Why Shaker Heights’ Progressive Myth Needs a Second Look

Credit - Background: Getty Images

This article is part of The D.C. Brief, TIME’s politics newsletter. Sign up here to get stories like this sent to your inbox.

Shaker Heights is famously obsessed with its image as a much-desired ZIP code to the east of Cleveland, its excellent public schools, and its unapologetically progressive politics. The streets are just so, the houses equally as fussy. English Tudor, colonial, and French country for decades were the only architectural choices that could be approved by its original planning commission, and saloons, duplexes, and billboards were explicitly banned. The aesthetics were not by accident. Nor were its schools’ excellence and integration, as intentional as any in the country; Shaker Heights was at the cutting edge of elective efforts to eradicate racialized school assignments in the late 1960s, even before courts ordered bussing plans to build a better racial balance in classrooms “The Good Life in Shaker Heights,” read one 1963 cover story in Cosmopolitan. The community, planted between the downtown of America’s one-time third-largest city and the Metroparks’ Polo Field, was, in the magazine’s estimation, “the inside story of an American dream town come true.”

But dreams are only approximations of reality, and that’s where veteran journalist Laura Meckler comes in. (Disclosure: we are friends and both alumni of The Associated Press.) As a product of Shaker Heights’ schools—like Paul Newman—Meckler went home to reconsider whether the progressive myths she embraced as a student still held true for reporting as The Washington Post’s national education writer. The truth, it turns out, is complicated.

Meckler’s new book Dream Town: Shaker Heights and The Quest For Racial Equity is a close examination of the history and hagiography of her hometown, which perhaps is the nation’s most-scrutinized case study for school desegregation. But Meckler’s sharp eye on Shaker Heights has a new resonance in the culture wars of today: in a way, the town’s efforts were a well-meaning but deeply imperfect effort at what today would be wrongly derided as wokeness.

Below is an edited and condensed transcript from our phone conversation last week.

We're both from Northeast Ohio and, for a lot of folks, Shaker Heights is the gold standard in racial progress. I mean, you went to a school that teaches a course on oppression. But reading your book, I can't help but feel like that's a lot of created history and nostalgic retelling of something that maybe wasn't as great as we'd like to believe it was. You came across a 1979 US News & World Report headline We Feel Good About Ourselves. What was it like going home and confronting the nostalgia, the created memory, and perhaps the false memory?

I wouldn't so much call it a false memory. I would call it an incomplete memory. I think that what we have here is that just like in all facets of life, things aren't perfect or terrible. There aren't heroes or villains. There are efforts at progress and success and failure. And I still think that what Shaker feels good about itself—the fact that it is a diverse community, that it does have integrated neighborhoods, that it does have integrated schools—is very real.

Having said all that, it was never any kind of utopia. It was never a place that had race mastered or enjoyed anything close to perfection. It is a place that has struggled with issues of race over many years and tried to find solutions. Some have helped and some have not; some have actually made the problem worse. What I tried to do with this book is get at the nuance, which is that it's not what it looks like on the brochure. It's not perfect, but it's still better than 99% of this country.

The racial achievement gap in Shaker is bigger than I had realized. [At Shaker, 85% of white eighth graders are taking an advanced math class while just 30% of their Black classmates can say the same. Among ninth graders, 95% of the white students are proficient in English compared to 50% of Black students. And in advanced courses, 68% of white students are enrolled versus 12% of Black students.] How do they narrow that? 

That's the million-dollar question. There are a lot of kids who have come from families with far fewer resources than others and are really struggling with life.

Another piece is doing what you can to foster a sense of belonging. That was one of my main takeaways. Shaker could do more to hire more Black faculty. There has been some progress, but there's further to go.

The big solution that is being tried right now is called detracking, which is mixing kids of different ability levels in the same classes. The jury is still out on how effective that's going to be, but there is potential there. The idea that you were sending a message to kids as young as 10 and 11 that you're either in the enrichment classes, so you're a smart kid, or you're in the regular classes, so you're not one of the smart kids, is incredibly damaging. Those patterns were incredibly racialized.

