The Demise of a Dinosaur: Analyzing School and Housing Desegregation in Yonkers


Hochschild JL, Danielson M. The Demise of a Dinosaur: Analyzing School and Housing Desegregation in Yonkers. In: Race, Poverty, and Domestic Policy . edited by C. Michael Henry. New Haven CT: Yale University Press ; 2004. pp. 221-241.

Full Text

The Demise of a Dinosaur:


Analyzing School and Housing Desegregation in Yonkers



Jennifer Hochschild

Department of African American Studies,

Harvard University 


Michael N. Danielson

Woodrow Wilson School of Public and International Affairs,

Princeton University



DRAFT: for publication in C. Michael Henry, ed. Race, Poverty, and Domestic Policy (Yale University Press, forthcoming 2004).  Please send comments to or to






This chapter analyzes efforts to desegregate public schools and public housing in Yonkers, New York, since the 1950s.   For both schools and housing, we examine the public stands of the people who took action to promote or forestall desegregation, their justifications for their actions, the effects of their actions on desegregative policies, and the long term consequences of these activities.  We focus on New York State, both because the state government was a key actor and because the history of interactions between New York State and Yonkers shows how race affects federalism, the separation of powers, and the impact of democratic preferences -- and vice versa.

We find that, although the state government of New York was powerful, officially committed to racial desegregation, and active on its behalf off and on for more than two decades, it was unable to overcome the obstacles of local opposition, bureaucratic and electoral politics, and structural complexity in order to achieve meaningful desegregation in Yonkers.  Racial hostility was neither unimportant nor all-important in explaining this process.  Instead, it magnified conventional political obstacles to substantial change so that desegregation efforts failed in Yonkers until the federal court stepped in.

This analysis demonstrates that, even with the best intentions and a lot of power, over the long term political actors cannot or will not extensively desegregate public schools and public housing.  If Americans are serious about implementing the principles of equal opportunity and racial integration, they must find other means to achieve them.  Mandatory school desegregation and quasi-mandatory public housing desegregation are dinosaurs – appreciated by many, laughed at by some, but doomed in any case to extinction.  We conclude with some suggestions for what those other means might entail.






In October 1995, city officials of Englewood, New Jersey, appealed to Governor Christine Todd Whitman for help in resolving a controversy over whether Englewood and its two neighboring towns should embark on a program of mandatory school desegregation.[1]  “The animosity is so strong now that the only way to get any kind of agreement -- and I think it’s possible -- would be with the Governor or a very, very high state official acting as a mediator and facilitator,” claimed Mayor Donald Aronson in a public hearing (Hanley 1995: B1). This mayoral plea is not unique.  Citizens and politicians are increasingly turning to states to address problems that neither local nor federal governments can resolve; Congress’s move to decentralize welfare through the creation of TANF (Temporary Aid to Needy Families) is an obvious, but not unique, example of this new focus. Politicians’ turn to the states seems to be amply supported by the public. Almost half agree that the federal government has too much power, compared with only 6 percent who say the same about state governments. With regard to education in particular, the vast majority of Americans agree that local governments should have more power than states in setting policy, and that states should have more power than the federal government (New York Times/CBS News Poll 1995: q.15; Johnson and Immerwahr 1994: 52-53; Hochschild and Scott 1998).

Are states eager and able to take on these new tasks?  Not necessarily.  Governor Whitman and “top state education officials” responded to Mayor Aronson’s overture with “little inclination to inject themselves into the dispute.... [They] apparently are waiting for the towns to act,” according to the New York Times reporter…”  The governor of New York agrees on the virtues of educational localism; Governor George Pataki has “portrayed it [New York’s Education Department] as a symbol of bureaucratic bloat, inefficiency, and aloofness.  Like many Republican governors, Mr. Pataki favors returning more control to local school districts” (Dao 1995: B1).  He has cut the Department’s budget drastically and sought to reduce its powers considerably.

Here, then, is one starting point for this chapter.  What can states do to foster effective social policies (however they are defined), and what do they in fact do?  Why and when do citizens and public officials turn to states for solutions to problems in education and housing; what happens when they make such a turn?  States are the almost-missing component in the study of -- and frequently in the practice of -- American federalism; for political, substantive, and analytic reasons, they warrant more attention than we have hitherto given them.

Our other starting point is race.  More particularly, we seek to explain the demise of mandatory school desegregation and quasi-mandatory desegregation of public housing in the cluster of possible policy solutions to the problems of racial inequality and separation.  In June 1995, the Supreme Court perhaps blocked the last remaining path to substantial school desegregation by curtailing the massive and expensive voluntary desegregation effort in Kansas City (in  Missouri v. Jenkins). But few people minded; even many African Americans in Kansas City “don’t think it’s necessary to have a certain percentage of white students to achieve quality education” (Farney 1995: A1).  In Yonkers, New York, the president of the local branch of the NAACP stated that court-ordered “school busing may have outlived its usefulness to achieve academic parity” (Jenkins 1995; Hernandez 1995: B1).  (He was thereafter suspended by the national NAACP, but he remained unrepentant.)

The Yonkers suspension is especially noteworthy for our work because Yonkers, New York, is the site for this study of the role of the state in school and housing desegregation from 1950 to the present.  We are focusing on the role of New York State, both because the state government was a key actor in these efforts and because the history of interactions between New York State and Yonkers offers a wonderful opportunity to study how race affects federalism, the separation of powers, and the impact of democratic preferences -- and vice versa.[2]

Our argument, in very brief compass, is the following: although the state government of New York was powerful, officially committed to racial desegregation, and active on its behalf off and on for more than two decades, it was unable to overcome the obstacles of local opposition, bureaucratic and electoral politics, and structural complexity in order to achieve meaningful amounts or forms of desegregation.  Racial hostility was neither unimportant nor all-important in explaining the failure to desegregate Yonkers.  Instead, it worked to magnify the nature of conventional political obstacles to substantial change so that desegregation efforts failed in Yonkers until the federal court stepped in.

