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We Can End Racial Segregation in America

For decades, government policy helped make segregation worse. But we can use the power of the government to reverse it in the twenty-first century.

The now extensively demolished Sursum Corda Cooperative housing project in Washington, DC. Paul Goddin / flickr

Starting in the 1930s, civil rights litigators won court victories that desegregated law and graduate schools, then colleges and, in the 1954 Brown decision, elementary and secondary schools. These legal victories helped to spur a civil rights movement that, in the 1960s, forced an end to racial segregation in public transportation, in public accommodations, in employment, and in voting. Serious enforcement problems remain, and a contemporary backlash threatens these victories, but we have nonetheless seen great progress in these areas since the mid-twentieth century.

The movement also succeeded in passing the Fair Housing Act, yet progress in the desegregation of neighborhoods has been minimal. Most African Americans in every metropolitan area remain residentially separate.

Our ongoing residential segregation underlies many of the nation’s most serious social and economic problems.

Schools remain segregated because the neighborhoods in which they are located are racially and economically isolated. In low-income racially segregated communities, children are in poorer health, are under greater stress from parents’ economic insecurity, and have less access to high-quality early-childhood, after-school, and summer programs. When children with these and other economic challenges are concentrated in single schools, their problems can overwhelm teachers, and pupil achievement suffers.

The “black-white achievement gap” that is such a focus of educational reformers is substantially caused by residential racial segregation. School segregation today is at its highest level since courts began backing away from requiring integration forty years ago. The paltry accomplishments of decades of school reform are the consequence of addressing the symptoms of school failure, not its cause — residential segregation.

Hostile, sometimes fatal confrontations between police and African American youth would be rarer if the most disadvantaged young people were not concentrated in neighborhoods lacking well-resourced schools, good jobs, and transportation to better opportunities. In integrated neighborhoods with substantial middle-class populations, police are more likely to perform as public servants, not as an occupying force.

Disparities in life expectancy and health between whites and African Americans in large part result from differences in neighborhood quality; black families are more likely to live in polluted and stressful places where access to healthy food and health care is limited.

Relatively low intergenerational mobility rates in our nation are exacerbated by residential segregation; low-income African American children who grow up in low-income neighborhoods are less likely, as adults, to achieve middle-class status than otherwise similar low-income African American children who grow up in neighborhoods where poverty is less concentrated. Such economically diverse neighborhoods are more likely to be racially integrated as well.

Residential segregation is more difficult to abolish than the racial segregations of the twentieth century. After we abolished discrimination on buses or at lunch counters, African Americans could take any empty seat on a bus or sit at any lunch counter. But the Fair Housing Act’s prohibition of future discrimination in housing left segregated neighborhoods intact. Even strong enforcement of the Fair Housing Act, something we have never experienced, would result in only modest residential integration.

Because residential desegregation is more difficult than other civil rights struggles, we have rationalized our failure to attempt it by adopting a national myth, one shared by the Left and the Right, by liberals and conservatives, by blacks and whites: that what we see around us is de facto segregation, not the result of a government design to segregate the nation, but rather the result of private prejudice, the personal preferences of both blacks and whites to live with same-race neighbors, income differences that make integrated communities unaffordable to many African Americans, or perhaps from the discriminatory actions of private real-estate agents or bankers.

This is a small part of the truth. In reality, as I describe in my book, The Color of Law, racially explicit government policy in the mid-twentieth century was the most powerful force separating the races in every metropolitan area, with effects that endure today. Because racial segregation results from the open, racially explicit, purposeful action of federal, state, and local governments, our residential racial boundaries are unconstitutional; because they are unconstitutional, we have an obligation to remedy them; because we have forgotten the history of how residential segregation was created by government, we are handicapped in our ability to address it.

