How to Help Failing Black Communities

Robert Cherry

Current Issue

In July 2019, President Donald Trump accused the now-late Congressman Elijah Cummings of being responsible for the "rat and rodent-infested mess" in the West Baltimore section of the district he had represented since 1996. Trump's language was intemperate and insulting, and it was clear he had no interest in solving the problems of West Baltimore himself. But the problems he pointed to were all too real. As progressive journalist Zaid Jilani summarized it in the title of his Guardian article, "The uncomfortable truth? Baltimore has problems. And Democrats are to blame."

The failure to make a meaningful difference in beleaguered black neighborhoods, not just in Baltimore but around the country, is not due to a lack of care or dedication on the part of Democrats; indeed many, including Congressman Cummings, have earnestly dedicated their lives to helping these communities. The problem is an unwillingness to support initiatives that can truly make a difference in the lives of the residents of these troubled neighborhoods. Such initiatives often strike those on the left as distasteful, either because they smack of victim-blaming or because they undermine other key Democratic interests. Unfortunately, due to entrenched narratives and misguided preoccupations, the very Democrats who are most dedicated to helping black neighborhoods are often the ones who fight tooth and nail against policies that have proven to be effective.

No serious person denies that fighting racism is important, or that our nation's historical sins must be faced. But by focusing exclusively on these important, big-picture issues, we risk ignoring the more immediate problems faced by this generation of lower-income black young people: neighborhoods overrun with crime, millions of disconnected young adults, and a failing public-education system.

Healing the wounds of slavery and eradicating racism will take the work of generations. But there is no reason why taking those problems seriously must be done to the exclusion of addressing some of the concrete problems faced by the populations that Democrats, and all of us, desperately want to help right now. A better approach would focus on helping people living in impoverished black neighborhoods by making those neighborhoods safer and more functional through better policing, better education policies, and carefully executed gentrification. Perhaps such concrete improvements in poor neighborhoods will help put all Americans on a path to a more just and more equal future.

MOVE TO OPPORTUNITY?

Sociologist Patrick Sharkey of Princeton University estimates that 67% of African-American families that lived in the poorest quarter of neighborhoods a generation ago still live in such neighborhoods today. Among all black families, 48% have lived in poor neighborhoods over at least two generations, compared to only 7% of white families. This cycle of poverty will almost certainly continue without some kind of significant intervention.

 One seemingly obvious solution to this problem is to move to a better neighborhood; the writer Ta-Nehisi Coates's family did just that 30 years ago, as he relates in Between the World and Me. Indeed, in the past several decades, many liberal policymakers have focused on subsidizing moving to better neighborhoods as the best way to improve the life chances of poor black children. During the Clinton administration, the Department of Housing and Urban Development launched a 10-year research demonstration called Moving to Opportunity for Fair Housing, which measured the effects of moving families from high-poverty neighborhoods to low-poverty ones. The study concluded that there was no significant effect on employment and no significant improvement in reading or math scores, but it had deleterious effects on risky behavior among boys. In a highly publicized 2015 re-evaluation, Raj Chetty and his associates found that, for children 13 years old and younger, there were significant gains in earnings by their mid-20s. These findings were taken as definitive proof of the effectiveness of subsidizing movements out of high-poverty black neighborhoods, and strengthened the argument to pursue fair-housing laws.

Upon closer inspection, the evidence that these movements were effective is questionable. In the five cities studied, almost all of the benefits to younger children were gains to white, Latino, and Asian participants. In Baltimore and Chicago, where all of the participants were black, there were very meager benefits for young children, but they were overshadowed by the negative effects on the older children. In Chicago, the long-term annual income gains for those who were young children during the experiment equaled $681, but the losses for older children were $2,336. Moreover, the benefits to girls appeared to be substantially greater than to boys; in fact it is likely that even younger black boys did not benefit from these moves. Finally, the Chetty study included only those families that stayed permanently in the new low-poverty neighborhoods; it excluded the substantial share of families that moved back to high-poverty neighborhoods, further weakening the positive claims.