To the degree that any locality can stand in for the whole, Yonkers is a microcosm of the United States on this issue.  Its history demonstrates that, even with the best intentions and a lot of power, over the long term political actors cannot or will not extensively desegregate public schools and public housing.  If Americans are serious about implementing the principles of equal opportunity and racial integration, they must find other means than the forms of desegregation with which our nation has been preoccupied since the 1960s.  Mandatory school desegregation and quasi-mandatory public housing desegregation are dinosaurs – appreciated by many, laughed at by some, but doomed in any case to extinction.


School Desegregation -- and the Lack Thereof -- in Yonkers, 1950 to 1980

A brief history of efforts to promote, or stall, desegregation in Yonkers’ public schools and public housing is essential for understanding what states can and cannot do to enhance racial equality.  We begin with schools, then move to housing, although it is important to keep in mind that the two tracks proceeded simultaneously and interactively.[3]

The State Of New York:[4] The State Education Department (SED) of New York was established over a century ago in order to foster the image and practice of public education as a professional, rather than political, activity.  When our story started, the Board of Regents had staggered fifteen year terms.  Regents were appointed by the governor, often on the advice of a legislator from the district from which the appointee was to come, but without explicit (or usually implicit) political considerations. The Regents appointed the commissioner of education, who was answerable only to them.  He had the responsibility of carrying out the Regents’ broad policy mandates, and enjoyed investigatory and quasi-judicial powers as well as standard administrative ones.  (See discussion below on “310" powers.)  SED dealt with all aspects of education, ranging from universities to museums to local school districts.

New York State’s Education Law specified neither SED’s nor the districts' role in ensuring racial balance, and racial segregation was only an intermittent issue throughout the 1940s and 1950s.  Following the findings in Brown v. Board of Education, however, the Regents concluded on January 28, 1960 that segregated schools "damage the personality of minority group children" and "decrease their motivation and thus impair their ability to learn” (University of the State of New York 1960: 28).  They therefore must be changed in the name of good educational practice.  The Regents, like the law, did not allocate specific responsibilities between SED and local districts for identifying imbalanced schools or for remedying the imbalances.

Lacking guidance, Commissioner James Allen Jr. began himself to define the roles of the state and localities.  In 1960 he asked each district to begin eliminating segregation in its schools, and in 1961 he announced a racial census of every school "as the first step in a planned attack on segregation" (Buder 1961: A1).  In early 1963, Allen directed each district with "racially imbalanced" schools (Dales 1963: A1) to inform the state by September of how it planned to achieve racial balance.  The same day, the Commissioner also responded to a “310 petition”[5] filed the previous year by the NAACP in Long Island's Malverne School District. His ruling required Malverne to desegregate an elementa­ry school enrolling 75 percent black children (Matter of Mitchell 1963).  It was the first time that New York State had required a local district to desegregate a school.

(Mainly white) citizens and school boards in many districts were appalled both with the 310 order in Malverne and with the Commissioner's directive on racially imbalanced schools.   Their resistance took several forms.  Citizens formed pressure groups to protest directly the Commissioner's efforts to integrate their schools.  School boards, in turn, responded to protestors by refusing to implement Allen's orders and by legally challenging his authority to issue such directives.  Although it was eventually overruled, one trial court did hold that the Commissioner lacked authority to force Malverne to desegregate.  Other districts began to cite the litigation as a reason to delay compliance with the Commissioner's directives in their own districts (Vetere v. Mitchell 1963).  In addition, the press covered extensively the politics of desegregation and resistance to it.

Previously neutral on the issue of integrated schools, state legislators began to react to the potent combination of constituents' protests, districts' defiance of SED, and media attention.  By March 1964, legislators had introduced five bills in opposition to busing and any other compulsory measure to effect racial balance.  Between 1965 and 1969, legislators introduced 45 more such bills.  In 1969, a bill to prohibit the assignment of students for desegregative purposes was passed, becoming Chapter 342 of the State Education Law (a federal court later found the law unconstitutional).[6]  Legislators from districts with racially distinct schools also joined forces with long-term advocates of local rule to sponsor bills to limit the scope of, or even abolish, the commissioner's powers, and to create an office of Inspector General to review the commissioner's 310 decisions.  Although few of these bills became law, they fostered a legislative atmo­sphere that was suspicious of the Commissioner and SED. 

The legislature also inhibited SED’s desegregative efforts through budgetary decisions. When Allen developed a statewide Master Plan for integrated education in 1967, the legislature refused to provide SED with enough money to enact the Plan's measures.  It underfunded SED's Division of Intercultural Relations (DIR), the office that adminis­tered the Department's policies regarding integration and provided technical assistance to desegregating districts. (It eventually merged DIR into the Division of Nonpublic Schools.)  It underfunded and later canceled the State's Racial Balance Fund, money earmarked for helping school districts to create and implement programs for achieving racial balance.[7]  Lacking sufficient funds and the capacity to claim that "the State" was behind his policies, Allen’s successor, ­Ewald Nyquist, could by 1970 no longer battle effectively for desegrega­tion on a state-wide basis.  Nyquist was reduced to pursuing integration through his 310 power, and even limited the invocation of that power to occasions when a district or someone in it filed an official complaint.

