Back in the 1960s, when black families in Boston demanded a way out of failing, segregated schools, wealthy suburbs stepped up and volunteered to host them. METCO, a voluntary desegregation program, was born, an enduring testament to Massachusetts liberalism.
But here's the funny thing: Many of those same cities and towns that have welcomed METCO buses for decades simultaneously maintain zoning policies that make it all but impossible for black families — or any family of modest means — to actually move in next door.
Nearly half of the cities and towns that participate in METCO — including Lexington, Wayland, and Weston — don't allow multifamily housing, except by special permit. Still others require that homes be built on one-acre lots, ensuring that only the wealthiest can afford them.
The result? The Boston metro area remains one of the most racially and socioeconomically segregated housing in the country, despite our liberal reputation. And as long as our neighborhoods are segregated, it's expensive and difficult to create integrated schools.
"Some argued 'We don't need affordable housing, because we have METCO,' " said Lily Geismer, assistant professor of history at Claremont McKenna College, who's recent book "Don't Blame Us" explores Massachusetts's schizophrenic reputation for both liberalism and segregation. According to Geismer, the Boston suburbs along Route 128 were a hotbed of social justice activism in the 1960s and '70s. Fair housing committees cropped up in more than a dozen towns. But their liberalism had limits.
"A lot of them had the idea that 'We want to accept African-American engineers and doctors into our community,' " Geismer said. But electricians and hairdressers? Not so much.
For Gerald McLeod, a black chemist who'd gotten a job at a laboratory near Hanscom Air Force Base, those activists made all the difference.
McLeod had a PhD from Boston University, but he and his wife still struggled to find someone willing to sell them a home. Realtors took one look at them and claimed the house in question had already been sold. One deal fell through after neighbors, including a priest, shouted insults from the yard.
Finally, fair housing activists introduced them to the man who sold them a three-bedroom colonial in Lexington, where McLeod lives to this day. Because of that house, he avoided a costly commute. His children attended Lexington schools — which are among the best in the state — and went on to good colleges and solid careers. Today, the home he paid $25,000 for back in 1962 is worth more than $600,000.
Yet few black families have had such good fortune. Just 2 percent of residents in Lexington are black.
It's probably harder for a black family to buy a house in Lexington today than it was in the 1960s. Zoning policies aimed at keeping the area exclusive have pushed the median prices of a single-family home in Lexington to just under $1 million. That's beyond the reach of most families, both black and white.
The good news is that Lexington, Wayland, and Bedford — three of the five best school districts in the state — committed to loosening up their zoning codes to allow for more affordable housing options, according to Jennifer Raitt of the Metropolitan Area Planning Council.
Maybe now that middle-class whites are getting priced out of good school districts, we'll see the changes in zoning that people of color needed decades ago.
This piece is part of a series of columns about Boston — four decades after busing — supported by the Sigma Delta Chi Foundation. Farah Stockman can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org. Follow her on Twitter @fstockman.