One important reason why black children did not benefit was the nature of the low-poverty neighborhoods into which they relocated. They were often in similar housing in the sections of the new communities that bordered high-poverty black neighborhoods. Studies found that boys, in particular, who had moved had trouble adjusting to the new environment and instead socialized with boys from the adjoining high-poverty neighborhoods.

To correct for this deficiency, Chetty and his collaborators' 2018 study focused on movements not simply to low-poverty neighborhoods but to those where the majority of black children had a resident father and residents had a favorable attitude toward racial integration. Only 5% of black children grow up in neighborhoods with a poverty rate of less than 10% and where the majority of black children have a father present. The vast majority of these neighborhoods are likely to have rents that are too high to make them viable alternatives. As a result, this relocation policy will not help the vast majority of black residents of high-poverty neighborhoods.

It should be clear that the solution to the problems in poor black neighborhoods cannot simply be to pay families to move. To truly make a difference, policymakers must find ways to improve the neighborhoods where they already live. And that will require making hard choices and facing difficult truths.

COMBATING VIOLENT CRIME

The first step toward improving life in beleaguered black neighborhoods must address the existential safety issues that families face; stemming violent crime must be a precondition for any effective attempt at improvements through policy. In 2017, blacks represented 51.9% of all murder victims and 54.2% of known offenders. Department of Justice statistics indicate that blacks are twice as likely as whites to commit violent crimes. More broadly, violent-crime rates are substantially higher in black than white neighborhoods, and this holds after standard adjustments for poverty and employment rates. Anti-poverty policies may be effective in countering the consequences of intergenerational deprivation. Neighborhood crime reduction, however, especially in the short run, also requires effective law enforcement, which benefits from a collaborative relationship between police and community.

Unfortunately, many liberals continue to promote an adversarial relationship with law enforcement. For example, on the fifth anniversary of Michael Brown's death in Ferguson, Missouri, Senator Elizabeth Warren tweeted:

5 years ago Michael Brown was murdered by a white police officer in Ferguson, Missouri. Michael was unarmed yet he was shot 6 times. I stand with activists and organizers who continue the fight for justice for Michael. We must confront systemic racism and police violence head on.

There is no denying that some police departments struggle with racism. But perpetuating the Ferguson narrative is particularly damaging and distracting. The statement is misleading given that the Department of Justice assessed that "there is no credible evidence that [Officer] Wilson willfully shot Brown as he was attempting to surrender or was otherwise not posing a threat." But more important, while police have killed an average of 15 unarmed black people annually in the past three years — which is obviously 15 too many — there are about 7,500 homicides per year in which the victim is an African-American. We should work to address systemic racism and police violence, but in doing so we should not lose sight of the bigger picture: the slaughter of black Americans, and particularly young black men.

Instead of addressing violent crime in black communities, however, Warren and her fellow liberals often focus on how black youth are victimized by a racist society. Cornel West has argued that violent behavior reflects "the monumental eclipse of hope, the unprecedented collapse of meaning." That may be true, but in recasting offending black youths as victims, such policymakers and activists reframe the debate over criminal-justice reform in three distinctly harmful ways. First, they have been broadly successful in greatly reducing the share of suspects who are subject to cash bail, including those accused of serious felonies. Second, a number of cities have reclassified crimes: Many petty crimes, like fare jumping and smoking marijuana in public, are now subject to fines rather than involvement in the criminal-justice system; other crimes, like certain thefts, have been reduced from felonies to misdemeanors. Third and finally, those convicted are increasingly offered diversion programs rather than prison time.

The results of these reforms range from nonexistent to tragic. Philadelphia district attorney Larry Krasner has advocated, and to an extent implemented, a version of all three. Evidence from Philadelphia indicates that bail reforms, while dramatically increasing the number of defendants released without preconditions or jail time, have had virtually no effect on court appearances. New Jersey's bail reform had similar results. New York's reform, however, demonstrated the dangers of excessively focusing on aiding those who are arrested. New York went a step further, enacting legislation that seeks to prevent judges from assessing the potential dangerousness of defendants, so that past criminal history or likelihood of committing more crimes while released pending trial would not be considered. It also changed evidentiary rules in ways that severely hampered prosecution. The results were immediate: New York City saw a noticeable crime increase in the two months after adoption.