Still frustrated that the Commissioner continued to use his 310 power to pursue a policy opposed by a conspicuous majority of their constituents, legislators began to pressure the Board of Regents.  Some legislators sent letters to the Regents, begging them to stop the Commissioner from intervening in particular districts.  Others called on the Regents to fire Nyquist.  One senator, for example, urged the Regents to fire Nyquist because “citizens of this state and nation have repeatedly expressed their overwhelming opposition to busing of students for the purpose of forced racial integration.”  The Commissioner should be replaced by someone “who is more sensitive and responsive to the will of the people” (Mason 1975).  Legislators began to interview prospective Regents and to use an anti-busing "litmus test" in the appointment process, which had previously been prized as professional rather than political (Clark 1988).

Throughout the late 1960s, as the legislature was invoking one tool after another to rein in SED, the Department continued to try to encourage or even mandate desegregation in local districts.  Its efforts included setting up new divisions within SED, developing several “master plans,” producing numerous research reports, working closely with the governor-appointed Fleischman Commission on public schooling, writing a handbook on desegregation for local districts, and meeting with local educators and parents.[8]

The Board of Regents also stood firm behind its commitment to desegregation.  Starting in 1960, and four times thereafter through 1972 (an unprecedented repetition), the Regents issued policy statements mandating desegregation as essential to good education for all of New York’s students.  The 1968 statement called for “more determined, more powerful, more energetic pursuit of the objectives set forth therein” by local districts and the state, and claimed that “where the solution to the problem [of racial integration of the schools] is beyond the capability of the local school districts, or where a district fails or refuses to act, then the responsibility for corrective action is clearly and inescapably that of the state” (State Education Department of New York 1968: 7, 12).

By the 1970s, however, the legislature succeeded.  After several years of strenuous (and again unprecedented) effort, legislators eliminated most supporters of active policies to mandate desegregation from the Board of Regents and replaced them with strong opponents of busing and other mandatory desegregative techniques. (Observed one new Regent, “it breaks my heart to see those little bitsy things standing on the corner in ice, snow, and wind waiting for the bus”  [Gershowitz 1974: 22])  New laws also shortened the terms of office of the Regents from fifteen to seven years, and (with Regents’ support) provided for stricter judicial review of the Commissioner’s 310 orders.  The new set of Regents themselves revised their board’s earlier strong policy statements on school desegregation, starting in 1974 and culminating in 1976 with the inclusion of the dictum that desegregation did not necessarily include any arithmetic count of students by race. 

By the mid-1970s, then, some Regents believed that as a matter of educational policy, mandatory desegregation was a mistake.  Others were uncertain about or indifferent to the educational import of desegregation, but acutely aware of the political storms it induced.  After all, as one Regent observed, “Education thinking is one thing and political thinking is another.”[9]  After Commissioner Nyquist persisted in issuing desegregative 310 orders through the first half of 1976, a majority of the Regents voted to fire him.  ­The next Commissioner, Gordon Ambach, no longer pursued the goal of integrated schools and issued no 310 rulings ordering schools to desegre­gate.[10] 


Yonkers: Yonkers is a medium-sized city with a population of 188,000 in 1990, whose eighteen square miles encompassed a fading downtown area (Southwest Yonkers), adjacent older residential areas, and extensive newer sections of suburban housing and automobile-oriented commercial development in East and Northwest Yonkers.  Physical separation of the old and new is particularly sharp in Yonkers, with older commercial, industrial, and residential sections concentrated along the Hudson River in the southwestern part of the city, and separated from the newer and more attractive areas in the east by natural features and transportation corridors.  Residents of the downtown are now almost entirely black and Latino; people of color are increasingly moving into the older residential areas; and the vast majority of those living in the suburbs and rural sections are white.  Sectional interests have been vigorously represented in the Yonkers political system, with a ward-based city council that is highly responsive to constituent interests

            While the State was becoming less willing and able to help or require local districts to achieve racial balance, Yonkers was becoming more segregated.  Although some Yonkers schools were racially distinct as early as 1961, racial balance was not much of an issue until the late 1960s when whites began to move out of and minorities began to move into the southwestern city, changing the demographics of the public schools.  Because the new minorities settled in racially secluded neighborhoods (partly because of the location of public housing -- see below), demographic changes reinforced the racial separation already present in Yonkers' schools.

By the late 1960s, SED officials had targeted Yonkers as one of the school districts most in need of prodding, or even of a plan written by the state, to deal with increasingly severe racial imbalance.  Within Yonkers, however, citizens and municipal officials disagreed on what to do about their segregated schools.  Some (mainly black) parents wrote letters to SED complaining of racial tension and imbalance; others (mainly white) formed protest groups similar to those in Malverne or altered the mission statements of extant neighborhood groups to oppose any school reorganization plan that involved busing. 

Nevertheless, at two points local educa­tional leaders were demonstrably willing to cooperate with the state to desegregate Yonkers' schools.  The first time occurred in the late 1960s and early 1970 when Yonkers’ Superintendent Paul Mitchell took steps toward improving the racial balance in his school district.  He planned to open two racially integrated schools and to hire black staff, and he designed workshops to help personnel meet the distinctive needs of black students.  He sought technical aid from DIR and money from the Racial Balance Fund, some of which he received.  A DIR official, Morton Sobel, came to Yonkers and spoke to the PTA about the need for the district to desegregate its schools.  He returned, however, to Albany, wrote a memo about “rather heated” mothers with the “express intention of ‘not letting my child be bussed for 45 minutes... all the way across town,’ ” and did nothing more (Sobel 1970).  This inaction is especially notable given that Sobel observed in the same memo that “we would not be faced with unsurmountable [sic] difficulties in assisting Yonkers to desegregate.”

