Sunday, October 22, 2017

About That Zip Code

Your education shouldn't be determined by your zip code.

If we've heard that once, we've heard it a zillion times, but almost never does it lead to a discussion of the bigger question behind that statement:

What determines your zip code?

I cannot recommend hard enough that you go listen to (or, if you must, read the available transcript) for a previous episode of the podcast Have You Heard, in which Jennifer Berkshire and Jack Schneider talk to Richard Rothstein, author of The Color of Law: The Forgotten History of How Our Government Segregated America.

Rothstein's point is simple but profound. We tend to assume that people just sorted themselves out into all these neighborhoods and zip codes, that the sorting is the result of "millions of accidental, private decisions" and therefor really hard to fix. But Rothstein argues that segregation was in fact the result of specific government policy (like the federal rules that said Levittown couldn't sell units to black families), and that these policies created a systemic poverty that stretches over generations. In fact, according to Rothstein, government policy created segregation in cities where it had never existed.

I probably need to read Rothstein's book now (because I need one more tome on that stack) because I have questions. In particular, I wonder about the degree to which government policy expressed a hard-to-repress will of the people, like the folks in North Carolina re-segregating themselves by flying to white charter schools. Rothstein says we have to educate everyone about how this happened; I'm not sure how optimistic I am about the results of such a project, just as I'm not sure how we'd approach his idea that good schools must be rooted in neighborhoods that are integrated by class.

Still, it's an intriguing vision-- integrate the communities, and the schools will follow. We hear a lot about how students are trapped in their school because of their zip code, but it might be more useful to talk about what keeps people trapped in that zip code in the first place, or how government can prevent the hollowing out of a neighborhood through gentrification.

Interesting stuff. Go give a listen.


  1. I live in Howard County MD, just outside of an experimental city named Columbia. It's celebrating it's 50th year of existence. The city was designed to be welcoming to ALL income levels and races. It is a very diverse community and people have moved here to be part of the magic. Unfortunately, there are still large pockets of poverty (section 8 housing) along with segregation of those areas of poverty. The schools, as is becoming evident now, are NOT the same. The idea was wonderful, but the experiment in many ways did not work.

  2. The simple but politically incorrect truth of the matter is that schools cannot overcome the negative influences of generational poverty, institutional and cultural racism, and single parent dysfunctional families. Restoring economic hope is the only way to get the needle moving. But if we are counting on the benevolence of the 0.1% to provide meaningful work at a living wage for the tens of millions stuck in the underclass (wrong zip code) we best not hold our breath.

    I remember watching a documentary about Bobby Kennedy in which one of his presidential campaign stops in the deep South was featured. He described conditions there as unimaginably deplorable and hopeless – no different than the worst of third-world countries. When he stopped to talk with a resident, the black woman only asked for one type of help. Not welfare. Not food stamps. Not a hand-out. Not public housing. “Please, she implored, can you get us some good jobs.”

    1. Teachers should have become economists. We'd have better luck helping our students.

      The million dollar question is, how do improve the economy or job situation to enable people to have more stable lives?

  3. All one has to do is make the houses in the "good neighborhoods" too expensive for a lower income to afford.