An experiment in the reclassification of crimes is also underway. In some cases in Philadelphia, Krasner has downgraded charges against defendants, seeking convictions for manslaughter instead of murder. In Colorado, felony drug offenses can be reduced to misdemeanors if offenders successfully complete a community-based program. In California, for some offenses, called "wobblers," prosecutors can choose whether to charge the offense as a felony or misdemeanor, and they are increasingly choosing the latter. While in the vast majority of cases, down-charging is justified, an unintended consequence is suggested by the ongoing crime problems in Chicago, where such policies have been implemented. Heather MacDonald reported in 2018 that carjackings in Chicago "have nearly tripled since 2015, with an increasing share committed by juveniles, thanks to a law exempting young carjackers from adult penalties."

Decriminalizing lesser crimes is a total rejection of the "broken windows" theory that was associated with Police Commissioner William Bratton, who oversaw dramatic crime reductions, first in Boston, and subsequently in New York City and then Los Angeles. This theory contends that by vigorously enforcing laws against quality-of-life crimes, cities can reduce more serious crimes. Whether or not such policies are crime deterrents, neighborhoods are better places to live if there are fewer people drinking on the streets or engaging in other unsettling behaviors that no longer are considered criminal.

The proliferation of diversion programs means that convictions are now less likely to lead to incarceration, which has been good for some. Such programs can be beneficial for most youth, often placing them on a more constructive path. They also reduce family separations that can be damaging for children. But diversion programs for felonies and violent crimes have been more controversial. In Philadelphia, Krasner has sentenced some offenders convicted of unlawful gun possession to diversion programs. And two New York City district attorneys have embraced the Common Justice program that recommends diversion programs for some individuals convicted of violent crimes.

While diversion programs in general may have a reasonably high success rate, the downsides of an overly lenient approach are tragically clear. In 2017, the average murder victim in Baltimore had been arrested 11 times; homicide suspects averaged nine prior arrests. In Philadelphia, Maurice Hill allegedly shot six police officers in 2019 during an eight-hour standoff while trying to avoid arrest. Police records show that Hill had been arrested about a dozen times since turning 18 in the early 2000s, and convicted six times on charges that involved illegal possession of guns, drug dealing, and aggravated assault. Even Krasner said the suspected gunman "should not have been out on the streets" due to his lengthy criminal history.

In 2018, Democrat and then-Chicago mayor Rahm Emanuel, an exception to the liberal rule of leniency toward criminals, lamented the violence in his city after nearly 70 people were shot in one weekend: "There are too many guns on the street, too many people with criminal records on the street, and there is a shortage of values about what is right, what is wrong, what is acceptable, what is condoned, and what is condemned." The new mayor Lori Lightfoot has ignored his warning and backed a broad low- or no-bail policy; according to former Chicago police superintendent Eddie Johnson, the overall re-arrest rate for individuals arrested on a felony weapons charge and then released pending trial was 34%.

This evidence demonstrates that offender-as-victim justice reform policies are no substitute for the proven effectiveness of community-police partnerships. Unfortunately, given a past history of abusive police behavior, community activists have an adversarial attitude toward police, and they cling tightly to the overuse of diversion programs and excessive decriminalizing of lesser crimes. In addition, a sizeable share of young black men engages in petty unlawful activities to sustain their modest lifestyles: fare jumping, illegal sales of various items, and the like. They legitimately fear that coming forward to aid police will risk their arrest for unpaid fines or missed court appearances. These concerns, maybe more than the fear of being labeled a snitch, weaken the ability of police to gain community trust among at-risk youth.

In response, police departments have been changing their approach, seemingly incorporating the feeling behind ineffective liberal reforms without sacrificing neighborhood safety. For example, in 2018, police departments in a number of cities, including New York City and Los Angeles, began collecting extensive information on individual concerns so they could effectively respond to the unique issues different neighborhoods face.