At about this point Superintendent Mitchell died suddenly.  Lacking both his desire to integrate and any commitment from the state for supplemental funding, aid, or regulation, local school officials’ efforts to desegregate Yonkers ceased.  Acting Superintendent James Gallagher later justified his reluctance to pursue Mitchell's plans by the community's resistance to desegregation.  In its increasingly weakened position, SED did not push Gallagher to change his mind.  Legislators had just eliminated the Racial Balance Fund, Nyquist was under growing political pressure, and DIR was internally ineffective, focused on the court case in Buffalo, and stymied by local opponents.  Without state or local leader­ship, the momentum from Mitchell's efforts dissolved.

Almost a decade later, Superintendent Joseph Robitaille made the next major effort to desegregate Yonkers' schools.  A severe budget crisis combined with declining enrollments to make school closings seem essential, and school closings required redistricting.  To Robitaille, a majority of the school board, and a newly-energized NAACP, this was an excellent opportunity to improve racial balance as well.  In fact, Robitaille had been hired largely on the strength of his success in desegregating a roughly comparable school district in Connecticut.  Despite opposition from the mayor and many white citizens, the Superintendent issued his "Phase II" reorganization plan on August 5, 1977.[11]

Yonkers, however, was in the midst of a city-wide financial crisis, and could not pay for desegregation on its own (Robitaille (1990).  DIR officials promised technical assistance and came close to promising state funds to help develop and implement Phase II.  But the now deeply-weakened SED provided no technical assistance and delayed providing funds, and opponents to desegregation became well organized and energetic.  By the time SED informed Yonkers that it could provide no additional money (it had became clear that the state could offer no technical or political assistance either), Mayor Angelo Martinelli had completed his efforts to replace liberal, activist school board members with conservatives who rejected programs that would destroy "the tradition of neighborhood schools" (Guerney 1990).

 No one in Yonkers perceived any state pressure to behave otherwise; as one neighborhood organization observed, “It is clear that busing for integration purposes is out of favor even at the state level, and that there is very little likelihood that the commissioner [Ambach] would mandate a forced busing program on the city of Yonkers.... [We] therefore again recommend... that the Board of Education reject Robitaille’s plan without being intimidate[d] by fear of federal or state agency sanctions" (TONEY [Taxpayers of Northeast Yonkers] 1978: 1c; see also Lincoln Park Taxpayers 1977).

Proponents of desegregation diagnosed the same phenomenon, but not surprisingly evaluated it differently. When the state did not provide the money or technical assistance it had offered, the loss felt like SED had "literally abandoned us and we found ourselves in the soup," according to one former school board member (Jacobson 1990). The desegregative effort continued, but with less and less conviction of its efficacy.  The following spring, the school board adopted the only two components of Phase II it ever considered: reorganizing the grade structure and transforming one middle school into a school for vocational education.  Neither action affected racial balance and Robitaille realized that the school board would never act on this part of his plan.  Six months later, he resigned.

In 1980, the local chapter of the NAACP joined with the U.S. Department of Justice to sue the Yonkers Board of Education and the City of Yonkers for creating some discriminatory schools and allowing others to persist.[12]  SED offered its aid to the district of Yonkers in responding to federal efforts to investigate the degree of segregation in Yonkers’ schools, but it withdrew from all involvement when Yonkers decided to fight the federal desegregation order.

After another five years, a federal court found intentional segregation by the city and school board of Yonkers in the location of school boundaries, the siting of new schools, and the running of vocational and special education programs (U.S. v. Yonkers Board of Education 1985).


Public Housing Desegregation -- and the Lack Thereof -- in Yonkers, 1950 to 1980

The story of school desegregation, in short, is one of slow but steady growth in commitment and effort by one part of the state, combined with correspondingly increasing effort to reject that commitment by another part of the state.  The legislature’s control over budgets, lawmaking, and appointments eventually intimidated, hampered, and halted the actions of SED to desegregate Yonkers’ schools; SED moved from a Master Plan to encourage or even require desegregation to a position on the opposite side of the table from the NAACP and U.S. Justice Department in the eventual desegregation suit.  The story of public housing desegregation has the same outcome but follows a different path.

The State Of New York: Since early in this century, New York State has played an extremely active role in the field of housing and urban development.  It has been continuously involved in such activities in Yonkers directly and through local agencies empowered by the state.  By the late 1960s, the state had financed, built directly, or authorized through local agencies about ten housing projects in Yonkers.  All except for one senior citizen project  were built in increasingly or predominantly black areas of the community.  Several projects were explicitly designed for “colored people,” and all were located on “site[s] that would best preserve existing patterns of segregation.” (U. S. v. Yonkers Board of Education 1985: 1313).

By 1968, Governor Nelson Rockefeller was strongly committed to a substantial state role in racial desegregation, housing development, and economic revitalization of cities.  As a consequence, he created the New York State Urban Development Corporation (UDC), “perhaps the most powerful state housing and development agency ever created” (U.S. v. Yonkers Board of Education 1995: 32, paraphrasing testimony by Michael Danielson). UDC combined the functions of several agencies in its marriage of housing finance and project development and management.  It also obtained unprecedented authority to override local building and land use controls and to exercise powers of eminent domain.  In defense of UDC powers, Rockefeller argued that “sovereignty or home rule rights are a privilege” and that the state was responsible for intervening in any arena in which local governments were doing a poor job (Roberts 1968: 28  Its designer and first president, Edward Logue, specifically insisted on these sweeping powers in order to achieve effectiveness, bargaining leverage, an ability to avoid local vetoes, and the capacity to override race-based opposition.  

