Lessons from Yonkers

RACIAL integration has been near the top of the policy agenda for two decades in the United States. But the experience of Yonkers, N.Y., shows how volatile an issue it remains. Given the pattern of discrimination pieced together by the plaintiffs - the NAACP and the US Justice Department - strong remedies for both housing and schooling were called for. Following a 1986 order from federal District Court Judge Leonard B. Sand, the city wasted little time in starting a program to desegregate its schools. But housing was another matter.

The City Council balked at the judge's order to build 1,000 units of low- and moderate-income housing in all-white parts of Yonkers. Under threat of huge fines, a council majority agreed to the consent decree last January, but opposition within the community mushroomed. Angry phone calls flew across the city, death threats were made, low-cost housing was likened to a malignant growth. Positions hardened.

Finally, late last week, staring at deep cuts in the city's work force and the approach of bankruptcy, two councilors relented and voted for an ordinance to carry out the housing plan. Ahead lies the actual building, a task that will require cooperation from all parties involved.

The controversy in Yonkers, for all its local aspects, has a larger context.

Can Americans, particularly suburban Americans, develop a concept of community that actively embraces people of differing colors and economic status? The country is getting more diverse, not less.

Can towns and cities, working with private agencies and state and local government, find the political will to provide the poor with affordable places to live? The lack of low-cost housing in the US is a crisis; little is being built, and homelessness is rising.

Many in Yonkers fear for their property values. But Americans need to turn toward larger concerns like the value of diversity and of the community-building it demands.

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