There have also been a number of efforts to improve community relations by changing police behaviors, such as the National Network for Safe Communities initiative. In 2015, under the leadership of a team from the John Jay College of Criminal Justice, six cities began implementing training programs and new policies to expand procedural justice and to incorporate the idea of fairness in the processes that resolve disputes and in decisions about resource allocation. These initiatives included changing policies to engage with the LGBT community, reduce the use of force, and highlight and combat biases in interactions with individuals. They also include changes in the collection of information used to judge behaviors and a renewed emphasis on the sanctity of all lives.

In Seattle, an independently run procedural-justice program focused exclusively on increasing officer sensitivity during their interactions with individuals. In particular, it sought to slow down thought processes in order to reduce the frequency with which officers engage in behavior that could be perceived by the public as unjust. The training involved short supervisory meetings with officers who were identified as being at higher risk of having negative encounters with the public. At the six-week follow-up, treatment group officers were statistically significantly less likely to be involved in an incident in which physical force was used, but there was no statistically significant difference in the fraction of incidents that resulted in an arrest.

In Newark, New Jersey, police have embarked on an experiment to calm tensions by immersing both cops and residents in uncomfortable truths about slavery and Jim Crow, coupled with lessons on trauma. Those who completed the 15-hour trauma-training program expressed mixed feelings. "I had a problem that it was said that this uniform I wear represents oppression," said Officer Edwin Padilla, a 22-year department veteran. Still, Padilla said he has incorporated lessons from the training on his daily patrol beat. It "helped me realize how much hate, how much trauma, so many feelings, so many different variables that we come into contact with every single day, how they affect people, how they affect me as an officer." In the year after this experimental program, there was a 20% drop in complaints against police.

Comparing the Newark and Pittsburgh experiences demonstrates the crucial importance of program design and police-department buy-in. In 2010, the Pittsburgh Initiative to Reduce Crime (PIRC) was initiated. Unfortunately, it had two fatal flaws: It focused on flooding high-crime neighborhoods, which antagonized its residents, and it was resisted by a large share of police officers. Its failure was reflected in the increase in murders from 43 in 2011 to 71 in 2014, nearly half of which went unsolved.

In 2014, Allegheny County released a report on street violence that, according to local news reports, "faulted Pittsburgh police for failing to share adequate intelligence on serious offenders with others involved in the PIRC program, and for saturating whole neighborhoods with patrols rather than targeting suspected offenders." Larry Scirotto, major-crimes commander of the Pittsburgh Police, acknowledged the problem, saying that the department "didn't involve the community in the manner that was needed, in a manner that was meaningful."

In 2015, Pittsburgh launched a new initiative that better modeled the focused deterrence approach that was pioneered by criminologist David Kennedy and implemented in a number of cities, including Boston. Through community leaders and other neighborhood informants, Pittsburgh's Group Violence Intervention (GVI) unit identified more than 500 high-risk offenders. Once police have identified a suspect, an officer will visit him as well as his parents or grandparents. At the meeting, the visiting officer says, "We know what's going on. You — or your son or grandson — is a shooter." If they continue to commit crimes, Pittsburgh deals with them harshly. However, if they wish to turn their lives around, services are provided. The GVI unit works with several organizations to help suspects change their lives, including job-training and -placement programs, local faith-based organizations, mental-health experts, and multiple family- and housing-related services. The unit will even coordinate tattoo-removal services, because, as one volunteer coordinator put it, "It's hard to get any job if you have ‘thug life' tattooed on your forehead."

THE DISCONNECT

Beyond the crime statistics, some data from these neighborhoods have inspired hope: In recent years, there has been an unprecedented expansion in employment among young black men. Most striking, the employment rate of those between the ages of 20 and 24 years old increased from 46.9% in 2010 to 60.2% in 2017, halving the racial gap for that age group. Despite these robust gains, however, in 2016 20.1% of young black men 16 to 24 years old were disconnected — neither in school nor in paid employment — compared with 12.6% and 10.0% of Latino and white young men, respectively.