Rockefeller and Logue explicitly intended for  the state’s new powers to mandate racial desegregation.  Rockefeller presented the UDC bill to the legislature with the words, “we cannot live as a segregated people.  The American dream is not divisible.” (Public Papers of Nelson A. Rockefeller 1968: 204.) Logue concurred, claiming that “the noble tool of zoning has been perverted to maintain the character of affluent lily-white suburbs,”  (Business Week 1970: 96).  The legislature initially agreed with these goals; the mandate of UDC, according to the law that created it, was to “enable the State, in cooperation with private enterprise, to attack the root causes of poverty and slums.”

Once UDC began its work, however, opposition within the legislature grew. Resistance centered around the desire to strip UDC’s power to override local authorities, and was fueled by UDC plans to build subsidized housing in the suburbs of Westchester.  In 1973, after the legislature threatened to deny UDC additional borrowing authority, Rockefeller reluctantly signed a bill giving villages and towns the right to veto proposed UDC projects.  A bill to extend the override ban to cities followed, but did not pass.  UDC then withdrew from projects in Westchester County and Long Island.  By 1975 it was bankrupt.


Yonkers: Even before UDC was created, the director of urban renewal in Yonkers notified the governor that a new agency with considerable power might aid in overcoming local resistance that had stymied the city’s urban renewal program.  As soon as UDC was in place, Yonkers’ officials urgently requested its help in relocating residents when a major employer threatened to leave town unless it could expand into the area of their homes. 

The initial plan called for scattered-site housing for these 1000 mostly-black families.  Disclosure of the plan by a local newspaper touched off a political firestorm.  Residents protested; the City Council held public meetings; the Westchester County Board of Supervisors passed a resolution condemning UDC for proposing subsidized housing that would “completely destroy the residential character of the adjacent neighborhoods.” (U. S. v. Yonkers Board of Education 1985: 1319.)   The UDC-friendly mayor and one council member lost their next elections.

Despite Yonkers’ desperate need for federal urban renewal money, access to which was controlled by UDC, Logue chose not to bargain or maintain pressure on the city.  Of its 98 original proposed sites, 76 of which were outside Yonkers’ urban core, UDC accepted the four sites chosen by the City Council -- all within the inner city -- for its first housing projects.

From that point on, UDC largely dropped its concern for spatial desegregation and focused only on its concern for “rapid development [of housing]... in sufficient quantity to meet the needs of both the state arterial program [and] the city’s... redevelopment program” with “minimal disruption of community life.” (Scher 1985). That shift implied building projects where there would be least political opposition -- that is, in the urban core. UDC wanted to show results, it wanted to develop a constituency, and it wanted to house people in better conditions. To these goals desegregation gave way.

Like SED, UDC even ended up supporting the city of Yonkers against efforts by the federal government to insist on greater desegregative effort in policy choices.  As early as 1968, HUD had conditioned its huge urban renewal grants on the building of scattered-site housing for families displaced from the inner city of Yonkers (and elsewhere).  But once UDC agreed to the City Council’s choice of sites, its very power, ironically, relieved Yonkers of concern about HUD pressure.  Because of the broad leeway HUD accorded UDC, Yonkers was able to proceed with a racially segregative program of relocation housing in Southwest Yonkers larger than the relocation housing plans HUD previously had forbidden the City to undertake on its own because of their likely segregative impact.  By 1972, UDC was successfully lobbying HUD to relax its rules conditioning further urban renewal funds on dispersal of new subsidized housing.

In the end, UDC sponsored 1,811 out of a total of 2,647 units of family-oriented public housing built in Yonkers from 1968 to 1972.  All seven of its projects were located in Southwest Yonkers, the section of the city that is overwhelmingly poor, crowded, and peopled by African Americans and Latinos.  In the words of Judge Leonard Sand, who presided over the Yonkers litigation, “for New York State like the City [of Yonkers], it is difficult to discern any plan at work in the ... site selection process during these years, except for an apparent determination to avoid, at virtually any cost, a confrontation with community opponents of public housing.” (U. S. v. Yonkers Board of Education 1985: 1310).  Mayor DelBello was more partisan, but did not disagree:

The big threat had been... adequately controlled.  The methods that the city administration used to produce housing... reflected a consideration for neighborhoods, [and] induced public participation in the process. I believe the public in Yonkers was no longer offended, as they were in prior years, by illogical approaches as to where housing should be built and where housing should not be built. (DelBello 1985: 95).


Race, Politics, and Policy Choices

What implications should we draw from these dismal histories?  Let us suggest several, from the most crude but important, to the more subtle.  First, mandating or even promoting racial desegregation is a difficult, if not impossible, policy goal.  New York has been widely recognized as a powerful and innovative state, which pursued activist and liberal policies on a number of fronts during the 1960s and 1970s, especially in its school and housing agencies.  SED was one of the most activist, powerful, and politically insulated state educational agencies in existence  (Wirt 1977).  UDC was explicitly designed to dominate local politics and policies.  If any locality should have been able to avoid -- or should have been forced to avoid -- actions that led to a finding of intentional racial segregation by a federal court, it should have been a community in the state of New York.  And yet, not only did New York fail to prevent Yonkers from engaging in segregative school and housing actions, but also the state contributed in important ways to those actions.

Of particular interest is the fact that New York failed to achieve its stated objectives with regard to desegregation in two quite different ways in the arenas of education and public housing.  In some ways the two arenas were similar: Both SED and UDC were powerful agencies headed by energetic individuals strongly committed to reducing racial segregation.   Officials in both agencies were dealing with the same political forces in the other branches of state government and with the same demographic, economic, geographic, social, and political context in Yonkers.  But the two agencies behaved differently.  UDC responded to its challenge with intense activity, so that the state played a crucial, though not unilateral, role in developing subsidized housing in Yonkers.  Between 1969 and 1973, when large amounts of federal funds were available for housing, almost all important decisions about subsidized housing in Yonkers were made by the state or required its approval and cooperation.  In contrast, despite its proclamations in the early 1960s about the need for sweeping desegregation measures and its considerable activity on the issue later in the decade, SED was on the way to becoming a passive onlooker by the time Yonkers started to grapple with school segregation in the late 1960s.  Even at its strongest, SED did not (dare to?) use the power and resources it had authorized to alleviate school segregation; eventually the state, in the person of the legislature, removed power and resources from its own officials who might have intervened in Yonkers. 

