No Blacks Allowed!

No Blacks Allowed
October 6, 2017

In the 1960s, the Civil Rights Movement successfully forced an end to racial segregation in public transportation, in public accommodations, in employment, in voting and in school assignments. Serious enforcement problems remain, but we have nonetheless seen great progress in these areas.
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, because housing segregation is different from other kinds of segregation. After we abolished discrimination on buses, African Americans could take any empty seat. But a prohibition of future discrimination in housing left segregated neighborhoods intact. Even strong enforcement of the Fair Housing Act would still result in only modest residential integration.
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 these 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.

• 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.

• 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 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.

We have done little to press for residential integration, because both liberals and conservatives, Blacks and Whites, have adopted a national myth: that what we see around us is de facto segregation. We do not see it as the result of a government design to segregate the nation. Instead, we see it as 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 the result of discriminatory actions of private real estate agents or bankers.
This is a small part of the truth. In reality, as I describe in my recent book, The Color of Law, racially explicit government policy in the mid-20th 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 we have forgotten this history, 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 African-American baggage handlers 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 his autobiography (The Big Sea), the 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. Previously integrated neighborhoods in Cambridge, Mass.; Atlanta; St. Louis; San Francisco; and elsewhere also gave way to segregated public housing, structuring patterns that persisted for generations.
In Boston, the 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 might 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, Calif., 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 while White workers were assigned to separate projects, mostly in more 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. As 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 projects develop vacancies while Black ones had long waiting lists? It largely resulted from a Federal Housing Administration (FHA) program that guaranteed loans to builders of suburban subdivisions, with explicit requirements that Black families be excluded and that house deeds prohibit re-sale to them. The FHA published a manual used by real estate appraisers nationwide specifying that loans could not be federally subsidized if “incompatible racial elements” were present, or 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 cities in between, were created in this way, ensuring the segregation of their metropolitan areas.
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.
American novelist Wallace Stegner 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 to expel 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 policies, 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 35 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, seven times the national median income, unaffordable to young working-class families of either race. Meanwhile, Whites who suburbanized a half-century ago with federal protection gained, and bequeathed to their children, $300,000 in equity to use for children’s college tuitions, care for elderly parents or medical emergencies. Black families and their offspring, remaining in cities as renters, gained no such security.
As a result, average African-American household wealth is only about 7 percent of average White household wealth. This enormous disparity is almost entirely the result of unconstitutional federal housing policy practiced in the 20th century. It explains a good part of the racial inequality that we see all around us.
Other discriminatory federal policies also contributed. In 1935, Congress adopted a National Labor Relations Act that gave unions the exclusive right to bargain with employers, provided the 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 post-war 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 prohibit construction of affordable housing, like modest single family homes, townhouses or apartments. We could go further and require that all new development be mixed-income. We could prohibit landlords from discriminating against holders of “Section 8” vouchers and even adjust the vouchers’ administration, to make them affordable in middle-class communities. 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. But if we 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.
Today, the most widely used American history high school textbooks fail to tell the truth about how segregation was created. They describe 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 fail to mention that it segregated previously integrated communities. They praise the FHA’s contribution to suburbanization, but 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.

— Richard Rothstein is the author of The Color of Law: A Forgotten History of How Our Government Segregated America, a research associate of the Economic Policy Institute and a fellow at the Thurgood Marshall Institute of the NAACP Legal Defense and Educational Fund.