A 2018 study found that these youths are often disconnected from family as well. Disconnected young people are about two-and-a-half times more likely than their connected peers to be living with family other than their parents, about twice as likely to be living with a roommate, and about eight times more likely to be living alone. Even more disturbing, an alarmingly high proportion of disconnected black males ages 16 to 24 — nearly a fifth — are incarcerated.

Such disconnected young men are at risk of engaging in anti-social behaviors, including violent criminal activities. My own modeling of state-level data on violent-crime rates from 2010 through 2016 shows that the proportion of disconnected youth was a strong, statistically significant predictor of a state's violent-crime rate, whereas neither the poverty nor employment nor high-school-completion variable was significant. In particular, for every 10% increase in the state's disconnected rate, the model predicted a 6.6% increase in the state's violent-crime rate.

So why are there suddenly so many disconnected young black men? Part of the answer, perhaps surprisingly, is the college-for-all philosophy and resulting policies that have been championed by the left over the last several decades.

In the past, many youth from disadvantaged backgrounds with weak academic skills found their way into the world of work as teens, in jobs that taught them the necessary "soft skills" of time management and effective interaction with managers and fellow workers. Teen employment has collapsed, however, and most liberals balk at strategies to increase the private-sector employment of these at-risk youth. Rather than promoting direct employment, they emphasize enrollment in academic programs at community colleges, where the dropout rates are high. The statistics are particularly alarming for black men, as reported by the National Student Clearinghouse Research Center in 2017: "[L]ess than one out of four black men who begin their postsecondary studies at a community college eventually complete a degree or certificate and just about 61 percent end up stopping or dropping out at the end of six years." Thus, many weakly prepared black students who seek academic degrees end up disconnected, without work or school.

The case of Brandon Webber offers a recent example of the dangers of disconnection after an unsuccessful attempt at college. By all accounts, Webber was a responsible, positive high-school student. In no way was he disillusioned, weighed down by his life circumstances. Typical of those who knew him then was his 10th-grade history teacher, Mary McIntosh, who continued to work with him until he graduated. "He was an excellent student," she recalled. "For me, he was the kind of student a teacher could count on to be disciplined and focused." A number of his classmates echoed this positive view of Webber.

The problem was that, in the two years after his high-school graduation, Webber's life changed. After a brief enrollment at the University of Memphis, he began to accumulate a police record for a variety of offenses. In June 2019, he allegedly shot a man five times at point-blank range and stole his car. When U.S. marshals attempted to arrest him in Memphis, officials said that Webber rammed their car and was fatally shot after brandishing a gun.

Kenneth Adams, a dean at Bronx Community College, advocates apprenticeship and certificate programs as a better way to educate young people like Brandon Webber. He has recommended that the City University of New York, working with industry associations, design new, credit-bearing certificate programs that are linked to associate's degrees. The new offerings would build short-term credentials, including licensing requirements, into degree-track programs. This would enable many young students to gain a marketable skill on which to build — even if they never complete the associate's degree.

Critics fear that certificate programs are dead ends, consigning individuals to a lifetime of low-end jobs. And many, especially those on the left, consider it discriminatory to promote academic programs for some and occupational programs for others. But not everyone is academically inclined, and many young people from disadvantaged neighborhood schools may not have learned the skills necessary to succeed in a purely academic environment. Encouraging such students to enroll in college may feel like the right thing to do, but it also sets many of them up to drop out without anything but debt to show for it. Certificate programs, on the other hand, tend to be more practical and hands-on; it is more obvious to students how the skills one learns transfer into paid work. The path to a certificate also tends to be quicker than the path to a degree, which is important for a population that has a high dropout rate in part because they may be juggling jobs and children in addition to school.

