An interview with NY1's Errol Louis
NY1 anchor Errol Louis has written extensively about school segregation in his column for the Daily News, and he joined the New York Slant podcast to discuss the issue. In the following Q&A, transcribed from our discussion, Louis calls segregation the "poison" of the city, and also gives his thoughts on mayoral control of the city’s schools and his role as one of the privileged few journalists with regular access to Mayor Bill de Blasio, thanks to his weekly appearances on “Road to City Hall.” The following interview has been edited for brevity and claity. You can listen to it in full, here.
C&S: You recently addressed the issue of school segregation on air during your segment The Louis Letter. What exactly is The Louis Letter?
EL: The Louis Letter is intended as sort of analysis, attitude, opinion, I guess. It’s a little bit more in-depth. We try to be a little more thoughtful and personal about some of the issues we touch on in the show and in the city.
C&S: You have been reporting on the issue of segregation in New York City public schools for years now. What is the status of segregation in the educational system today?
EL: In 2014, I wrote a column titled, “The 100th day of the de Blasio administration.” It happened to coincide with the release of a report on school segregation and it noted correctly that New York has among the most segregated schools in the whole country. It was done by Gary Orfield, who has been covering this stuff for years. These issues are not new at all. The city has leadership that is always talking about how progressive they are, and my column back then was simply noting, look, you want to be progressive and you want to preside over a segregated city at the same time?
I sense a contradiction. I'm going to call b.s. on that right off the bat. There are some very commonsense, very basic measures that can be taken. The city, to its credit, has done a couple of things here and there, but when I saw the 13-page segregation report that doesn't mention segregation, when I saw that there was no press conference about it, when I saw that the only press that they had given the report to in advance was The Washington Post, not any of the local media, once again the flag goes up. These folks, these progressives, when it comes to this particular issue are not so progressive.
C&S: In your opinion, why is it important to use the terms “segregation” and “integration” when discussing the public school system?
EL: Well, first of all, it’s just accurate. The journalist in me says let’s use the right word. This isn't an issue of lack of diversity, as if that would naturally happen. This is an issue of segregation, of which in this particular case, and in many cases when you're talking about segregation in the educational context, is really about black and Latino isolation, which is a different kind of a situation. It also has legal implications, which is why I think it's important to use the correct terminology. Look, the reality is, if you change the facts of the current situation in New York just a little bit and it is crying out for a lawsuit. If this were a different jurisdiction you could easily make a case that you have either disparate impact or possibly intentional segregation that is, since 1954, against public policy and against the law.
C&S: Why has it yet to change? And do you think it is deliberate?
EL: A lot of people, the real estate industry, the good liberal middle-class folks, the black and Latino nationalists who want to emphasize community empowerment, they all arrive at the same point. It's good for the real estate people because they can use the segregated housing and the segregated schools. It makes certain districts more desirable and they can charge more and do their business. The white middle-class families can call themselves liberal and just say, well, we’re just going to the local school. It just happens to be all white like our neighborhood. The black and Latino nationalists can say community control, this is all about resources, just give us more money for our failing segregated schools and our failing segregated districts and we will be happy. Everybody seems to be a little too comfortable with it. To me, it's up to people of good will, advocates and journalists to come in and call bullshit on the whole thing.
“The city has leadership that is always talking about how progressive they are ... you want to be progressive and you want to preside over a segregated city at the same time? I sense a contradiction. I'm going to call b.s. on that right off the bat.”
C&S: Housing segregation also remains an issue in New York City. How much do you think the housing segregation influences the school segregation?
EL: To me, they are the same problem. Different sides of the same problem. To a great extent zoned schools are the basis of how the system works. And to the extent that you have zoned schools in a segregated city, then you're going to have segregated schools. That's just how it is. In fact, the late Walter Stafford, our friend, used to talk about this all the time. If you have segregated neighborhoods, simply cutting back on the city budget, laying off city workers will affect certain neighborhoods, black and Latino neighborhoods, more than other neighborhoods because we are clustered in the civil services. So you know, segregation is a poison; it poisons everything that it touches.
