For months now, Americans have taken to the streets to protest the police killings of George Floyd, Ahmaud Arbery, Breonna Taylor, and many others. They’ve marched for better policing and defunding of police departments to reinvest that money into health and social services. And police departments have responded with extreme violence – using pepper spray, batons, and tear gas to subdue them.
Black Lives Matter’s Popular Mandate
This combination of violent police responses to otherwise peaceful protests demanding racial justice has led a majority of Americans to support the Black Live Matter movement. Over 75% of Americans now agree that racism in America is a big problem. And the protesters themselves are not just from one group, but a wider racial coalition of Americans. While defunding the police does not receive majority support in polls, when the question is worded with an explanation of what defunding the police really means – diverting money from police budgets to social services – the policy gains broad support.
The protests are working. Cities across the country are answering calls to defund police departments. Places like Minneapolis have gone a step further by announcing plans to abolish their police department altogether. It seems taxpayers think their money should go towards mental health programs instead of riot gear and tear gas.
Among this diverse coalition are White Americans and more specifically White liberals. They have taken to the streets across the country and often in towns where the African American population is minuscule. For whatever reason, white liberals are doing more than ever in American history to speak out against white supremacy. What I am curious to see is how far they will go on other policy fronts, specifically around building affordable housing in predominantly White, wealthy school districts.
America’s Racist Housing History
Homeownership in America has a racist history. When the middle class was being established, the federal government created maps for mortgage lenders to reference when giving out loans. Those maps highlighted neighborhoods with large populations of Black Americans with the intention of providing those communities with either substandard loans or none at all. This is known as “redlining” and it significantly contributed to the current disparities in economic opportunity and wealth accumulation between Black and White Americans.
Additionally, these disparities are more harmful than simply accumulating less wealth. Because many school districts fund their budgets through local property taxes – which are determined by how valuable properties in that school district are – wealthy neighborhoods can provide more funding and resources for their students than poorer ones.
A report released from Edbuild last year highlights the disparity between wealthy school districts versus poorer ones and between predominantly white school districts versus predominantly nonwhite districts. In America, 20% of students go to school in a nonwhite and poor school district versus 5 % of students in poor white districts. On average, white school districts have fewer students to teach and by extension, divide resources among. This increases the number of dollars spent per student. Students who live in nonwhite school districts receive on average over $2,000 less than students in white school districts. In affluent neighborhoods, parents are able to form parent-teacher associations (PTAs) which can raise money and donate it back to their own school districts.
Because of the invisible barriers we’ve erected to delineate the borders between towns and wealth, white students are more likely to receive a better education and a life with less stress.
This brings me to White liberals. These policies have exasperated racial and economic inequalities. One way I think white liberals can help reverse these unequal outcomes is to support building affordable housing in wealthy neighborhoods with high performing schools. White liberals should absolutely continue to protest to defund police departments. But if they live in a wealthy neighborhood, they should also be at any zoning meeting where affordable housing is being proposed. Currently, the majority of voices at those meetings are those who refuse to sacrifice any perceived material value they gain from living in a wealthy, predominantly white neighborhood.
I was born and raised in a middle-class, predominantly white town in Somerset County, New Jersey. In 2017, I was 24 and had decided to run for a seat on my town’s local government committee. That year, my town was being forced to build a large housing complex with a significant number of affordable units by the State Supreme Court. The history of affordable housing in New Jersey is long, but essentially my town – and several others – had not kept up with the number of affordable housing units they were supposed to be building.
I decided to attend the planning meeting when the first whiff of this housing proposal started to circulate in the part of town where the complex was being proposed in. It wasn’t a pleasant experience.
I sat in the back of the room in the wooden pews designated for the public. The meeting room was not packed, but the only voices who came to speak about the plans came with every trope in the book. Some said “this project is going to reduce my property value,” while others discussed how the view from their backyard – beautiful open wetlands – would be ruined by a housing complex. One was especially heart-wrenching. A woman got up and discussed how she had heard some of the affordable units would be designated for people with disabilities: “Don’t mentally deranged individuals historically bring in higher calls to 911?”
I couldn’t believe what I was hearing. As I heard each person get up to defend their lives of wealth and exclusion – the American Dream – I couldn’t help but sink deeper and deeper into the wooden pew as if I was trying to hide in a beanbag chair.
Looking back at this meeting today, I am ashamed. Ashamed that I didn’t put aside my quest for votes in order to speak at this meeting and support building affordable housing in my town. I regret with every fiber of my being that I let considerations like my electoral outcome get in the way of saying that these people were wrong. If this meeting were held today, I would have acted differently. I would have been more prepared with an understanding of racist housing policy and disparities in educational outcomes.
I hope that if the debates on racial equality in this country shift from police brutality to a broader distribution of resources, white liberals will still stay supportive of the movement.
But I’m not certain. Just reread what I did – or didn’t do – at that zoning meeting, and I consider myself a white liberal. I was ignorant about the history of redlining and disparities between white and non-white school districts. If there is a meeting held tomorrow, I will act differently. I hope other white liberals won’t do what I did. We need to drown out those who would hold their selfish materialism above the egalitarian, multiracial democracy the future America wants to build. Part of that fight will take place at local zoning meetings.