Furthermore, results have also shown that, for many, certificate programs provide credentials to build upon. This is certainly the experience of students at New York City's Hostos Community College. For example, soon after Nke Willehad Konge arrived from Cameroon, he completed the Certified Nursing Assistant Certification in 2011. It allowed him to gain stable employment and use his earnings to enroll and complete the CompTIA A+ Certification program in 2017. After completing the program, he found a three-month internship followed by a full-time job as a computer technician. Eliana Mazanillo was another student who built upon her first certificate program at Hostos. In 2013, she completed the Dental Assistant Certificate Program and immediately gained full-time employment, first at a dentist's office and later at a local hospital. Later, when she wanted to advance in her field, she went back to complete a Dental Billing and Coding Certificate Program. A third student, Joanis Martinez, successfully completed the Integrated Pest Management (IPM) Program in 2018 and was immediately hired at Black Widow Pest Control. Building on additional licensing requirements she had completed, Joanis enrolled in the Hostos Carpentry Training Program. Knowing the challenges facing women in non-traditional jobs, Martinez has become a mentor and tutor for the next group of IPM students.

JUSTICE AND NEIGHBORHOOD SCHOOLS

Young people from beleaguered black neighborhoods are often unprepared for college in large part because of the low quality of their neighborhood schools. In many cities, charter schools have proven they can give these students the academic preparation and soft skills they need to succeed in college and in the workplace. Most liberal policymakers and advocacy groups, however, oppose any growth of charter schools. Despite surveys that find strong support for charters among black parents, in 2016 the NAACP voted to support a moratorium on their expansion. Together with Black Lives Matter, it claimed that charters perpetuate racial segregation. As the New York Times reported, "They portray charters as the pet project of foundations financed by white billionaires, and argue that the closing of traditional schools as students migrate to charters has disproportionately disrupted black communities." While black parents and education leaders protested, the NAACP has refused to change its position.

 Liberal opposition to charter schools is not universal, however. New York Times columnist David Leonhardt advocated for them in 2017:

[M]any charter-school systems are subject to rigorous evaluation and oversight....As a result, many charters have flourished, especially in places where traditional schools have struggled. This evidence comes from top academic researchers, studying a variety of places, including Washington, Boston, Denver, New Orleans, New York, Florida and Texas. The anecdotes about failed charters are real, but they're not the norm.

A year later, Leonhardt published a series of columns about charter schools, writing that the "harshest critics of reform...wave away reams of rigorous research on the academic gains...in favor of one or two cherry-picked discouraging statistics." He then went on to summarize the success of New Orleans charter schools. After Hurricane Katrina struck the city in 2005, all K-12 facilities were transformed into charter schools; the charter-school system ushered in dramatic improvements in academic performance relative to comparable Louisiana schools. Leonhardt concluded, "The New Orleans turnaround shows the power of giving more freedom to teachers and principals — and then holding them accountable for their performance."

Evidence from New York City strengthens the case for charter schools. The New York assessment exams for third through eighth grades show the glaring differences between the performance of black and Latino students in charter schools compared to traditional public schools, as shown in the table below. Black and Latino students comprise 60% and 33%, respectively, of all charter students, so overall charter scores can be compared to Latino and black scores in traditional public schools that have similar demographic breakdowns. In addition, 80% of charter students qualify for subsidized meals, and all students are selected through a lottery system, so these dramatic differences in performance cannot be explained by charters having a favorable student-selection process. 

Most liberals ignore these dramatic performance disparities between black and Latino students in charters and those in traditional public schools. Instead, they emphasize disparities across racial and ethnic groups. A fall 2018 New York Times report is typical:

Gaping achievement gaps between the city's black and Hispanic students and their white and Asian peers help explain why school integration has become a priority for [New York City public-school chancellor Richard] Carranza. About 72 percent of Asian students passed this year's math test, compared to 25 percent of black students — a nearly 47 point gap.

Carranza has backed efforts by parents and local leaders to integrate public schools in diverse neighborhoods with segregated schools. (Interestingly, the city's elite schools are populated by white and Asian children of the professional class, most of whom project anti-racist values that don't seem to extend to their decisions about their children's schools.) A broad strategy of integrating neighborhood public schools in a city as diverse as New York is challenging, however; for example, the Bronx has 22 of the 25 most segregated schools in the city, and there are no white-majority middle schools.

