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Connecticut ranks in the top 15 states for the least racial integration according to a 2020 study from WalletHub, and some state leaders say this divide makes it harder to have conversations about ending racism.

“All of our perspectives are shaped by where we live and where we grew up, and we live in one of the most segregated states in the country and that reflects itself in a lot of the policy that we see out there,” said Rep. Jason Rojas, D-East Hartford.

Rojas participated in a virtual forum Tuesday about the effect of systemic racism on public education hosted by Democrats for Education Reform (DFER). He said it is hard for families of different backgrounds to grow up understanding one another if they live so far apart.

“We can’t pretend to understand each other’s humanity. We don’t live next to each other, if our kids don’t go to school together, if we don’t pray together, we don’t eat in the same restaurants,” Rojas said. “Segregation has a real effective way of keeping us apart and keeping us from really understanding each other’s humanity.”

This lack of understanding of one another’s humanity has thwarted legislative attempts to reduce segregation in schools and neighborhoods in the past, Rojas said. Senate Bill 454, which was introduced in 2019, sought to regionalize Connecticut school district functions to save state money.

Amy Dowell, Connecticut state director of DFER remembers the protests that ensued at the State Capitol after the regionalization bill was proposed. The movement, which became known as, “Hands Off Our Schools,” demonstrated some Connecticut residents’ discomfort with interacting with those outside of their immediate community.

“The loudness of it took people aback, and from my own experience I think people didn’t think there would be so much vocal pushback or anger around keeping this down,” Dowell said.

Rojas, however, was not surprised at the reaction. He noted that Connecticut, unlike other states, does not operate with county-level government, so most residents are used to operating within the microcosm of their own small town. He agreed that there is some value in local control, but he said the realities of segregation cannot be ignored.

“We are literally limiting something that everybody values, which is opportunity,” Rojas said. “That is not taking place for too many of our students, whether they are black and brown in our cities or poor and white out in eastern Connecticut, and we have to have a very frank and honest discussion about that.”

Dowell said that the local control that the Connecticut government is built on also makes it hard to advance affordable housing legislation that would also help to integrate Connecticut. Rojas said that politically, these are hard changes to make.

“I have been working on affordable housing during my time in the legislature and we haven’t gotten very far,” Rojas said. “Perhaps it’s a political failure on my part, perhaps it is a recognition that it is a very emotional and difficult issue to get through the legislature when it is a suburban-dominated legislature.”

He said that his colleagues that represent suburban areas have to listen to their constituents who don’t want to see new affordable housing locations built in their region.

“I am not going to criticize my colleague for recognizing the political realities of their district,” Rojas said. “I am going to reach out to the people who are communicating with their legislators and essentially saying, ‘I am comfortable with segregation. I am comfortable with inequity.’”

The root of some of the stigmas that make some residents of Connecticut fear integration may start with inherent biases in school districts, according to Shavar Jeffries, national president of DFER.

“With students of color there is a historical statement about what it is they can learn,” Jeffries said. “For black students, the whole explanation of slavery and Jim Crow were that these were not really full human beings so they needed to be dealt with in a different kind of way. We see that stigma even in modern times continues to rear its head in terms of implicit biases and often explicit as well.”

As for the first step Connecticut lawmakers can take to deal with issues of segregation and systemic racism in public education, Rojas said he’d need to think.

“There is no one answer, there are probably 50 different points we need to address that question from and all of them can lead to this collective good of addressing racism in public education,” Rojas said.