View from Glen Hill: Housing inequality by the government’s hand

How has our country come to be so racially segregated with housing so often either predominantly white or predominantly black and neighborhood schools following suit?  The familiar answer is that it’s always been so — to start with because of slavery but, since the end of slavery, simply as a product of the fact that “both whites and blacks naturally choose not to intermingle.”

That understanding has been so widespread that U.S. Supreme Court justices — divided on the result in a 2007 case involving schools whose enrollments mirrored this neighborhood pattern — nevertheless agreed that the racial segregation that was so evident in the community in question was what the law terms “de facto” segregation. De facto segregation is caused by choices black and white people voluntarily make, as contrasted with “de jure” segregation that comes about through government action. The court’s majority held that as de facto segregation, the result was not remediable by affirmative action as it could have been if the segregation had been de jure.

A new book turns this thinking on its head. Richard Rothstein’s The Color of Law: A Forgotten History of How our Government Segregated America is filled with detailed analysis that carefully and convincingly traces the pervasive extent of government action fostering, and even explicitly mandating, housing segregation. Those actions occurred under both Republican and Democratic Presidencies from Harding and Hoover to Franklin D. Roosevelt and then Truman and Eisenhower. The racially dividing impact of these government actions is still very much with us to this day. Their consequences have been felt not just in African Americans’ access to housing, important as that is, but also in their access to good education, tranquility and safety.

Before the Great Depression, housing was remarkably integrated, especially in neighborhoods surrounding factories where, in times before the widespread use of automobiles, workers white and black alike needed to live near their employment. Then as the Depression progressed and many people lost their homes, FDR’s New Deal aimed at providing new housing.

His Public Works Administration (PWA) tore apart integrated neighborhoods and built apartment housing in their place that was explicitly divided into buildings exclusively for white families and those exclusively for black families. The white families in question were for the most part middle class, as a 1937 photograph of FDR happily handing the keys to a PWA-built apartment reflects. Shortly thereafter, as the massive buildup in military production took place with the advent of World War II, the population of many towns and cities grew enormously with huge influxes of workers all needing housing.  That housing was often government built and built on an explicitly racially segregated basis.

The pattern continued post-war under the Truman and Eisenhower Administrations.  The G.I. Bill and other farsighted measures were designed to provide a good homecoming to our troops and to avoid the grave U.S. economic downturn that had followed the end of World War I. Among those measures was massive federal government support — through the Federal Housing Administration (FHA) and the Veterans Administration (VA) — of suburban single-family home construction. The Levittowns and the like that sprang up across America reflected that government financial support.

This construction could not have occurred but for FHA guarantees of construction loans to developers followed by FHA and VA guarantees of home mortgage loans that enabled purchase of the completed houses. However, the FHA and VA uniformly required the inclusion and enforcement of racially restrictive covenants in the housing they financed. Furthermore, bank redlining – a practice that restricted mortgage-loan issuance by neighborhood on a racially divided basis — compounded the government pressure to segregate and was again done under FHA direction, supervision and encouragement.

And even before the Roosevelt, Truman and Eisenhower Administrations, the Harding and Hoover Administrations had encouraged nationwide adoption of local zoning laws.  A key provision of those laws was racially restrictive zoning, and cities and towns across the country adopted these racial restrictions as part of their zoning codes. Examples abound across our own state of such racially restrictive provisions that were adopted by municipal governments and persisted for much of a half-century.

So the pervasive pattern of governmental creation and expansion of housing segregation across the country gives the lie to the notion that this segregation is not de jure. Hopefully, with all of our eyes (including judges’) now opened, aggressive steps can be taken to rectify these historical injustices which continue to affect key aspects of life for all of us and the integrity of the society in which we live.