Facing these obstacles, Carranza's efforts to broadly improve educational outcomes for black and Latino children are focused on undermining the implicit racist bias that allegedly is responsible for educational-performance disparities. In City Journal, Bob McManus wrote about the impact of social-justice education theories in New York City schools:

It's called "math equity," an emerging doctrine holding that schools can't teach city kids to count without first exorcising racism — or, as the National Council of Teachers of Mathematics declares, without forcing teachers to "reflect on their own identity, positions, and beliefs in regards to racist and sorting-based mechanisms." According to The College Fix, an education-reform blog, math equity "refers to the growing insistence among educators that teaching math in the classroom comes with some inherently biased methodology that must be addressed. Proponents of ‘math equity' also stress the importance of social justice issues such as race, diversity and gender in math education."

To further these goals, Carranza and Mayor Bill de Blasio committed $23 million in 2018 to instituting implicit-bias training for all New York City teachers. When the new initiative was announced, some educators and activists felt that the implicit-bias training would be insufficient without including a broader understanding of history, and advocated grounding the programs in the historical context of racism in the U.S. and New York City. This more expansive perspective underpins the newest New York state educational guidance provided in a 2019 report, which states, "The New York State Education Department (NYSED) has come to understand that the results we seek for all our children can never be fully achieved without incorporating an equity and inclusion lens in every facet of our work." The report then goes on to extend the "math-equity" framework to all areas of instruction.

Eradicating racism is a cause everyone should support, and nearly everyone does. And everyone wants to ensure that future generations are given the skills and knowledge they need to succeed in math, history, and other vital subjects, regardless of their race, sex, or socio-economic background. A quality education is one of the most important things government can provide to lay the groundwork for a fairer, more equitable future for everyone. But while it is obviously important that teachers treat all students fairly, it is not clear that the math-equity framework will help students achieve more.

There are alternatives to the social-justice approach to education that have been proven to work for all students. The New School's Center for New York City Affairs recently released a report focusing on math scores in the city's public schools. In its discussion of schools that "demonstrate high performance across economic and racial lines," the report noted,

[N]ewer Success Academy charter schools...have, in recent years, opened in upper-income neighborhoods and...like all charter schools, accept students only via a lottery application process. Success Academy Cobble Hill, for example, has an income gap of almost $50,000 between its Black and White students, but only a 0.25 point gap between their math test scores. In fact, most Success Academy schools...float above the trend line: even their schools that enroll only low-income Black and Hispanic students performed far above students with comparable incomes at other schools.

Indeed, Success Academy students often excel. All 53 students at its Bronx 2 site — where 90% of students qualify for free lunch — aced the state's Algebra 1 exam in 2019, with top scores of five on the one-to-five scale. Only about 2% of kids in the nearby District 9 traditional public schools who took the test managed fives, and half didn't even score a passing three. Citywide, only a third of traditional public-school eighth-graders took the Algebra 1 Regents in 2017-18; 82% passed with a minimum level three score. Meanwhile 99% of the 467 eighth-graders at Success Academy schools scored three or better, with a majority scoring five.

There are three factors that help explain charter schools' success: emphasis on discipline, student empowerment to succeed, and parental involvement. Students are expected to be deferential and well-behaved; they are instilled with the belief that they have the power to succeed even when facing significant obstacles; and parents must take an active role in their child's educational development. The higher test scores of charter-school students have nothing to do with race or economics or math equity. But the high expectations that ultimately account for charters' success cause discomfort among reformers who would rather point the finger elsewhere.

THE UPSIDE OF GENTRIFICATION

Though it is perhaps a less obvious solution to the problems that plague many high-poverty neighborhoods, gentrification (an increase in the number of middle-class families moving to poor neighborhoods) offers broad benefits to these communities. Liberals balk at this suggestion, however; they fear it will lead to large-scale displacement of poor families with few benefits for those who remain. As Kriston Capps reports in CityLab,

The conventional wisdom about gentrification is practically set in cement. Often it goes without saying that the drawbacks of neighborhood change — above all the displacement of existing lower-income residents, but also increases in rents and upticks in cultural conflicts — greatly outweigh any benefits. Anxiety over gentrification is such a powerful force that it stopped Amazon in its tracks when the company tried to open a second headquarters in New York.

