Across the country, violent tactics were employed to create and maintain all-white municipalities. The legacy of that violence endures today. An underexamined space in which that violence endures is within school districts. Many school district boundary lines encompass geographic areas that were created as whites-only municipalities through both physical violence and law. Yet principles that inform how school district boundary lines are drawn fail to account for the harms engendered by geographic spaces that are formerly whites-only municipalities. Legal doctrine and public policies also fail to capture the significance of the historical violence in considering the constitutionality and normative propriety of maintaining school district boundary lines around spaces that encompass formerly whites-only municipalities. This Essay sets forth a framework for rethinking the normative, sociocultural, and legal implications of maintaining school district boundary lines around geographic areas that encompass formerly whites-only municipalities.

The full text of this Essay can be found by clicking the PDF link to the left.


During the formative years of American suburbanization, various mechanisms—including restrictive covenants, collusion among real estate brokers, and blatant violence—created whites-only suburban enclaves outside of racially diverse cities. 1 See Douglas S. Massey & Nancy A. Denton, American Apartheid: Segregation and the Making of the Underclass 36–37 (1993); Richard Rothstein, The Color of Law: A Forgotten History of How Our Government Segregated America 31–33 (2017). Grosse Pointe, Michigan—a suburb that lies approximately six miles outside of Detroit, Michigan—provides an instructive example. Grosse Pointe contains five subcommunities. 2 See Emma Maniere, A “Most Conscientious and Considerate Method”: Residential Segregation and Integrationist Activism in Grosse Pointe, Michigan, 1960–1970, J. Urb. Hist. OnlineFirst, at 1, 3 (2022). All five subcommunities were “sundown towns”—towns that historically excluded nonwhite people, most frequently Black people, from remaining in town after sunset by threat of violence. 3 See James W. Loewen, Sundown Towns: A Hidden Dimension of American Racism 116–17 (2005) (defining sundown towns and listing Grosse Pointe subcommunities as sundown towns). Grosse Pointe real estate brokers played a significant role in ensuring that Grosse Pointe remained a whites-only suburb. They implemented a race-based point system to determine whether a homebuyer was qualified to purchase a home in Grosse Pointe. 4 Kathy Cosseboom, Grosse Pointe, Michigan: Race Against Race 5–6 (1972). The point system favored classes of Europeans while disfavoring others, excluding Black and Asian buyers altogether. 5 Id. The point system remained officially in place until 1960. 6 Id.

The residual effects of Grosse Pointe’s origins as a whites-only city persist today. As of the 2020 census, 92% of Grosse Pointe residents are categorized as white, while 8% are categorized as nonwhite. 7 See U.S. Census Bureau, QuickFacts: Grosse Pointe City, Michigan, https://www.census.gov/quickfacts/fact/table/grossepointecitymichigan/PST045221 [https://perma.cc/4NVK-L6Z2] [hereinafter U.S. Census Bureau, Grosse Pointe City] (last visited Feb. 8, 2023). Grosse Pointe is known as one of the most exclusive suburban areas in the country and has well-regarded public schools. 8 See Jessica Strachan, Grosse Pointe School Among Best in State, Says Niche, Patch (Aug. 8, 2019), https://patch.com/michigan/grossepointe/grosse-pointe-school-among-best-state-says-niche [https://perma.cc/33KK-WYP3]. Grosse Pointe’s fortunes stand in stark contrast to those of its neighbor Detroit, which is 77% Black 9 See U.S. Census Bureau, QuickFacts: Comparison Between Detroit City, Michigan, and Grosse Pointe City, Michigan, https://www.census.gov/quickfacts/fact/table/detroitcitymichigan,grossepointecitymichigan/PST045221 [https://perma.cc/RA8C-GFXG] (last visited Feb. 8, 2023). and has a well-documented struggle with its schools, infrastructure, and lack of services, due in large part to a diminished tax base after white residents fled Detroit for suburbs like Grosse Pointe. 10 Scott Beyer, Why Has Detroit Continued to Decline?, Forbes (July 31, 2018), https://www.forbes.com/sites/scottbeyer/2018/07/31/why-has-detroit-continued-to-decline/?sh=26866cc33fbe (on file with the Columbia Law Review) (noting that Detroit’s problems with infrastructure and attracting residents stemmed from its “demographic character—which is largely poor and black” resulting from government-engineered “urban renewal, subsidized highways and discriminatory loan policies [that] drove white people to the suburbs, and kept black people inside the core”). A physical wall separates the two cities, and some Detroit residents have suggested that the wall is meant to protect Grosse Pointe from incursions by Detroit residents. 11 See Alana Semuels, At Detroit’s Border, a Barrier Separates the Haves From Have-Nots, L.A. Times (Oct. 18, 2014), https://www.latimes.com/nation/la-na-borders-detroit-20141019-story.html (on file with the Columbia Law Review).

