(Image is the “racial dot map” for the Detroit-Gross Pointe border. Courtesy of Detroit Metro Times)
Across the country school district boundary lines pave the way for lawful forms of racial segregation and inequality in public schools. Indeed, nearly two thirds of segregation in metropolitan areas today is attributable to district boundary lines, with students segregated between districts rather than within districts. White student segregation is especially ubiquitous. In many racially diverse metropolitan areas, white students are the most segregated of all racial and ethnic groups.
The Grosse Pointe, Michigan School District (hereinafter “GPSD”) located within the Detroit metropolitan area, provides an illustrative example. In GPSD, eighty-three percent of the students are white and the median income for households is $98,063. In contrast, in the neighboring Detroit public school district, 90% of the students are non-white and the median household income is $27,829.
White Student Segregation and Social Closure
In my new article, Monopolizing Whiteness, I examine the causes and consequences of these “white island districts,” i.e. those that enroll predominantly white and affluent student bodies, despite being in racially and economically diverse metropolitan areas. I theorize that white student segregation in districts like GPSD is a product of (what sociologists refer to as) social closure— a process of subordination whereby an in-group works to curtail an out-group from accessing resources constructed as scarce. Social closure enables members of an in-group to hoard resources and opportunities.
I situate white students in the island districts as members of the in-group, students of color in the neighboring districts as members of the outgroup, and the resource constructed as scarce as high-quality schooling. It should be emphasized that scarcity of high-quality schooling is constructed, not inevitable. In particular, using local property taxes to fund schools and drawing school district boundary lines that track state facilitated racially segregated housing patterns creates scarcity and exclusion. Put another way, state policies that tie school funding and student assignment to residential address, extrapolates the racial segregation and inequality in housing to schools.
As a matter of law, it is difficult to abrogate boundary lines for purposes of equalizing funding between school districts or integrating school districts. In most states, laws surrounding inter-district transfers or other boundary line changes are completely voluntary. Many districts like GPSD will not voluntarily participate in programs that allow non-residents to attend schools within their districts. Instead, white island districts often aggressively police the district boundary lines. GPSD set up an anonymous tip line for residents to report students who were suspected of living outside the district and illegally enrolling in the district.
There are no overt mechanisms stopping students of color from obtaining access to white island districts. Yet the reality is that income and wealth disparities along with restrictive zoning practices constrain residential mobility for many families of color. Thus, the boundary lines end up serving as race-neutral mechanisms for facilitating closure that produces white island districts like GPSD.
The Monopolization and Democratic Harms of White Student Segregation
White student segregation within island districts like GPSD causes two significant harms. The first harm is the monopolization of the highest quality schools in a metropolitan area—those with highly qualified teachers, rigorous curricular offerings, high levels of student achievement, and well-maintained physical facilities. GPSD can spend more money per-pupil than Detroit ($12,799 vs. $9,835), attracts highly qualified teachers, and is considered one of the best school districts in the state. In stark contrast, Detroit public schools has a hard time attracting permanent teachers, recently faced lawsuits related to dilapidated school facilities and was found by a court to have failed to provide students with an education that included literacy.
This monopolization occurs because whiteness has significant symbolic and material value. Historical and continued patterns of racial discrimination result in money, social capital, and access to power being aligned in favor of those raced as white. Thus, when white students in racially diverse metropolitan areas cluster together in public schools, all the social patterns that favor those identified as white follow them, creating school-based economies of agglomeration.
The second harm is to American democracy. Universal access to high quality public schools provides important democracy enhancing functions. High-quality schools provide students with the skills necessary to effectively participate as workers in the American economy, enables them to participate as fully informed citizens in American democratic processes, and facilitates social mobility. Yet white student segregation limits access to high quality schools to a limited cohort of students, weakening the overall education level of citizens necessary for a successful democracy. Further, as America is a multi-racial democracy, limiting access to high quality schools along racialized lines inhibits all students’ ability to learn how to live and work together respectfully and as equals. The net result of these two things is to undermine the economic and social stability of our multi-racial democracy.
Limits of Equal Protection Doctrine
Modern equal protection doctrine has developed in a way that makes it powerless to interrupt these dynamics of social closure. The reasons for this are two-fold. First, the Supreme Court narrowly defined the injury caused by racial segregation in schools. The Court in Brown v. Board of Education framed the harms of segregation solely from the perspective of the ways in which state-sponsored segregation harms Black students, with no mention of how racial segregation impacts white students. Brown’s framing had profound effects on the development of school-desegregation jurisprudence. Conceptually, the doctrine situates state sponsored harm to students of color as the harm that triggers a constitutional violation. Such a framing implies that only students of color receive benefits from racially integrated schools. It also limits how courts view their remedial authority and obligation to address segregation in schools, particularly white student segregation in schools.
Second, equal protection doctrine has limited actionable segregation to those actions taken by the state and narrowly defined what counts as “state action”. When the Supreme Court in Keyes v. School District No. 1 addressed the kinds of de facto segregation that forms the basis of much of our modern school segregation, the Court drew a significant distinction between de jure and de facto segregation. To demonstrate that de facto segregation violates the constitution, plaintiffs are required to show segregative intent on the part of the state. The residential sorting patterns that form around school district boundary lines are not considered the product of state action and are therefore beyond the court’s remedial purview. For those reasons, equal protection doctrine is not well suited to recognize and address the harms caused by white student segregation in island districts.
Antitrust Essential Facilities Doctrine as an Alternative Framework
Given the shortcomings of the equal protection doctrine, I suggest that there is merit in looking to antitrust law for conceptual guidance. Without meaning to take on any of the competition fetishization of modern antitrust doctrine, let alone the so-called “consumer welfare” framework, I use the essential facilities framework that has developed in interpreting the Sherman Act solely to illustrate what a legal framework looks like that could appropriately recognize and address the process and harms of social closure.
The essential facilities framework imposes upon a market participant a duty to share when that market participant, through anti-competitive means, exercises monopolistic control over a facility that is indispensable for competition in a relevant product market. The essential facilities framework is an apt one to apply to the problem of white island districts because it recognizes the harms of a small powerful group restricting access to facilities that all participants in a given social process need in order to participate fully. It does not require any showing of intent, and it treats mandatory sharing as a solution to the imbalances caused by resource hoarding. If we see high-quality schools as an essential piece of public infrastructure (an essential facility for democracy, one might say), white families in island districts can then be seen to monopolize high-quality schools, to the detriment of neighboring racially diverse districts within the relevant product market, the metropolitan area.
Because the framework focuses on the systemic harm of monopolizing an essential facility, it can conceptualize the broader democracy related harms caused by white island districts in ways that current equal protection doctrine cannot. The insights gleaned from analyzing the problem of white island districts through the lens of the essential facilities framework might make us think about using education clauses in state constitutions to make duty to share arguments, it might also serve as a guide for legislators considering how to structure school district boundary lines, and most significantly, change the way we conceptualize and discuss the harms of white student segregation in racially diverse metropolitan areas.