The New Deal created our first civilian public housing, intended to provide lodging mostly for lower-middle-class white families during the Depression. Some projects were built for black families as well, but almost always segregated. At the time, many urban areas were integrated because workers of both races lived in walking distance of downtown factories and other workplaces. In many cities, for example, communities near train stations were frequently integrated, because the railroads would only hire African Americans as baggage handlers; they  had to live nearby, among white workers in other industries. The Public Works Administration (PWA) demolished many such integrated neighborhoods to build segregated housing instead, creating segregation where it had not previously existed. In Atlanta, the government demolished a neighborhood that was about half white and half black to build a public housing project for whites only, with a separate project for African Americans farther away. In St. Louis, housing in a similarly mixed neighborhood was demolished to build a project for African Americans only, with a separate project for whites built in a different part of the city.

This, it should be emphasized, was not primarily a program for the South or border states. In Northern and Midwestern states, the federal government’s New Deal programs, along with local housing agencies, created segregated patterns that persisted for generations. In his autobiography, The Big Sea, the African American poet and novelist Langston Hughes described going to high school in an integrated Cleveland neighborhood where his best friend was Polish and he dated a Jewish girl. The PWA cleared the area to build one project for whites and another for African Americans. In Cambridge, Massachusetts, the Central Square neighborhood between Harvard University and Massachusetts Institute of Technology (MIT) was about half white and half black at the beginning of the 1930s. The federal government demolished integrated housing in Central Square to create two separate projects, one for whites and one for African Americans.

In Boston, the federally financed Mission Hill project was for whites, the Mission Hill Extension across the road was for African Americans. In Chicago, the Julia C. Lathrop and Trumbull Park Homes were built in white neighborhoods for whites only; the Ida B. Wells Homes were built in an African American area for blacks only. This government housing program exacerbated existing racial patterns; had projects been integrated, Chicago would not now be one of the most segregated cities in the nation.

During World War II, whites and African Americans flocked to jobs in defense plants, sometimes in communities that had no tradition of segregated living. Yet the government built separate projects for blacks and whites, determining future residential boundaries. Richmond, California, a suburb of Berkeley, was one of the nation’s largest shipbuilding centers. It had few African Americans before the war; by its end, thousands were housed along the railroad tracks in Richmond and Berkeley, while white workers were assigned to housing in more established white residential areas.

By the mid-1950s, projects for whites had many unoccupied units, while those for African Americans had long waiting lists. Eventually, as whites continued to leave, almost all public housing was opened to African Americans. At about the same time, industry left for the suburbs, good urban jobs became scarce, and public housing residents became poorer. A program that originally addressed a middle-class housing shortage began to warehouse the poor.

Why did white-designated projects develop vacancies while black-designated ones had long waiting lists? The disparity largely resulted from a Federal Housing Administration (FHA) program that guaranteed loans to builders of working-class suburban subdivisions with explicit requirements that black families be excluded and that house deeds prohibit resale to them.

The grant of subsidy to white families for suburban moves and the prohibition against use of this subsidy by black families was not an action of rogue bureaucrats at the FHA. It was written, explicit policy, a blatant violation of the Constitution. The FHA published a manual used by real-estate appraisers nationwide specifying that loans for suburban development could not be federally subsidized if an “incompatible racial element” would be present or was already nearby. Suburbs like Levittown east of New York City, Lakewood south of Los Angeles, San Lorenzo across the Bay from San Francisco, and hundreds of others in metropolitan areas in between, were created in this way, ensuring their racial homogeneity and isolation.

The Color of Law includes a photograph of a six-foot-high, half-mile-long concrete wall that the federal government required a Detroit builder to construct, separating his development from a nearby African American neighborhood, before the builder’s loan could be approved.

Wallace Stegner, another great American novelist, in this case white, was recruited to teach writing at Stanford University after World War II. Confronting a national housing shortage, he could find no place for his family to live. So he joined, and helped lead, a cooperative of 150 families that bought a large ranch adjoining the university with a plan to build 400 homes. But the federal government would not sanction bank loans for the project’s development because three of the 150 families were African American. The co-op refused to comply with government requirements by expelling its black families, and instead it disbanded. A private developer purchased the land and, with FHA support, built an all-white subdivision in its place.

