One Suburb’s Attempt to Build an Integrated Community
The successes and shortcomings of Shaker Heights, Ohio.
If you care about social mobility and cohesion in America, you have to care about the enduring racial segregation—and rising income segregation—found in American neighborhoods and public schools. Yet these problems are so pervasive that they have in some ways taken on the air of inevitability.
So it’s intriguing to come across a community that has taken a more hopeful path.
That’s the subject of Washington Post reporter Laura Meckler’s fascinating new book, Dream Town: Shaker Heights and the Quest for Racial Equity. Why, she asks, has one upper-middle class Cleveland suburb tried, over several decades, to create something different: a racially integrated community and system of public schools? And how successful has it been?
Meckler, a Gen Xer who grew up and attended public schools in Shaker Heights, draws upon more than 250 interviews to tell the evolution of the town through a series of engaging vignettes about individuals from Shaker Heights’ black and white communities. She details what Shaker Heights got right, as well as where it fell short, or overreached. Throughout, she questions dominant narratives found on parts of the left that America is too racist to seek integration anywhere, and from parts of the right that school integration is a distraction from America’s “real” educational problems, teacher unions and single-parent families.
Located next to the City of Cleveland’s east side, Shaker Heights began in the early twentieth century as a classic exclusive American suburb that was socially engineered to include only “people of the right sort”—those who were white, Christian, and wealthy. Developers in the 1920s advertised that the town would offer “contentment, forever assured by protective restrictions.” Local developers and landowners used the tools then available: now-unconstitutional racially restrictive covenants and economic zoning rules that outlawed the construction of multifamily housing in most areas of town, zoning rules that remain pervasive today.
In Shaker Heights, the community’s builders noted, homes would be required to be two full stories in height, and residents would be safe from “flats, terraces, and double houses.” This policy kept working-class people of all races out, and when a few upper-middle class black families tried to buy in Shaker Heights in the 1920s, they faced intimidation and attempts to drive them out with stones and fire. By the mid-twentieth century Shaker Heights would grow to become one of the wealthiest communities in the country, one that remained overwhelmingly white.
Embracing Racial Integration
Even after the Supreme Court handed down Brown v. Board of Education striking down the concept of racial separation in public schooling, some Shaker Heights residents remained staunchly opposed to integration. When a black attorney, John Pegg, and his family attempted to move into the town in 1956, his house was bombed and the garage was blown apart. But at the same time, writes Meckler, Pegg was met with “an unexpected response from his future neighbors.” A group of about 30 white people in the area helped the family clear the debris from the explosion, and the Peggs “received hundreds of letters and phone calls, mostly welcoming.”
This was the beginning of something much bigger: a sustained effort to welcome black families and ensure that the community remained integrated. Part of this involved an uncomfortable tactic—as black families moved into Shaker Heights, residents sought to carefully manage the racial balance of the community, even when that meant making special efforts to recruit white families into what had become mostly black neighborhoods. In a departure from the now-faddish and racially-pessimistic view of the world exemplified by the 1619 Project, Meckler observes that white and black families in Shaker Heights came together to proactively sustain an integrated community.
Some white families were moved by the idealism of the civil rights movement; they “saw how race was tearing America apart and wanted something different.” In 1965, Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr., chose to visit Shaker Heights and spoke to a racially diverse crowd of 3000. Other residents were motivated by financial self-interest. Black and white families alike recognized that property values could decline if one section of Shaker Heights flipped from all-white to all-black, a development that was often abetted by unscrupulous real estate agents who sought to induce panic selling to rack up commissions.
And Shaker Heights residents went further. Sometimes towns have a racially-diverse population but the individual public schools are grossly imbalanced. In 1970, the Shaker Heights community agreed to integrate the elementary school voluntarily, without the pressure of a court order. Teachers were among the biggest advocates because they saw the benefits of integration for students. And, in an unusual twist, the integration program was designed to run in both directions—black students would be bused to mostly white schools and white students would also be bused to predominantly black schools. To this day, unlike many inner-city suburbs that flipped from all white to all black, Shaker Heights remains majority white. And the school population is racially integrated: 43 percent of students are black, 41 percent white, eight percent multiracial, three percent Hispanic and three percent Asian.