The material dissonance between two cities in such close proximity to one another is not an anomaly. As local government law scholars acknowledge, historic conditions created racially identifiable spaces of haves and have-nots within the same metropolitan areas across the country. 12 See Richard Briffault, The Local Government Boundary Problem in Metropolitan Areas, 48 Stan. L. Rev. 1115, 1142 (1996); Sheryll D. Cashin, Localism, Self-Interest, and the Tyranny of the Favored Quarter: Addressing the Barriers to New Regionalism, 88 Geo. L.J. 1985, 2015–22 (2000); Richard Thompson Ford, The Boundaries of Race: Political Geography in Legal Analysis, 107 Harv. L. Rev. 1841, 1847–52 (1994). Municipalities with racially exclusionary origins present a paradigmatic problem of spatial inequality. They exist as pockets of white, affluent communities with municipal boundary lines insulating them and their resources from in-need, and often racially diverse, municipalities within the same metropolitan areas. 13 See Cashin, supra note 13, at 2003–12 (describing a “favored quarter” composed of predominantly white and affluent municipalities that garner a disproportionate share of infrastructure and resources within a metropolitan area while hoarding access to the municipality and its resources).

The spatial inequality problem is extrapolated onto the public schools through the use of school district boundary lines that track municipal boundary lines. 14 See Aaron J. Saiger, The School District Boundary Problem, 42 Urb. Law. 495, 501 (2010) (describing spatial inequality created by school district boundary lines when “[g]en-eral local governments, like school districts, restrict their franchise to their own residents and allow the officials selected by that limited group to tax local resources to pay for local benefits restricted to local citizens”). Indeed, nearly two-thirds of racial and economic segregation in schools is attributable to school district boundary lines, with students segregated between districts rather than within districts. 15 See Tomas Monarrez, Brian Kisida & Matthew Chingos, Urb. Inst., When Is a School Segregated?: Making Sense of Segregation 65 Years After Brown v. Board of Education 2–3 (2019), https://www.urban.org/sites/default/files/publication/101101/when_is_a_school_segregated_making_sense_of_segregation_65_years_after_brown_v._board_of_education_0.pdf [https://perma.cc/P5LQ-CVCG]. In some metropolitan areas, patterns of interdistrict school segregation exist whereby predominantly white and affluent school districts are situated in the middle of racially and economically diverse metropolitan areas. 16 Erika K. Wilson, Monopolizing Whiteness, 134 Harv. L. Rev. 2382, 2424–25 (2021) [hereinafter Wilson, Monopolizing Whiteness]. In a previous article, this Essay’s author used the term “white island districts” to describe such patterns of interdistrict racial segregation. 17 Id. at 2424. The author theorized that white island school districts are intentionally constructed, a product of what sociologists refer to as “social closure”—a process of subordination whereby an in-group hoards a resource by constructing that resource as scarce and curtailing an out-group’s access to it. 18 Id. at 2384–400. White students in the island districts are situated as members of the in-group, students of color in the neighboring districts as members of the out-group, and high-quality schools as the resource constructed as scarce. 19 Id. Notably, scarcity of high-quality schools is not natural or inevitable. 20 For example, scholars recognize that many of the disparities in the quality of public education available to students are directly correlated with the connection between school funding, school assignment, and the neighborhood in which one resides. See, e.g., Social Capital Project, Joint Econ. Comm.—Republicans, 116th Cong., SCP Rep. No. 6-19, Zoned Out: How School and Residential Zoning Limit Educational Opportunity 2–6 (2019), https://www.jec.senate.gov/public/_cache/files/f4880936-8db9-4b77-a632-86e1728f33f0/
jec-report-zoned-out.pdf [https://perma.cc/4T5Y-9BAL] (chronicling the ways in which housing determines access to educational opportunities and finding that cities with less restrictive residential zoning do a better job delivering access to high-quality public schools). Disrupting the connection between school funding, school assignment, and residence would help to ameliorate the disparities and allow for the possibility of providing all students with a quality education. Id. at 14–15.
Instead, high-quality schools are scarce because school district boundary lines are drawn to track state-facilitated, racially segregated housing patterns 21 Wilson, Monopolizing Whiteness, supra note 17, at 2398–400. and local property taxes from the property within the district boundary lines are used to fund schools. 22 Id. at 2402–03. The net result is that white island school districts are able to monopolize the greatest quality schools in racially diverse metropolitan areas. 23 Id. at 2400–04.

