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Yonkers segregation case could set pattern for other US cities. Manipulating public housing led to school discrimination

By Victoria IrwinStaff writer of The Christian Science Monitor / November 22, 1985



New York

Civil rights activists throughout the country are cheering a decision Wednesday that the city and school officials of Yonkers, N.Y., have ``illegally and intentionally'' segregated schools there through housing patterns. The decision by US Judge Leonard B. Sand of the Federal District Court in Manhattan is seen as ground-breaking.

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It is a ``very important decision,'' says Tom Dienes, a professor of law of George Washington University Law Center. Purposeful racial segregation has to be proved in these cases, and it is not easy to prove, he says.

``A lot of Northern cities did not have a formal policy of segregation in their schools,'' says Professor Dienes. But through zoning, placement of apartments vs. residential homes, etc., population patterns are largely controlled.

The theory that intentional housing discrimination leads to school segregation has been around, but it has never before been accepted by a court, says Dienes. Proving intentional housing discrimination is a lot easier for groups charging segregation, he says.

Plaintiffs in the case include the Justice Department and National Association for the Advancement of Colored People (NAACP).

``It's a very, very big decision,'' says Michael Sussman, an NAACP lawyer on the case. It paves the way for cases throughout the country, he says, citing school segregation cases in Kansas City, Mo., and Milwaukee.

The Yonkers suit was started by the US Justice Department in December 1980, but Judge Sand said in his 600-page decision that the segregation in Yonkers resulted from decisions made by city and school officials since 1949. The record ``clearly demonstrates race has had a chronic and pervasive influence on decisions relating to the location of subsidized housing,'' wrote Judge Sand.

He pointed to placement of low-income housing only in the minority neighborhoods on Yonkers west side. Only one housing project, for the elderly, has been placed in Yonker's eastern section.

The New York City suburb in Westchester County has around 195,000 residents and is about 16 percent minority. The Saw Mill River Parkway divides the city, with nonwhites predominating west of the roadway.

The judge further noted that the segregated schools are ``unequal in the quality of educational opportunity afforded to students in these schools.''

Officials in Yonkers have not made a decision whether to appeal the case, although a spokesman for the mayor says the climate for a settlement is much better now. Officials there do not dispute the charges of segregation, but throughout the trial none of the defendants have admitted responsibility for the segregation. Several attempts to settle the case out of court have been blocked by the City Council.

Mr. Sussman points to three major innovations in the judge's ruling. The first is that a judge can hold a city liable in cases where patterns of desgregation in housing are apparent.

Second, the judge recognized the effect and pressures of racism in a community and gave a detailed analysis of it. It is not just an issue of community opposition to housing in a certain area, says Sussman, but an exploration of what that opposition was about.

Third, it was a ringing endorsement of the proposition, first seen in Brown vs. Board of Education of Topeka in 1954, that separate is inherently unequal, says Sussman.

It is important that the country recognizes that the ``underclass'' is a substantial national phenomenon, and intervenes in the cycle that perpetuates this status, says Sussman.

Though the Justice Department was a plaintiff in this case, Sussman expects little support from the Reagan administration on this front. Dienes agrees that it will be civil rights groups like the NAACP that will continue to challenge official segregation elsewhere.

Possible remedies in Yonkers could include building subsidized housing on Yonker's east side, something that one city official said is likely. A hearing is scheduled Dec. 18. The Department of Housing and Urban Development was a defendant in the case until 1984, when it settled with the Justice Department and the NAACP. Part of the settlement was an agreement to build 200 units of low-income housing on the east side.

Another proposals would mean minority quotas in city schools.