As Meckler concludes, “while Shaker Heights is far from perfect, this is a place that has defied the odds, not once or twice, but over and over again.”
This racial school integration is a proud accomplishment for Shaker Heights on many levels, including academically. Meckler notes that integration “is one of the few things that works to close racial achievement gaps,” and black students in Shaker Heights outperform many other black students in the state.
Falling Short on Economic Integration
While racial integration of Shaker Heights has been a priority, however, economic integration has not. Shaker Heights is very liberal community, which voted for Joe Biden over Donald Trump by 88 percent to 12 percent in 2020, but the “Shaker Heights Dream” of a multiracial community, which Meckler links to Dr. Martin Luther King’s dream of racial harmony, does not extend to King’s closely-related dream of economic inclusion.
The black suburban pioneers in Shaker Heights were “accomplished professionals” in similar economic stations to the white residents. “People of all races in Shaker Heights were wealthier than those living in Cleveland,” Meckler notes, “and they sought to keep it that way.” Many black professionals in Shaker Heights, for example, opposed a 1970 effort to build 14 public housing units in the town. And both black and white families worked against zoning changes that would diversify the community economically by allowing more multifamily housing. As Ted Mason, a Shaker Heights resident and black dentist, explained:
If I live next door to a high school dropout, his experiences after dropping out are far different than mine, and can I have great hope that his aspirations for his children are the same as mine? No, I can’t have any great hope.
As I note in my own new book, Excluded: How Snob Zoning, NIMBYism, and Class Bias Build the Walls We Don’t See, wealthy black families in places such as Prince George’s County, Maryland have sought to exclude poor black families while wealthy whites in La Crosse, Wisconsin have sought to exclude lower-income whites. The rise in economically discriminatory zoning helps explain why income segregation has doubled in America since passage of the 1968 Fair Housing Act while racial segregation has declined by 30 percent.
This phenomenon—racial integration without economic inclusion—is a common liberal blind spot and plays out in the realm of higher education as well. At Harvard College, for example, 71 percent of black, Hispanic, and Native American students come from the richest one-fifth of the black, Hispanic and Native American populations nationally. A majority of Harvard College students identify as students of color, yet the college also has 15 times as many wealthy students as low-income students.
Overreaching During a Racial Reckoning
Over time, Shaker Heights has been less successful in excluding the poor than Harvard has been. Although many areas in Shaker Heights ban multifamily housing, some neighborhoods now allow it. And after the housing foreclosure crisis of 2008 and 2009, Meckler says, properties in Shaker Heights became more affordable for a time for new working-class black families.
As a result, the income gap between the town’s black and white residents has grown considerably over the years. In 1989, black median household income in Shaker Heights was $78,702 (in 2020 inflation-adjusted dollars) compared with $127,015 for white households. In other words, black families earned 62 percent of what white families earned, consistent with national disparities. By 2020, however, median white income had risen to nearly $140,000, while black median income had fallen to under $50,000—35 percent of what whites earned. Meanwhile, the share of black residents in Shaker Heights who lived in poverty tripled to 14.7 percent.
As the proportion of black students in Shaker Heights who come from low-income backgrounds grew, the community might have reacted by providing support for economically disadvantaged students. But rather than recognizing that as much as two-thirds of the racial achievement gap in Shaker Heights is related to class—a finding cited in the book from Harvard researcher Ron Ferguson—and addressing that issue head on, school officials instead see these disparities as fundamentally racial in character.
Student-teacher relations. Meckler recounts how an incident in which a disagreement between a black student who failed to turn in an assignment on time and a white teacher who chastised her for doing so in front of other students blew up into a racial conflagration. She suggests that both the student and teacher could and should have handled the issue differently. She reports that the teacher was put on paid administrative leave and received a formal reprimand, even though she was not allowed to tell her side of the story. When the issue went to arbitration, the school district simply didn’t show up, conceding the case. The teacher ended up retiring at age 55 and the student was left hurt as well. Administrators who centered their thinking on the racial identity of the participants missed important nuances.