This Essay broadens the lens on patterns of interdistrict school segregation that create white island districts. It contextualizes such patterns within the larger milieu of racialized spatial inequality, examining the connection between white island districts and formerly whites-only municipalities. The term “whites-only cities” or “whites-only municipalities” is used throughout this Essay to mean cities or municipalities that formally and informally excluded Black and some other nonwhite residents. 24 Cities may have formally excluded nonwhite residents by passing laws that prohibited nonwhite residents from buying or renting homes in the municipality. They may have informally excluded nonwhite residents by threatening or inflicting violence on nonwhite persons who attempted to reside in the municipality. For a more thorough discussion of the ways in which formal and informal exclusion occurred, see infra sections I.B–.C. This Essay provides a lens through which to question the normative, sociocultural, and legal implications of maintaining school district boundary lines around geographic areas that encompass formerly whites-only cities, particularly when the boundary lines create white island districts. It adds to the body of scholarship making the connection between geographic space and racial inequality. 25 See, e.g., Michelle Adams, Radical Integration, 94 Cal. L. Rev. 261, 267 (2006); Elise C. Boddie, Racial Territoriality, 58 UCLA L. Rev. 401, 437 (2010); Ford, supra note 13, at 1849; Audrey G. McFarlane, Race, Space, and Place: The Geography of Economic Development, 36 San Diego L. Rev. 295, 299 (1999); john a. powell, Structural Racism: Building Upon the Insights of John Calmore, 86 N.C. L. Rev. 791, 812 (2008).

The Essay advances two claims. First, it makes the normative claim that principles that inform how school district boundary lines are drawn fail to account for the harms engendered by geographic spaces that are formerly whites-only cities. School district boundary lines are often conceived of as “space,” in the sense of location or physical geography. 26 See Alisha Butler & Kristin A. Sinclair, Place Matters: A Critical Review of Place Inquiry and Spatial Methods in Education Research, 44 Rev. Rsch. Educ. 64, 66–67 (2020) (describing research that defines “space” as location or locale). Yet with historical context, a “space” is transformed into a “place” 27 Id. at 68 (defining “place as a complex interplay of location, locale, and the meaning people make of a location and also as a key component in understanding systems of power”). with deeper meaning or cultural identity—a concept often underexamined within legal literature. This Essay sheds light on the relevance of “place” to school district boundary lines. It suggests that formerly whites-only cities should be considered what Professor Geoff Ward calls “microclimates of racial meaning,” or environments created by present racial violence and the legacy of past racial violence. 28 Geoff Ward, Microclimates of Racial Meaning: Historical Racial Violence and Environmental Impacts, 2016 Wis. L. Rev. 575, 603 [hereinafter Ward, Microclimates of Racial Meaning]. Cities that are microclimates of racial meaning contain “overlapping mechanisms through which historical racial violence retains environmental influence,” 29 Id. at 606–07. particularly for the “place” elements of the present-day municipality. When school district boundary lines encompass formerly whites-only cities, the school district inherits the same environmental influences that infect the present-day municipality.

