The power of political discourse in “Making the Unequal Metropolis”

Ansley T. Erickson’s “Making the Unequal Metropolis” traces racial inequity in Nashville schools before, during and after court ordered desegregation. It’s a remarkably thorough and well-researched account of over 50 years of policy history. There are several great reviews/interviews/videos out there already (see links below), so I thought I’d try to take my comments in a slightly different direction.

In covering how inequity was made in Nashville, Erickson looks at:

  • Policy decisions related to: the spatial organization of schooling (e.g.., where schools were built and closed) and the curricular organization of schooling (e.g., access to challenging academic curriculum, even within statistically desegregated schools)
  • Political discourse, or “the legal and popular narratives that depicted and claimed to explain inequity”

One of my favorite arguments to make about policy is to say that concrete policy decisions are largely driven by popular narratives (regardless of how inaccurate they are), as opposed to some unbiased/objective analysis of what policy is best. Erickson’s book does a beautiful job of illustrating this point. Two primary examples run across the book:

  • “De facto” segregation – Then, as now, the popular narrative of “de facto” segregation dominated political discourse, promoting a false sense that segregation was largely outside of government control. This is of course a common misconception today, debunked thoroughly in Richard Rothstein’s new book, “The Color of Law.” As Erickson describes it, the “de facto” term “mischaracterized segregation in schooling as the product of housing policy, and cast both as the result of private rather than state action.” The idea here is – well, housing is segregated because of the happenstance of where people chose to live and then school segregation is a “de facto” result of individual housing choices. Erickson demonstrates that this myth distracted attention from the ways that government policy actively shaped educational inequity. Most notably, the decisions to build more schools in suburban Nashville (places inaccessible to a majority of black residents) and to close schools in urban Nashville. In the era of court ordered desegregation following Brown, “reliance on the de facto paradigm limited possible solutions to the problem of persistent segregation.” The solution essentially boiled down to busing, but it’s worth considering the many potential solutions that could have been developed if it was more widely argued and believed that government policy was the root cause of segregated schools in the first place. Erickson notes Antioch High School as a counter-example, in which the school actively recruited black families, demonstrating that “incentives for desegregation in schooling could be powerful in encouraging desegregation in housing.”
  • White flight – Another enduring myth, Erickson reflects that “the narrative of ‘white flight’ dominated the public story of desegregation, reinforced in national scholarly and political discourse, media coverage, and the comments of schools leaders.” It then dominated the discussion of political solutions. When developing busing plans, the Nashville board of education, whose “majority thought of white flight as the core desegregation problem,” focused on ways “to make mitigating white resistance and departures their first priority.” As a result, the board developed “a busing plan that protected white suburban students from many of busing’s burdens,” leading to an inequitable system in which black students from the city were bused at younger ages and for longer distances than white students. As with the de facto paradigm, the white flight narrative distracted attention from “the multiple layers of often intertwining state action, in housing, education, taxation and beyond, that helped such families to ‘flee’.” Again, imagine the outcomes that could be achieved if political decision making was focused on the core of the problem.

Dominant narratives like these overshadow powerful yet marginalized stories, “[limiting] the collective imagination about what possibilities might exist to respond to it.” Erickson uses interviews with Nashville residents, products of desegregated schools, to give voice to non-dominant perspectives. Referring to one of her interview participants, Erickson reflects that there was “a wide gap between dominant public narratives about desegregation and the experiences Hubert and his peers knew directly,” people whose lives were made immeasurably better by the albeit imperfect busing plan. In explaining the inequitable approach to desegregation and the resegregation that has followed in recent years, Erickson pins at least part of the problem on the fact that voices of those who benefitted from desegregation “were never systematically gathered or appreciated in the process of debating the end of segregation.”

Outside of graduate schools and some academic journals, the power of narrative and the importance of counter-narrative is still under-appreciated in political discussion about school segregation. On the one hand, it’s to be expected, for example, that research and policy reports often end with concrete policy recommendations. And, to be sure, these recommendations are important. But, as I noted in reviewing a recent Century Foundation report, concrete policies to improve school integration don’t have a chance (in my opinion) unless we actively work to dispel the dominant narratives that prevent their implementation in the first place.

There’s many examples today – the discourse that “we’ve come so far” since Brown (makes progress sound inevitable and overlooks the fact that schools have been resegregating for nearly 30 years), the notion that desegregation only benefits black or latino/a students, or popular reliance on test scores to select and rank schools. (What others am I missing?) To stay with the example from above, it seems useful for research/policy reports to include among their conclusions an analysis of the ways in which the dominant discourses that drive policy are inaccurate/harmful and to promote alternative narratives about the enormous cultural value of integration. But, it can obviously happen in so many other ways, from media coverage of these issues to ordinary, day-to-day conversations. Regardless of the venue, progress begins in pushing back against popular myths and looking into the spaces/possibilities they keep obscure. Erickson’s book is a great resource for this.

Links (courtesy of –

Youtube Video of Dr. Erickson presenting her book, 56min:

Book TV Video:

Flatbush and Main Podcast:

Chalkbeat Article:

American Prospect Article:

8 thoughts on “The power of political discourse in “Making the Unequal Metropolis”

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