Tracking. Meckler also describes a racially-charged debate in Shaker Heights schools over tracking—grouping students by ability level—that swung from one extreme to another. For many years, local schools employed a system of grouping that sorted students into five different academic levels—which is much more stratified than most systems. White students typically were placed in the highest tracks and black students in the lowest ones. Harvard’s Ferguson analyzed the system and concluded that it was racially biased, not because there were too few black students in advanced courses but because there were too many white students. “There are a lot of average white kids in advanced classes because their parents pushed to have them here,” he told Meckler.
There was very good reason to institute reform: to reduce the number of tracks and to put systems in place to root out racial bias and keep white parents from gaming the system. But Shaker Heights decided the answer was not reform of ability grouping but its complete abolition at the middle school level and drastic change at the high school level. David Glasner, the Shaker Heights superintendent, who is white, argued that “tracking is really part of a system of institutional racism that we need to address directly.”
Many teachers opposed the move. An extremely talented teacher may be able to differentiate instruction based on student achievement within a single classroom, but it is exceedingly difficult—especially in classes like math. And yet in Shaker Heights, eighth graders were assigned to Algebra I even though they hadn’t taken pre-Algebra.
Meckler reports that many black parents were also skeptical. “The honors kids will be bored or the regular kids left behind,” argued one black parent. A white student told Meckler that in ninth grade, prior to the reform, his honors class was assigned 30 pages of reading per night but that in his de-tracked tenth grade class, his teacher had the students read the text aloud in class and homework was cut dramatically. Teachers received training that focused more on “the moral urgency” of de-tracking than “the nuts and bolts” of teaching a mixed ability group. Though Meckler is clearly sympathetic to the goals of de-tracking, she nevertheless says it was “poorly implemented.”
Watering down academic standards. Finally, a well-intentioned desire to acknowledge racial disparities in achievement led Shaker Heights administrators to adopt a deeply dubious and ultimately counterproductive approach to academic standards. For decades, Meckler reports, some high-achieving black students noted that excelling academically could be seen as problematic among peers. She notes that one high-achieving black student, Aida Harris, was harassed by other black classmates: “Why do you think you’re better?, they wanted to know.’” In 2004, Barack Obama correctly denounced the coupling of achievement and race, saying it was time in “eradicate the slander that says a black youth with a book is acting white.” But some well-meaning white administrators in Shaker Heights perversely see it as racially enlightened to challenge high academic standards.
Meckler reports that after George Floyd’s murder in 2020, Eric Juli, the white principal of Shaker Heights High School adopted the “anti-racist” stance articulated by Ibram X. Kendi. Juli argued that the goal of school should not be mastering complex material and facts because “Algebra 2 doesn’t exist on Planet Earth outside of an American high school.” He “discouraged homework,” mandated that no student receive lower than a 45 percent score on assignments, “required teachers to allow students to make up any missing assignment without penalty,” and told teachers not to enforce the dress code rules that were on the books.
Reviving a Fragile Success
It is not clear that a lax approach to academic standards can be reconciled with the noble efforts of Shaker Heights, over a long period of time, to create a racially integrated school system. The New York Times reported in 2023 that upper-middle class black people have been leaving Shaker Heights for other Cleveland suburbs. One black parent told the Times, “The parents who had the means and who were black and with black kids who were high performing, they left Shaker.” Another black parent said she worried about de-tracking: “I have a son who needs to be around serious learners. I needed him to be in that honors class.”
For almost seventy years, Shaker Heights has been a leader in creating something as valuable as it is rare in America: an integrated community with integrated schools. It’s good for the country and good for democracy when people of different backgrounds come together to live and to learn. But Americans also believe in merit and high standards for their kids, so one can hope that a resilient community that has been a model for so long will take the necessary steps to sustain its inspiring experiment.
Richard D. Kahlenberg is a senior fellow at the Progressive Policy Institute and author of Excluded: How Snob Zoning, NIMBYism and Class Bias Build the Walls We Don’t See.