Shaker Heights and the Quest for Racial Equity
by Laura Meckler
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Pub Date 22 Aug 2023 | Archive Date 22 Sep 2023
Henry Holt & Company, Henry Holt and Co.
Can a group of well-intentioned people fulfill the promise of racial integration in America?
In this searing and intimate examination of the ideals and realities of racial integration, award-winning Washington Post journalist Laura Meckler tells the story of a decades-long pursuit in Shaker Heights, Ohio, and uncovers the roadblocks that have threatened progress time and again—in housing, in education, and in the promise of shared community.
In the late 1950s, Shaker Heights began groundbreaking work that would make it a national model for housing integration. And beginning in the seventies, it was known as a crown jewel in the national move to racially integrate schools. The school district built a reputation for academic excellence and diversity, serving as a model for how white and Black Americans can thrive together. Meckler—herself a product of Shaker Heights—takes a deeper look into the place that shaped her, investigating its complicated history and its ongoing challenges in order to untangle myth from truth. She confronts an enduring, and troubling, question—if Shaker Heights has worked so hard at racial equity, why does a racial academic achievement gap persist?
In telling the stories of the Shakerites who have built and lived in this community, Meckler asks: What will it take to fulfill the promise of racial integration in America? What compromises are people of all races willing to make? What does success look like, and has Shaker achieved it? The result is a complex and masterfully reported portrait of a place that, while never perfect, has achieved more than most and a road map for communities that seek to do the same.
Includes black-and-white images.
Available on NetGalley
Average rating from 12 members
Dream Town by Laura Meckler takes arguably America's most divisive issue, race, and offers both a personal and a societal narrative. Through the specific ongoing story of Shaker Heights, OH the reader learns about what has and has not worked as well as the perspectives of the individuals involved in these events.
I first heard about Shaker Heights when I was a grad student in Ohio, a couple of my students mentioned the town and how it seemed to be positive beacon. I don't recall digging any deeper than looking up a couple articles one of them recommended to me. So this volume is one I was eager to read. And I am very glad I did.
Many books that address the difficulties around integration usually come from one of two perspectives: it can't work or look how good we've done. Yet neither reflects any reality I'm familiar with. Meckler does a wonderful job of presenting the history, the steps both forward and backward, from both what it means for our attempts at an equitable society and what it means for those people who lived it. There can be progress, even if we sometimes get frustrated at the speed.
There is a lot of nuance in the book and I don't want to shortchange any of it, so I am hesitant to try to sum up any conclusions. What I will do is mention what was one of my big takeaways. Legislation and policy is absolutely necessary for any change, they make it more difficult to act on our worst impulses. But change isn't likely to be widespread until more people change how they look at their fellow human beings. The best intentions can be undermined by the simple fact that we still see difference in a hierarchical manner. Even those supporting positive change often harbor such feelings, though they may not always be as aware of it as they think. That is likely (my opinion here, don't judge the book by it) why change is so slow. As generations come and go, hopefully the unwarranted feelings of superiority will dissipate and we can approach being an equitable society. Don't misunderstand me, I'm not suggesting we settle for slow, we have to make the changes that will serve as the catalysts for improvement.
Highly recommended for those with an interest in integrating society, focusing here on schools and neighborhoods. This will highlight what did work and what, at least in this place and in this way, didn't work. That information can be used in future policymaking and future activism.
Reviewed from a copy made available by the publisher via NetGalley.