Do you ever get the feeling the whole purpose of the news is to convince you we’re all screwed by problems so huge that we might as well give up and binge-watch cable until the end comes? I do, and I write news. But every once in a while, thank God, somebody lights a candle for me.
Yesterday, while I was waiting for something else to happen, I heard a name. Koprowski. I knew that name. That guy used to work for the schools. Real smart.
Mike Koprowski, now the executive director of an outfit called Opportunity Dallas, was about to give a briefing to the Dallas City Council's human and social services committee.
Normally if you told me I was about to hear a briefing to that committee, I’d light my shirt on fire just to have an excuse to escape, but Koprowski I remembered.
He headed a program for the Dallas Independent School District in which several specialized schools were created with the aim of increasing diversity by attracting middle-class families. Big success. So Monday, instead of lighting my shirt on fire, I listened. While I listened, a candle began to burn.
Over time, I have become personally convinced that it’s fine to talk about social and economic differences among adults, but the only window for change is kids. Even when adults are victims of circumstances, they also make their own circumstances. In this country, adults have both the right and the freedom so to do.
But kids fall to earth randomly like windblown spores, this one to a wealthy family, that one to poverty. At the moment of his arrival, a newborn child is both a blank slate and pure potential. He can be anything, good or bad. The great cosmic lottery of birth assigns him to his circumstances, and at that moment his circumstances begin to shape him.
Koprowski explained that the interplay of circumstances shaping the destinies of children in our city is neither random nor beyond our control. One malevolent force consigns one-third of children born to our city to lives of deprivation, at enormous social cost to the rest of the city.
It’s something we can do something about. Or not. But at least it’s something. That’s better than binge-watching until we all turn to cinders.
The something, the hand, the malevolent force that works to deform the destinies of children in our city, is racial segregation in housing. Of 380,000 children living in the city, 130,000 were born to poverty. Even more significant is this: 90 percent of the city’s poor children live in only one half of the city’s census tracts. And those tracts are the city’s areas of highest poverty and highest racial segregation.
At the top of his presentation, Koprowski covered an important predicate. Nothing about the map of racial segregation in our city is accidental, serendipitous or even remotely natural. Long after the decline of formal, openly avowed segregation, federal and local laws and policies continued to enforce harsh barriers around racially segregated neighborhoods. The methods have changed, but the map has not.
If there was anything I thought might have been missing from his analysis, it was a thing I believe anecdotally but can’t prove. When I drive the Dallas suburbs and compare what I see now with what I remember from decades ago, I think I see evidence of enormous black and Hispanic upward mobility. But it’s up and out — out of the old, bitterly poor realms of southern Dallas, into the new, more affluent realms north and south of the city.
That gets us back to the thing about adults and kids. Some adults make it, some don’t. Some try, some don’t. Some make good choices, some make bad ones. But what about the kids? What about children born through no fault or desert of their own to the vast continent of poverty in the city’s racially segregated southern half?
Koprowski showed how that single factor, that one hand can push a life powerfully in one direction or another. The degree to which housing is racially segregated determines a child’s playmates and peers; the levels of education, employment and income the child will be exposed to and interpret as normal or acceptable; the amount of crime the child will experience; the social networks he will engage; and the proximity and availability of useful institutions like banks, parks, grocery stores and doctors' offices.
Let’s not argue about the causes of segregation. We’ll leave that for another day. In fact, let’s take race out of it and just talk about income segregation, the degree to which poverty is concentrated in certain areas. No matter what causes it, Koprowski showed that we are a staggeringly segregated city by income.
Using research from the Pew Research Center, he showed that of the top 10 metro areas, Dallas has the nation’s second highest rate of income segregation. That segregation has a powerful impact on the region’s public schools. In 351 public schools in three public school districts, Dallas, Richardson and Plano, the number of racially and socioeconomically diverse schools is 15. That means 96 percent of the schools in those three districts qualify as segregated.
I sense that you may be thinking about checking to see what’s on cable at this point. Yes, I admit, at this point in Koprowski’s briefing, I, too, was beginning to suffer from huge-problem-what’s-on-cable syndrome.
But this was where he lighted the candle. First, he presented a study from Chicago, a city less segregated than our own, if you can believe it, showing that Chicago could boost its economy by billions of dollars simply by getting its segregation level back down to the national median.
It’s not just that every kid who gets steered right costs the city less because we don’t have to go arrest him and lock him up, off and on, for the rest of his life. Every kid who goes to a diverse school, who makes a friend whose parents have good jobs, who sees other kids taking pride in getting good grades, is a kid who may go on to do things, make things, solve things, help things.
The research shows that the same hand that can push a kid into the negative column can steer him toward the plusses. It has everything to do with the windows he is allowed to look through. For a child, seeing is awakening.
Then Koprowski handed the council committee a laundry list of hard pragmatic steps the city can take to achieve meaningful improvements in diversity, mainly in the area of housing. Some of these, by the way, like source-of-income nondiscrimination, have been before the council before, and the council has voted the wrong way.
Source of income is about so-called Section 8 housing vouchers. A nondiscrimination ordinance would say that a prospective tenant who meets a landlord’s requirements in every other way — arrest record, previous landlord recommendations, credit record, and so on — can’t be barred from renting only because the tenant intends to use a Section 8 voucher to pay part of the rent.
That single change in local law, which the Dallas City Council voted against last year, would have a significant effect on the ability of low-income parents to move into better school attendance zones.
Koprowski asked whether we think we can continue to live segregated as a city and succeed. His answer is that no city has ever made a success of that model.
But I’d be willing to step back a pace from that close a confrontation with the problem. I’ve already backed off on the causes of segregation. Hey, listen, I even took race out of it, didn’t I? I said let’s just call it income segregation. And, remember, I started by taking grown-ups out of it. I’ve never liked grown-ups.
Now I’d be willing to take a temporary rain check on actually doing anything. And even when I surrender that much territory, I still see the candle.
The candle Koprowski’s presentation lighted for me was this: There is a thing we can do. It’s a thing we could do if we wanted to. One thing would intervene powerfully in the lives of one-third of the children born to our city, steer them out of the negative column and into the positive, and make our city richer and stronger by billions of dollars, not to mention more just and loving. Housing desegregation.
Now all we have to do is decide if we want to. Yes, I agree. We need to binge on that for a while. But I feel less like a cinder already.