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.
Grosse Pointe, Michigan—a suburb that lies approximately six miles outside of Detroit, Michigan—provides an instructive example. Grosse Pointe contains five subcommunities.
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.
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.
The point system favored classes of Europeans while disfavoring others, excluding Black and Asian buyers altogether.
The point system remained officially in place until 1960.
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.
Grosse Pointe is known as one of the most exclusive suburban areas in the country and has well-regarded public schools.
Grosse Pointe’s fortunes stand in stark contrast to those of its neighbor Detroit, which is 77% Black
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.
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.
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.
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.
The spatial inequality problem is extrapolated onto the public schools through the use of school district boundary lines that track municipal boundary lines.
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.
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.
In a previous article, this Essay’s author used the term “white island districts” to describe such patterns of interdistrict racial segregation.
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.
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.
Notably, scarcity of high-quality schools is not natural or inevitable.
Instead, high-quality schools are scarce because school district boundary lines are drawn to track state-facilitated, racially segregated housing patterns
and local property taxes from the property within the district boundary lines are used to fund schools.
The net result is that white island school districts are able to monopolize the greatest quality schools in racially diverse metropolitan areas.
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.
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.
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.
Yet with historical context, a “space” is transformed into a “place”
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.
Cities that are microclimates of racial meaning contain “overlapping mechanisms through which historical racial violence retains environmental influence,”
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.
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.
Because of the material and intangible value associated with whiteness,
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.
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.
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.
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.”
Racial Path Dependence is the notion that early historical events related to racial segregation and exclusion determine modern outcomes.
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.
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.
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.
Although thirteen of the fifty-three suburbs included in the Milliken trial court desegregation order had roots as formerly whites-only, sundown municipalities,
the Court failed to consider that history and instead focused on the lack of intentionally discriminatory actions taken by the suburban school districts.
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.
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.