Comparing the different behaviors of SED and UDC in Yonkers enables us to judge the causes and effects of powerful, direct action as compared with indirect persuasion and passive accommodation to local desires.  After all, some have argued that desegregative efforts failed because they were too authoritarian (Graglia 1976; Rossell 1990; Taylor 1986) and others because they were too weak (Hochschild 1984; Appendix to Brief in Freeman v. Pitts 1991). We have an example of each strategy, and can compare their relative effectiveness.  We conclude that neither strategy was effective, nor would it have been effective if this or that policy lever or political incentive had been used more skillfully.[13]  The issue of racial desegregation was simply too difficult for a democratic polity to handle.[14]

Why did both agencies, using very different strategies, fail equally to carry out their desegregation mandate?  A simple and frequent answer is that racial hostility prevails, that governmental action to expand educational and housing opportunities for blacks fails in the face of determined white opposition.  But that answer is too simple because it does not explain why white politicians in New York articulated and sought to put into practice policies that promised integrated schools and housing.  After all, sophisticated and experienced government officials knew that many opposed these promises and that they were bound to become even more controversial when push came to shove in particular localities.  So why did some of them brave hostility from their fellow whites -- to the point of receiving death threats and losing their jobs -- believing not only that it was the right thing to do but also that they could prevail?

As that question implies, racial hostility clearly was present and clearly contributed to the failure of the desegregative policies, but by itself neither completely explains the failure nor contributes anything to explaining the development of the policy itself.  Thus we need additional explanations for both the rise and the fall of state desegregative efforts.  Consider once again the trajectories we have described.  SED was able to begin the 1960s as an active intervenor on school desegregation because of its distinctive structural characteristic of apparent isolation from popular preferences; its shift to passive spectator by the end of the 1970s reflected the ultimate responsiveness of even “insulated” executive officials and administrative agencies to the state legislature.  More concretely, SED was initially empowered to act on school desegregation by legislative action.  Later, the agency lost that power and even the desire to act through further legislative action as members of the Assembly and Senate responded to constituency concerns that SED would in fact force local districts to desegregate.  Similarly, gubernatorial and legislative action gave UDC its own initial ability to preempt popular preferences.  But it too was eventually constrained by constant legislative challenges (some of them successful) to its powers -- threats stimulated largely by legislators’ fear that UDC would locate housing for blacks in white sections of the suburbs.

This dynamic of empowerment and disempowerment points to the signal importance of interactions among various branches of government, each with its own perspective, agenda, resources, and constraints (Danielson 1976; Failer et al. 1993).  Each governmental actor -- the governor, legislature, SED, UDC, mayor, city council, school board, and renewal agency -- was following a different trajectory in response to different political and substantive stimuli, including but not limited to racial considerations.  Although every student of American politics knows in general about the differences among the branches of government, surprisingly little has been written about how these various trajectories interact through law-making, budgeting, appointments, persuasion, vociferous protest, and so on.[15]  This case illuminates these interactions spectacularly.

 Along with interactions among branches of government go interactions among levels of government.  In principle, New York could mandate desegregation of public schools and subsidized housing in Yonkers.  The state had legal authority, budgetary control, and the weight of presumptive supremacy in conflicts with cities, school districts, and other local units. Commissioner Allen made just that point to the State School Boards convention in 1963: “responsibility for education in this country rests with the state.... The state delegates to local authorities power to administer local affairs.... This delegation of power in no way changes or lessens the state’s responsibility” (Allen 1963).  In practice, the state was severely constrained in using its powers; it elected not to mandate desegregation, or backed down after its mandates encountered local opposition, or changed its mandates to make them more palatable to local actors.  Examining these shifts offers leverage on the little-studied and under-theorized question of the relationship between formal hierarchies of political dominance and actual patterns of political negotiation and contestation  (Pressman and Wildavsky 1979; Bardach 1977).

New York’s involvement in school and housing in Yonkers also was shaped by the tension within SED and UDC between the goals of racial integration and other objectives.   Racial integration was not the primary concern of either agency.  SED was responsible for a wide range of educational programs, since its mission was to oversee almost every aspect of public education in the nation’s second largest state.  UDC was created to build housing, renew cities, and stimulate economic development.  Racial integration was a real but ultimately subsidiary goal for both agencies, commanding few resources and the direct responsibility of relatively few agency staffers.  Moreover, racial integration was controversial, and thus a threat to the more central activities of each agency.  Pushing racial integration risked stirring political opposition to the agency or losing local cooperation essential to implementing core programs.  The path through this thicket that both agencies ultimately chose was to mute racial objectives through a revised understanding of priorities, passive indirection, or -- ultimately -- withdrawal.[16]

Timing also affected the ability of New York to fulfill its promise to desegregate schools and homes  (Kingdon 1984; Kaufman 1991; Jones 1994; Baumgartner and Jones 1993).  Strong state commitments were a product of the civil rights revolution of the 1960s, and reflected a wide liberal consensus on the desirability and necessity of racial integration.  In the case of UDC, the assassination of the Reverend Martin Luther King Jr. provided Governor Rockefeller with the leverage to overcome legislative resistance to the creation of a state agency empowered to override local controls in the pursuit of residential desegregation.  But the coalitions that came together to advance residential integration were short-lived; and their dissipation eroded support for state action to keep the promise of integrated neighborhoods.  In the case of schools, at the point at which the Yonkers school board was ready to desegregate and the local NAACP was committed to keeping the pressure on, SED’s weakness removed the possibility of state support that was essential to accomplishing that task.  Thus the schools were not desegregated, and the NAACP sued. 