This is not new. The Supreme Court blessed it in 1954, but it was known all along. It poisons everything. It ruins the schools, it screws up your employment patterns, it is the basis of your environmental justice or injustice. You decide where to put all your bus depots and lo and behold all but one are above 96th Street and lo and behold, where are the highest asthma rates? Above 96th Street. Why? Well because of all the damn diesel-spewing buses. And they chose to put them up there. So it always is a problem and all you have to do is break that up as you’re supposed to do under the fair housing laws. The Fair Housing Act of 1968 was an important part of Dr. Martin Luther King's legacy, along with desegregating public accommodations and the Voting Rights Act.
C&S: You have also written recently about the housing lottery. What is the problem with the housing lottery?
EL: The housing lottery occurs when you have this scarce commodity called affordable housing that's going to be built in some place. Living in the local community board gives you preference in that lottery to get into that new housing. What that ends up doing is locking these segregated neighborhoods into place because if you're already in that segregated neighborhood you have first crack at that new low-income housing, not somebody from Far Rockaway who might well want to live on the Lower East Side, who might have originally grown up on the Lower East Side, who might have a fiancé, a job, a kid who wants to go to school on the Lower East Side, they don't get preference for some reason. Somebody of identical income who by absolute chance happens to live in that neighborhood, who might have moved to that neighborhood literally 90 days before the housing lottery opens, gets preference. It makes no sense. It locks segregation into place.
There's a lawsuit going on right now. The city is being sued over this. And the city is fighting tooth and nail, I'm not sure why. They are being sued by an anti-discrimination group. They can and should sit down with that group, try and work this out, try and have a citywide discussion about this. There are other cities who have done away with this. This notion that you get some special preference on some housing that never existed before because you happen to live in that neighborhood right now is an artificial construct at best and one in my opinion that furthers and locks into place segregation. If you were serious about desegregating the city you would examine, and, I would prefer, abolish, that policy.
C&S: Some have suggested that gentrification is a possible answer to segregation. What are your thoughts on this?
EL: Some people don't like gentrification, but if I had to choose between segregation and gentrification, I will take gentrification. I'm kind of a one-issue voter on this. Racial segregation does not work. It doesn't for black people, it doesn't work for white people, it doesn't work for democracy, it doesn't work for schools. It doesn't work. It is poison. It is evil. It is toxic. It ruins everything that it touches. If we had a really desegregated city, every education decision wouldn't be so fraught. Every discussion of inequality wouldn't be so racialized. Every decision about where to put city resources, whether it’s affordable housing or negative siting decisions around pollution control and waste transfer, it wouldn't always be so fraught all the time if we just decided, and I don't understand why it’s such a hard pull, that we don't want a gated community like Breezy Point. We don't want that. We don't want to have intense poverty and segregation entrenched in Far Rockaway, and Southeast Queens, and the South Bronx. We’re able to zone every other damn thing we want. We want light, we want space, we want access to the water, we want all of this stuff, and I go, do we want segregation? And everybody says shut up.
C&S: The debate over mayoral control of city schools continues to be an important discussion. Do you support mayoral control?
EL: First of all, operationally, mayoral control is the way to go. I mean you can't even imagine just as a journalist what it was like trying to cover what was going on at the old Board of Education. At least with mayoral control, we know who's in charge. In my wildest dreams if the (state) Senate Democrats were to stand up and say, you know what, Mr. Mayor, we’re not gonna give you mayoral control either. Not because we want a whole bunch of charter schools but because we want you to desegregate the system. You wanted control of the system? You have nobody else to blame except for yourself. Don't point to the real estate industry; you're in charge of this thing, we want to see something happen. Now that's not going to happen probably anytime soon, but the reality is, and this is something that I say all the time, we have got to put political pressure on this system. They are not going to do anything as long as everybody decides that whatever they’ve got, however the system is now, it’s good enough for them. As long as everybody says that's the case, we are going to bequeath to our children another generation of toxic segregation. There will continue to be misunderstandings at best, race riots at worst.
There will continue to be racialized outcomes unnecessarily around things like education, criminal justice, environmental justice and on and on. To me it will be such an infamy if we say we came, we ran this city as best we could, we did a little here a little there. If that's truly the best we can do, I would be ashamed. I know we can do better. And if we demand better we can start to get better, and this is exactly the time to talk about it.