In 1980 the U.S. Department of Justice filed suit against the city of Yonkers, N.Y., alleging that city officials consistently pursued policies intended to maintain segregation in both schools and housing. The case lasted 27 years and continues to be one of the most contentious in the history of the federal judiciary.
In 1985, Federal District Court Judge Leonard Sand ruled that city officials had, in fact, intentionally segregated Yonkers’ schools and neighborhoods, and ordered them to find a remedy. A vicious legal battle ensued. City officials refused to comply with court orders, and Judge Sand held them in contempt of court and imposed crippling fines. The city eventually drew up a plan to integrate their schools and build 800 new units of public and affordable housing on the predominantly white, affluent east side of the city.
Judge Sand was my grandfather. I was 10 and decidedly uninterested in his judicial life when he quietly signed the settlement ending the multi-decade landmark case in 2007. He was my checkers rival, first and foremost, legal prowess be damned.
But since his death last month, I’ve had time to reflect not just on what he meant to me, but what he meant to our nation. And in that reflection I’ve found that the story of Yonkers is not emblematic of the overall story of the U.S., but that the issues that plagued Yonkers in the 80s deeply plague us all in 2017, and that now more than ever we cannot forget his legacy.
Many involved in the Yonkers case believed it would become a model for judicial challenges to segregation from then on, and that a wave of civil litigation around school and housing segregation would quickly follow. But it didn’t, and more than 30 years later, the problem has gotten worse. Our nation’s schools and neighborhoods are more segregated than they’ve been in over 40 years, and the idea that “separate but equal is inherently unequal” no longer guides legal or legislative decisions.
In the 1954 Brown v. Board of Education decision and ones that shortly followed, the Supreme Court decided that not only was it illegal to have “whites only” and “colored” schools, but that school districts had an obligation to actively “ensure racial balance in schools.” The court was unequivocal, writing: “All things being equal, with no history of discrimination, it might well be desirable to assign pupils to schools nearest their homes. But all things are not equal in a system that has been deliberately constructed and maintained to enforce racial segregation. The remedy for such segregation may be administratively awkward, inconvenient and even bizarre in some situations,” but it is necessary. Though many protested the decision, schools across the nation began to integrate, moving toward racial equality in education.
However, with the election of Ronald Reagan in 1980, the course set by Brown v. Board of Education was re-drawn. Reagan argued that artificially integrating schools was no better than artificially segregating them, and promptly began defunding and legally challenging mandatory integration programs. The Supreme Court, flush with Nixon appointees, largely agreed. Our nation’s schools then began to re-segregate, becoming less and less diverse with each passing year, up to the present day.
The Brown v. Board decision and the Civil Rights Act of 1964 largely treated segregation coded into the law—or in other words, segregation in the South. Today, the North has the most segregated schools in the nation. Though there are a host of reasons school segregation remains so strong in the North, one is more important and more persistent than all: housing segregation.
Before 1910, over 90 percent of black Americans lived in the South. Over the next 40 to 50 years, millions moved into northern cities, fleeing racial violence and seeking economic opportunity. The North had to deal with issues of race for the first time, and though many northerners looked down at the South as racist and backward, they dealt with race no better.
In 1934 the Federal Housing Authority (FHA) began insuring private home loans, driving down interest rates, and making it easier and safer to buy a home. However, they would not insure loans in “risky” areas—coded language that was meant to describe black neighborhoods. As a result, black people were forced to live only in certain areas and take out loans with predatory lenders who charged exorbitantly high interest rates, preventing generations of black people from building up wealth. Now known as redlining, this practice, along with other informal tactics on the part of white homeowners, is responsible for the creation of the American “ghetto.”
Leading up to the foreclosure crisis of 2008, urban black homeowners fell victims to yet another round of predatory lending. Before the financial bubble burst and the bottom fell out of the housing market, home values had been rising and economic confidence was high. Unscrupulous lenders convinced mostly black, low- and middle-income homeowners to refinance their mortgages using the equity in their homes to pay off other debts or make physical improvements on their houses. The high interest rates on these new loans combined with suddenly falling home values soon buried these homeowners under a mountain of debt, causing them to lose their homes, and with them, often a generation’s worth of wealth.
The systems that trap black Americans in segregated schools and neighborhoods are as persistent as they are complex, and sometimes it feels like nothing will ever change. But, as my grandfather taught us, that is not the case. Yonkers is by no means a perfectly integrated city with perfectly diverse schools. However, because of the hard work of numerous lawyers, law clerks, brave city councilmembers, and one patient judge with an unwavering commitment to justice, the city is more integrated than it would have been otherwise.
I will end with this: integration is as powerful as it is hard to achieve. Studies consistently show the power of integration to transform lives. A 2015 longitudinal study by researchers at the University of California, Berkeley revealed that black students who attended integrated schools not only tested higher, but earned more money, were less likely to be incarcerated, and even lived longer.
This is why my grandfather fought so hard those 27 years, and why I now feel, in the wake of his death, it is our collective responsibility to continue the fight.