In the end, the most democratically responsive actors turned out to be the most powerful.  That occurred in two ways: the elected governor and legislators overpowered the appointed agency bureaucrats, and the policies that were implemented fit the preferences of local more than of state officials (Hochschild 1984).  To put the point more bluntly, the majority of citizens who resisted school and housing desegregation won more than did the minority who endorsed desegregation.  The heart of our story lies in explaining how popular preferences won over professional judgments and purportedly dominant powers, and what the normative implications are of the fact that the most democratic institutions produced the most restrictive outcomes in terms of educational and housing opportunities.  We are all, indeed, lost in Yonkers.



Allen, James (1963) State Responsibility and Local Control, Statement Before State School Boards Convention, October 28.

Bardach, Eugene (1977) The Implementation Game: What Happens After a Bill Becomes a Law (Cambridge MA: MIT Press).

Baumgartner, Frank and Bryan Jones (1993) Agendas and Instability in American Politics (Chicago IL: University of Chicago Press).

Bronston, ## (1969) Senate Debate on Concurrent Resolution Proposing an Amendment to Article Eleven of the Constitution, in Relation to Prohibiting the Assignment of Pupils to Public Schools on the Basis of Race, Color, Religion, or Place of National Origin, April 18: 2481.

Buder, Leonard (1961) “Racial Census Set in State Schools,” New York Times, October 2: A1.

Business Week (1970), “A Superagency for Urban Superproblems,”March 7, 1970, 96.

Clark, Kenneth (1988) Deposition, Yonkers v. The State of New York, 60 Civ. 6761 (LBS), S.D.N.Y., 14.

Dales, Douglas (1963) “State Calling on Schools to End Racial Imbalance,” New York Times, June 19: A1.

Danielson, Michael (1976)  The Politics of Exclusion (NY: Columbia University Press).

Dao, James (1995) “Vermont Official Is Picked as State Education Chief for New York,” New York Times, August 10: B1, B4.

DelBello, Albert  (1985).  Deposition in U.S. v. Yonkers Board of Education (1985).

Failer, Judith, Anna Harvey, and Jennifer Hochschild (1993)  “Only One Oar in the Water: The Political Failure of School Desegregation in Yonkers, New York,” Educational Policy, v. 7, no. 3: 276-296.

Farney, Dennis (1995) “Fading Dream?  Integration Is Faltering in Kansas City Schools As Priorities Change,” Wall Street Journal, September 26: A1, A8.

Field, Marcia Marker (1986) “Planners Guilty on Two Counts: The City of Yonkers Case,” Journal of the American Planning Association, v. 52, no. 4: XXXX.

Freeman v. Pitts (1991) Appendix to Plaintiff’s Brief, “School Desegregation: A Social Science Statement,” June.

Fried, Mark (1990) “Residential Segregation: Where Do We Draw the Lines?  A View of United States v. Yonkers Board of Education and Democratic Theory,” Columbia Journal of Law and Social Problems, v. 23, no. 4: XXXX.

Galster, George and Heather Keeney (1993) “Subsidized Housing and Racial Change in Yonkers,” Journal of the American Planning Association, v. 59, no. 2: XXX.

Gershowitz, Mike (1974) “New Regents Board Member Will Make Waves,” Long Island Press, April 7: 22.

Graglia, Lino (1976) Disaster by Decree: The Supreme Court Decisions on Race and the Schools (Ithaca: Cornell University Press).

Guerney, Joseph (1990) Interview by Beth Lorenz, Steven Routh, and Monica Herk, November 1.

Hanley, Robert (1995) “Englewood Officials Ask Whitman for Desegregation Help,” New York Times, October 24: B1, B6.

Hernandez, Raymond (1995) “N.A.A.C.P. Suspends Yonkers Head,” New York Times, November 1: B1, B4.

Hochschild, Jennifer (1984)  The New American Dilemma: Liberal Democracy and School Desegregation (New Haven CT: Yale University Press).

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Jacobson, Robert (1990) Interview by Jennifer Hochschild, Steven Routh, and Monica Herk, November 26.

Jenkins, Kenneth (1995) “The N.A.A.C.P., Lost in Yonkers,” New York Times, November 4: XX.

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Kaufman, Herbert (1991) Time, Change, and Organizations: Natural Selection in a Perilous Environment, 2nd ed.  (Chatham NJ: Chatham House Publishers).

Kingdon, John (1984) Agendas, Alternatives, and Public Policies (Glenview IL: Scott, Foresman, and Co.).

Lee v. Nyquist (1970) 318 F.Supp. 710.

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Mason, Edwyn (1975) Letter to Joseph McGovern ##, Chancellor of the Board of Regents, January 23.

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New York Times/CBS News Poll (1995), untitled, October 22-25.

Nordos, Wilbur (1968a) Memorandum to Ewald Nyquist Regarding Strategy for Mount Vernon, March 20.

Nordos, Wilbur (1968b) Memorandum to Ewald Nyquist, April 2.

Pforzheimer, Carl (1969) Regents Minutes, June 27.

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[1] Our thanks for comments on earlier drafts to C. Anthony Broh, Nathan Scovronick, Clarence Stone, and participants in seminars at the University of Chicago, University of Pennsylvania, Rutgers University, and Columbia University. Thanks also go to the Center for Domestic and Comparative Policy Studies, Princeton University, and to the Spencer Foundation for support in conducting this research.