Virtually all studies find the opposite, however. For example, there was no displacement effect in the studies surveyed by journalist Amy Livingston. In 2019, researchers released a study of gentrification across the 100 largest U.S. metropolitan areas by comparing housing data from 2000 with data from 2010-14. The report found that "for all types of individuals, movers from gentrifying neighborhoods do not experience worse changes in observable outcomes than movers from non-gentrifying neighborhoods. That is, they are not more likely to end up in a higher-poverty neighborhood, to become unemployed, or to commute farther than individuals moving from non-gentrifying neighborhoods." Perhaps more surprising, "gentrification has no effect on reported monthly rents paid by original resident less-educated renters."

Not only does gentrification not harm existing residents, it can improve the quality of life for everyone. In a study of neighborhoods in five major U.S. cities, Ingrid Ellen and colleagues found that between 2000 and 2010-2012, "falling neighborhood violent crime [was] associated with increasing numbers and shares of high-income movers to low-income central city neighborhoods." Other detailed studies of Philadelphia verify the positive impact of gentrification in bringing safer streets and better schools.

There is, however, concern that white gentrification reduces community unity, which can be important to the revitalization of high-poverty black neighborhoods. Even though gentrification does not increase the pace at which poor families move out, studies do show that the overwhelming majority of those who move in are not poor. As a result, critics fear that the neighborhood composition can change dramatically over a relatively short amount of time: from being a majority-black or -Latino community to becoming a majority-white community.

Recent studies suggest this fear is overstated. One study found that black gentrifiers were not uncommon since these neighborhoods "are attractive to middle-class black households." Another tracked the racial composition of poor majority-black neighborhoods, defined as those that were over 75% non-white, and found that even after two decades, almost two-thirds of these gentrified neighborhoods were still majority non-white, while less than 10% had become more than three-quarters white. By contrast, almost no non-gentrifying poor black neighborhoods had become racially integrated.

While the racial composition of gentrifying neighborhoods has changed more modestly than critics feared, it still reflects a significant reduction in the number of black families. But the accompanying black suburbanization process has been ignored. Whereas critics focus on the reduction of black residents from gentrifying neighborhoods in D.C., they ignore the dramatic increase in the number of black residents in adjoining Maryland counties. Moreover, the population loss in the District also reflected a substantial black migration back to the South, particularly among young professionals and retirees. Nonetheless, we should support policies that help poor families remain in gentrifying communities through rent subsidies, or those that require new high-end housing in these neighborhoods to allocate a modest share of apartments to legacy neighborhood residents.

Finally, Kay Hymowitz cautions,

Displacement and rent increases are likely to be a bigger problem in winner-take-all cities like New York and San Francisco than in less competitive markets. The biggest advantages accrue to less educated homeowners, who already enjoy a head start over renters in building capital....Still, the upshot is...gentrification helps to integrate low- and high-income populations and promote upward mobility, goals that anti-gentrification critics presumably support. More research is needed — but for now, how does the slogan "Gentrification for Social Justice" sound?

A MODEST APPROACH

The policies suggested here are not nearly as inspiring as some of those advocated by the left. It is hard to compete rhetorically with those who aim to address the evils of slavery and Jim Crow through their policing-reform initiatives, and those who aim to eliminate racism by changing the way we teach public-school children. These are worthy goals, and we should all work toward a more just society where race and background don't determine a child's future.

Unfortunately, by focusing single-mindedly on the big picture, these ambitious reformers can forget that there are smaller-scale solutions that have proven effective. We can improve the quality of life for residents of poor black communities that are plagued by violence without treating offenders poorly. We can set young adults from tough neighborhoods up for success with career-related certifications they can build on. We can teach math skills to children from all backgrounds. We all want to live in a just society where every child can grow up in a safe place with a fair shot at success. But thinking small now may be the best way to achieve these big goals.

Robert Cherry is a professor of economics at Brooklyn College and the CUNY Graduate Center.


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