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Thomas Costello

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Choice and Segregation

Posted: 12/14/11 03:20 PM ET

When you leave your home every morning for work or school, do you think about "where" you live as you close the door?

 Do you think about the schools your children attend, your access to quality medical treatment, your ability to use reliable public transportation or your safety as you walk through your neighborhood?

Many of us "privileged" folk just take for granted our neighborhood will have good schools, a decent hospital nearby, a safe place for our children to play.

Many in metro Detroit face a different situation. For far too many, where a person lives determines how he or she lives -- or even if he or she lives. And that is wrong.

Gov. Rick Snyder's proposal to open schools around the state to students regardless of where they live in an important step toward breaking down this artificial barrier to opportunity.

Metro Detroit's sad pattern of segregation is a direct result of government programs and public opposition to integration that is a defining part of our region's history.

The history of housing in Detroit is grounded in institutional and structural racism. Beginning in 1934, the Federal Housing Administration began a systematic practice of "redlining," of refusing to guarantee loans in areas where people of "Ethiopian descent" resided. That phrase is taken directly from the FHA manual.

Redlining along with restrictive covenants and steering by realtors prevented African-Americans from living in white areas, in areas of prosperity and growth. We even have a wall near Eight Mile and Wyoming that divided White and Black neighborhoods. Today, whisper campaigns, racist graffiti, the cycle of poverty caused by the lack of a quality education, and the absence of reliable public transportation combined with resistance from segregated neighborhoods evidenced by posts in the online comments section of community newspapers enforce community segregation as effectively as laws did a generation or two ago.

In the 1970s, school bussing was seen as a tool to integrate schools and bring about equal opportunity. Michigan's state government once again chose segregation, joining virtually all-white school districts in opposing busing and failing to implement any alternative solution to bring about equal opportunity for all students.

So while we in the North watched fire hoses and dogs being used on our Black brothers and sisters in the South, we were using our laws, policies and courts to prevent people of color from gaining access and opportunity to a home and a better life.

Now we have Gov. Snyder's proposal, the latest effort to overcome the impacts of housing discrimination that make our region one of the most segregated in the nation. This is an opportunity -- a learning moment -- for all and can be a springboard to creating a plan for equal opportunity and access.

Access to quality housing and education go hand in hand. This region, so divided by housing segregation, and under current practices, by education segregation, will not return to prosperity unless we create access and opportunity for all.

I use history not to blame or point fingers. I use history to illuminate the present. In the words of Professor John Powell at the Ohio State University, "Our fates are linked, and our futures are common." When we figure out how to overcome our racial divides -- and Gov. Snyder's school choice proposal is a small step in that direction -- our common future will be very bright.