Urban public housing, originally for middle-class whites and later for lower-income African Americans, combined with FHA subsidized suburbanization of whites only, created a “white noose” around urban black families that persists to this day.

In 1968, the Fair Housing Act permitted African Americans to access previously white neighborhoods. But it prohibited only future discrimination, without undoing the previous thirty-five years of government-imposed segregation. In suburbs like Levittown, Lakewood, or San Lorenzo that sprung up nationwide in the 1940s and ’50s, houses sold for about $100,000 (in today’s currency), twice the national median income. FHA and Veterans Administration amortized mortgages made them affordable for working-class families of either race, although only whites were allowed. Today, these houses can sell for $400,000 (or more), seven times the national median income, unaffordable to young working-class families of either race. Meanwhile, whites who suburbanized with federal protection in the mid-twentieth century gained $300,000 (or more) in equity to use for children’s college tuitions, to care for elderly parents, to cushion medical or economic emergencies, or to bequeath to their children and grandchildren, enabling them to make down payments for home ownership. Black families and their offspring, remaining in cities as renters, either in public housing or in the private rental market, gained no such security.

As a result, average African American family incomes today are about 60 percent of average white family incomes, but average African American household wealth is only about 10 percent of average white household wealth. This enormous disparity is almost entirely the result of unconstitutional federal housing policy practiced in the twentieth century. It explains a good part of the racial inequality that we see all around us.

Other discriminatory federal policies contributed. In 1935, Congress adopted a National Labor Relations Act that gave unions the exclusive right to bargain with employers, provided those unions gained government certification. When the act was first introduced, it prohibited the government from certifying unions that excluded African Americans from membership. But that provision was deleted from the final bill, and the federal government then certified all-white unions, including the most powerful unions in the construction trades. Not until 1964 did the government deny certification to a whites-only union. So the government not only prohibited African Americans from living in the suburbs; it sanctioned their exclusion from the construction of those same suburbs and from fully participating in the great postwar economic expansion that boosted so many white working-class families into the middle class. If too many African Americans today cannot afford to move to middle-class communities, the government’s labor policy also bears significant responsibility.

If we developed a new national consensus that rejected the de facto myth, we could then begin to discuss ways to chip away at residential segregation. In The Color of Law, I describe a few. We could, for example, prohibit suburbs from maintaining zoning policies that ban construction of affordable housing, like modest single-family homes, town houses, or apartments. We could go further and require that all new development be mixed income. The largest federal housing program today is the mortgage interest deduction, a continued subsidy to many racially exclusive suburbs. We could make the claim of this deduction by families in a racially exclusive community contingent on that community’s taking steps to desegregate.

The next largest federal housing program is a tax credit for developers of housing for low-income families. Most tax-credit projects are located in already low-income neighborhoods, because developers would rather build in places where they face no community opposition. The result is that the tax-credit program reinforces segregation. We can change this by prioritizing integrated development.

For lower-income families hoping to move from segregated to integrated middle-class neighborhoods, we could prohibit landlords from discriminating against holders of “Section 8” vouchers and even adjust how the vouchers are administered, to make them affordable in middle-class areas. These and many other policies are not only feasible but, in the context of our shameful history, constitutionally required.

Our belief in de facto segregation is paralyzing. If our racial separation stems from millions of individual decisions, it is hard to imagine the millions of different choices that could undo it. But if we learn and remember that residential segregation results primarily from forceful and unconstitutional government policy, we can begin to consider equally forceful public action to reverse it. Learning this history is the first step we can take.

And we must teach it to our young people as well. Today, the most widely used American history high school textbooks fail to tell the truth about how segregation was created. They adopt our national myth by describing segregation in the North as de facto, pretending that government-sponsored segregation took place only in the South. They describe how the New Deal built housing for the homeless during the Depression, but they fail to mention that it segregated previously-integrated communities. They praise the FHA’s contribution to suburbanization, but they ignore that it was for whites only. Parents and others should insist that public schools use alternative curricula that accurately teach how our nation became segregated. If we don’t do a better job of instructing the younger generation, they will fail as miserably as we have in creating an integrated society.