You mentioned belonging. Is it possible to have a community where everyone truly feels like they belong? 

I hope so. I think that Shaker is really trying, but I don't know. It's partly about what's in the curriculum, but in some ways those are the easier things. How do you make a mom who doesn't feel like she fits into the P.T.O. because nobody there looks like her? It takes work on the part of everybody in that room.

I also can’t help but chuckle at some of the characters you introduce us to, the folks who would see themselves as do-gooders. They come across as accidental racists. There's a lot of work to be done still, even among the people who want to be doing the right thing. 

There is a ton of work. Each chapter is anchored by a different person, and these are hopefully fully drawn people who are both well-intentioned and doing some positive things, and also have some real blind spots and make some mistakes.

One good example is the superintendent who led the district towards the first busing plan. His original plan was a one-way busing plan that took Black kids out of the predominantly Black schools and sent them to other schools. White people in the community agreed that it was unfair to have it one-way and volunteered their kids to be part of a two-way busing plan. And that was what was adopted. I don't know if I would call that superintendent an accidental racist. I would say he is somebody who had biases he probably wasn't even aware of.

The word in your last answer that we should linger on for a moment is voluntary. So many people in Shaker bought into the effort there. 

This only works if people are on board with it. That was the case where the community was tested. Will you take your kid out of your neighborhood school and send them to a school that has historically been majority Black? A lot of parents said yes. The groundwork for that moment had been laid through a housing integration plan. They were buying into the idea of living in an integrated community, even if it never was perfect.

Shaker really seemed to have mastered the art of intersectionality, especially when it comes to the activist community. And it seems to be a perfect proving ground that it's really tough to hate someone once you know someone. What was that like coming across so much of that in your reporting?

And also my childhood, I would add. That is why we care. It matters about resources and having kids all have access to high-quality education. It matters for our individual development of who we are and preparing us to live and work in a diverse country. If you talk to graduates of Shaker, people who are from here, people who still live here, they will almost uniformly tell you that they see the world in a different way because they grew up with people who are different than they are.

What I'd assumed was so much of a settled identity for Shaker has come under scrutiny, and you write about this in your later chapters using the analogy of a sandcastle on the shores getting hit with the waves over and over again. Can that sandcastle stand or do we need to rebuild it from scratch? 

Can it stand? The upshot is that it is standing. Is it a perfect sandcastle? No, it is not. It’s far less perfect than I thought it was growing up. As long as you have people committed to building a sandcastle, you're going to have something that looks kind of like a sandcastle. That doesn't mean it's not fragile. If the people who are working on that and are reinforcing it with more buckets of sand, even when it's hot and maybe they don't feel like it, it stands. It only works as long as there are people committed to it.

Ultimately this is and will be a story of self-selection. Parents are betting this can work. How do you keep people betting into buying into this experiment? 

When I say it is working, I mean shakily so. The reason why Shaker is still doing this 70 years after the first Black families moved in is because as Shaker developed this as a sense of identity. The people who didn't like that tended to leave and the people who did like that were drawn here and moved in. So it was self-reinforcing.

But we've had a rough couple years. There's no guarantee that it lasts forever. Let's say a critical mass of upper-income white people decide that this detracking effort is something they don't like, and they leave the school system in mass numbers, then that will change the nature of the school district. That hasn't happened and we're three years in. But it only works if everybody's in the boat.

Growing up, did you realize how special of a community you were a part of?

Very much so. I had an attitude that I was holding a superiority trump card in the category of race relations. I thought we’ve got this figured out, which was never really totally true. I grew up next door to a multiracial family that was very influential in my early thinking about race in ways I didn't even understand. I knew that my schools were diverse. I also saw that my advanced classes were predominantly white. And I wondered why that was, but it wasn't enough to obfuscate the overall good feeling I felt about being in Shaker. Returning as a reporter, you learn a lot more.

Make sense of what matters in Washington. Sign up for the D.C. Brief newsletter.

Write to Philip Elliott at philip.elliott@time.com.