For example, formerly whites-only cities often contain intergenerational exchanges of advantage, meaning modern residents accrue tangible and intangible benefits that are linked to the cities’ racially exclusionary origins. 30 Id. at 611 (describing examples of intergenerational exchanges of advantage). School districts that encompass formerly whites-only cities also benefit from intergenerational exchanges of advantage. One such intergenerational exchange of advantage is what this Essay calls a positive reputational property interest.

Parents with means and status select where to live based on the reputation of the school district. 31 See Jennifer Jellison Holme, Buying Homes, Buying Schools: School Choice and the Social Construction of School Quality, 72 Harv. Educ. Rev. 177, 201–03 (2002). Because of the material and intangible value associated with whiteness, 32 See Cheryl I. Harris, Whiteness as Property, 106 Harv. L. Rev. 1707, 1726 (1993) [hereinafter Harris, Whiteness as Property] (characterizing white identity as a valuable form of property and noting that, historically, white identity has “conferred tangible and economically valuable benefits and was jealously guarded as a valued possession, allowed only to those who met a strict standard of proof”). whether a school district has a reputation as a “good” school district is contoured by race. White parents in particular are more likely to select a school in which their children will be in the racial majority because they associate majority-white schools with greater resources and better educational opportunities. 33 See Amy Stuart Wells & Allison Roda, School Choice Policies and Racial Segregation: Where White Parents’ Good Intentions, Anxiety, and Privilege Collide, 119 Am. J. Educ. 261, 278–79 (2013) (“[W]hite parents want a critical mass of other white students in their children’s schools and classrooms. This preference is related to the symbolic meaning of whiteness and the parents’ habitus as it is related to race and class.”). Thus, a positive reputation is concomitant with being a majority-white school district.

White island districts that encompass formerly whites-only cities are majority-white districts in large part because of their racially exclusionary origins. These districts not only accrue a positive reputational property interest because of their exclusionary origins, but the interest is also protected by school district boundary lines that both exclude those who do not live within the boundaries and serve to recruit white families to move to the districts. 34 See Gregory R. Weiher, The Fractured Metropolis: Political Fragmentation and Metropolitan Segregation 81–82 (1991) (“Policy decisions in the past which have resulted in the creation of racially polar municipalities will be perpetuated by the tendency of the boundaries to structure the information that is available to persons making locational decisions.”). The exclusion and recruitment functions played by the district boundary lines entrench the district as a white island district, enabling it to capitalize on its racially exclusionary origins. 35 Wilson, Monopolizing Whiteness, supra note 17, at 2396–400.

The second claim this Essay makes is that legal doctrine and public policies related to school district boundary lines fail to capture the significance of “place” in analyzing the constitutionality and normative propriety of maintaining school district boundary lines around formerly whites-only cities. A municipality’s status as formerly all-white creates what Professor Daria Roithmayr refers to as a racial “path dependence.” 36 Daria Roithmayr, Locked In Inequality: The Persistence of Discrimination, 9 Mich. J. Race & L. 31, 39–41 (2003) [hereinafter Roithmayr, Locked In Inequality]; see also Daria Roithmayr, Reproducing Racism: How Everyday Choices Lock In White Advantage 93–99, 116–19 (2014) [hereinafter Roithmayr, Reproducing Racism]. Racial Path Dependence is the notion that early historical events related to racial segregation and exclusion determine modern outcomes. 37 Roithmayr, Locked In Inequality, supra note 37, at 39–41. For instance, the property values in formerly whites-only cities are higher precisely because of their racially exclusionary origins, providing the white island districts that encompass them with a more ample local property tax base from which to draw, while lessening the tax base of the neighboring, more racially diverse districts. 38 See Loewen, supra note 4, at 369–70 (describing the tax-base advantages for formerly segregated sundown towns and the impact on schooling within the metropolitan area in which the sundown town is located). The positive reputational property interest the white island districts accrue also makes it more likely that residents with means and status will flock to these districts, increasing both the actual and social capital within them. 39 Id. at 362–66 (describing the impact of sundown towns on present residential patterns and noting that they both cause difficulties in fostering integrated neighborhoods and facilitate white flight).