[2] We both worked as expert witnesses in a trial over the question of whether the state could be held “substantially”  responsible for the de jure segregation of the Yonkers public schools. We thus have access to private and public documents, budgetary and demographic data, depositions and interviews with key state and local officials, transcripts from two complicated and extensive trials, and other material.  The case on which we worked --Yonkers Board of Education v. New York State -- was tried in April 1994.  We were both retained by the plaintiffs.

[3] In fact, the 1985 federal court decision that found the schools to be segregated is notable in legal as well as policy terms because it insisted on the interdependence of schools and housing.  Judge Leonard Sand concluded that housing policies had contributed to school segregation, and that racially-inspired school policies had fostered residential segregation.  The court ordered Yonkers to undertake housing as well as education remedies designed to reduce racial concentration in the city’s schools and neighborhoods (U.S. v. Yonkers Board of Education 1985; Field 1986; Fried 1990; Galster and Keeney 1993; Zimmerman 1990).

[4] This section is derived from Failer et al. 1993.


[5] A 310 petition is an official complaint to which the commissioner must respond with “quasi-judicial proceedings designed to enforce state education policies.”  The commissioner may also initiate 310 actions on his own behest.  (The term comes from Section 310 of the New York Education Law which spells out the commissioner’s responsibility and authority for these proceedings.  Quotation is from Yonkers Board of Education v. New York State (1995: 13).   During the period that our study covers, substantive decisions could not be appealed; the only possible appeal to the courts was the procedural claim that the commissioner’s decision was “arbitrary and capricious.”  The courts traditionally interpreted this standard very narrowly.

[6] Lee v. Nyquist (1970).  Chapter 342 did not prohibit elected school boards from reassigning students for desegregative purposes; its strictures reached only to SED and appointed boards of education.  Thus it can be described, and was so described by its supporters, as an endorsement of democratic reform.

Even after Chapter 342 was struck down by the courts, the legislature continued to debate and occasionally to pass anti-busing bills for the next few years.

[7] As early as 1963, the Regents requested funds from the legislature to address “urgent problems of racial imbalance,” and the plea continued through the 1970s.  (State Education Department of New York 1963).  SED generally requested $10 to $15 million annually; the legislature allocated $3 million in 1968, $1 million each of the succeeding two years, and nothing after that.

[8]SED did not take other possible steps. Judge Sand’s 1995 ruling pointed out that SED did not remove school officials who failed to comply with the commissioner’s orders, withhold state funds under the same circumstance, initiate 310 investigations and rulings without waiting for a citizen’s petition, issue regulations for desegregation and follow them with inspection and enforcement procedures, or deny approval for the construction of new schools in sites that would exacerbate segregation (Yonkers Board of Education v. New York State 1995: 12-14).

The state did take some of these steps, especially that of strict regulation and detailed compliance reviews, to implement other controversial policies such as special education, bilingual education, and vocational education.  As a former Yonkers school board member put it, “on everything else the state followed through except on racial balance” (Jacobson 1990).

[9] Pforzheimer 1969.  Chancellor McGovern, head of the Board of Regents, made the same observation regretfully rather than pugnaciously: “Recent events... turn away the Regents from a position of leadership which they have long maintained” (McGovern 1975).

[10] In fact, he delayed or watered down several of Commissioner Nyquist’s remaining 310 orders.  As an Assistant Commissioner concluded in 1985, “Our mission is limited, our purview is limited.  We are a wonderful department, but we can’t solve all of the problems of society.” ##

[11] In fact, even before the 1977 Phase II plan, inaction by the state had inhibited action by Yonkers.  In 1975, the school board authorized a Task Force on Quality Education to design a desegregation plan.  The Task Force urgently requested state funding; although SED promised money and aid, it produced no aid and very little money, very late.  As a consequence, this group of volunteers took over a year to produce its plan, during which time opposition coalesced and the mayor started replacing liberal activist school board members with conservatives and/or political supporters.

[12] The federal government had always pushed New York, albeit with little success, to mandate desegregation.  As early as 1970, HEW had rejected New York State’s application for Title IV funds on the grounds that the state had submitted no plan regarding desegregation of the “Big 6" school districts, which included Yonkers.  Yonkers was denied Title IV money several times later in that decade because of its lack of a desegregation plan.

[13] To put the contrast more schematically, it requires both political will and institutional capacity -- and both over a very long term -- to create such a change as meaningful racial desegregation.  SED had the will for over a decade, but did not use its full capacity and slowly lost what it had; UDC had the capacity but lost its will after a brief struggle.  What would it take to create an agency with sufficient will and capacity for a sufficient period of time?

[14] As one important supporter of the Senate’s anti-busing bills observed in a reflective moment, school desegregation might have worked “if the communities... had extended a hand on the question of busing...  It did not happen...  I am sorry to say -- sometimes ashamed to say”  (Bronston 1969: 2481).  This raises the issue of local involvement, in both support and opposition to desegregation.  Had there been more local support, could UDC or SED been more effective in their periodic interventions in Yonkers?  We doubt it, but this is another issue for further exploration.

[15] Among the few such analyses are Rebell and Block (1985) and Melnick (1994).

[16] As one SED official pointed out as early as 1968, Commissioner Allen should take strong desegregative actions, but he must also “recognize the political... ramifications” (Nordos 1968a). Civil rights activists must in turn understand the “political realities faced by the Commissioner and his concern to protect the powers of his office” (Nordos 1968b). More generally, see Wilson (1989) and Kaufman (1971).

Last updated on 06/14/2010