David Harshbarger, on the rise of Black-majority cities. Many of these places are suburban municipalities. The suburbs of Atlanta, Houston, Washington, D.C., and Dallas experienced the largest increases in Black population during 2000-2010, according to Brookings demographer Bill Frey. The Black share of the U.S. population rose slightly from 11.1 percent in 1970 to 12.6 percent in 2010. Meaning, Black people are moving between and within metropolitan areas.
Moving from school to school, or from neighborhood to neighborhood is not a practical way to improve performance or solve real structural inequities. Besides, Black people shouldn’t have to move schools or communities to gain the resources they need to thrive. Differences in school performance and life outcomes between Black and white students persist because racism follows Blackness. The idea that we must escape ourselves to achieve our potential is the biggest trap of them all.