Yet legal doctrine and state public policies conceive of the geographic area encompassed by school district boundary lines as race-neutral spaces. They fail to capture the ways in which Racial Path Dependence impacts school districts that encompass formerly whites-only cities. Indeed, the Supreme Court in Milliken v. Bradley failed to consider the history of the suburban municipalities as whites-only municipalities when declining to abrogate suburban school district boundary lines for the purpose of desegregating Detroit’s public schools. 40 See 418 U.S. 717, 745 (1974) (“[A]n interdistrict remedy might be in order where the racially discriminatory acts of one or more school districts caused racial segregation in an adjacent district, or where district lines have been deliberately drawn on the basis of race.”). Although thirteen of the fifty-three suburbs included in the Milliken trial court desegregation order had roots as formerly whites-only, sundown municipalities, 41 Compare Bradley v. Milliken, 345 F. Supp. 914, 918 (E.D. Mich. 1972), aff’d in part, vacated in part, 484 F.2d 215 (6th Cir. 1973), rev’d, 418 U.S. 717 (1974) (listing Allen Park, Birmingham, Dearborn, Dearborn Heights, Fraser, Grosse Pointe, Livonia, Royal Oak, Southgate, Taylor, Troy, Warren, and Wyandotte as part of the fifty-three suburbs to be included in an interdistrict school desegregation order), with Historical Database of Sundown Towns: Michigan, Hist. & Soc. Just., https://justice.tougaloo.edu/location/michigan/ [https://perma.cc/7DWJ-VLQW] (last visited Feb. 8, 2023) (listing Allen Park, Birmingham, Dearborn, Dearborn Heights, Fraser, Grosse Pointe, Livonia, Royal Oak, Southgate, Taylor, Troy, Warren, and Wyandotte, so far, as confirmed former sundown towns). the Court failed to consider that history and instead focused on the lack of intentionally discriminatory actions taken by the suburban school districts. 42 418 U.S. at 745 (“[I]t must be shown that racially discriminatory acts of the state or local school districts, or of a single school district have been a substantial cause of interdistrict segregation. . . . [W]ithout an interdistrict violation and interdistrict effect, there is no constitutional wrong calling for an interdistrict remedy.”). Further, state legislative policies regarding school district boundary lines allow boundary lines that encompass formerly whites-only cities to persist unimpeded, despite the legislatures’ plenary authority to enact policies that would further equity. 43 See infra section II.B. As a result, the path dependence wrought by for-merly whites-only municipalities goes unaddressed as a matter of both law and public policy, helping to lock in racial advantage for white island school districts.

The dual normative and legal claims made by this Essay set forth a framework for rethinking the connection between white island districts and formerly whites-only cities. Using the Grosse Pointe, Michigan, school district as an example, this Essay makes the normative and legal case for altering white island school district boundary lines that encompass formerly whites-only cities.

The Essay proceeds as follows: Part I examines the construction of whites-only suburban municipalities. It highlights the normative and legal machinations of their creation. It then introduces Professor Ward’s theory of microclimates of racial meaning. It makes the claim that whites-only suburban municipalities should be considered microclimates of racial meaning that detrimentally influence the “place” elements of a municipality. Part II uses Grosse Pointe, Michigan, as a case study. It situates the geographic areas that comprise Grosse Pointe as a microclimate of racial meaning. It then demonstrates how Grosse Pointe’s status as a microclimate of racial meaning impacts the “place” elements of its school district, enabling it to become a white island district. Part III analyzes general principles of law and public policy related to school district boundary lines. It then introduces Professor Roithmayr’s theory of Racial Path Dependence as a lens through which to consider how laws and policies surrounding school district boundary lines fail to account for geographic microclimates of racial meaning that racialize each school district’s “place.” It proposes a new remedial path forward, making legal and normative arguments for restructuring school district boundary lines that encompass formerly whites-only suburban municipalities, particularly when the boundary lines create white island school districts.