Seg­re­gated neigh­bor­hoods, with the gov­ern­ment’s bless­ing

The Washington Post Sunday - - BOOK WORLD - Charles Lane cov­ers hous­ing is­sues for The Wash­ing­ton Post’s ed­i­to­rial page. RE­VIEW BY CHARLES LANE

By the early 20th cen­tury, Amer­i­can neigh­bor­hoods were highly seg­re­gated along racial lines, con­trary to prom­ises em­bod­ied in the post-Civil War con­sti­tu­tional amend­ments end­ing slav­ery and es­tab­lish­ing equal rights. Seg­re­ga­tion was so far advanced by 1930 that neigh­bor­hoods in the av­er­age U.S. metropoli­tan area could not have achieved a ran­dom dis­tri­bu­tion of African Amer­i­cans and whites un­less fully 65 per­cent of blacks re­lo­cated, ac­cord­ing to stud­ies of cen­sus data by mod­ern de­mog­ra­phers.

Twenty years later, af­ter the Great De­pres­sion and World War II, and af­ter mil­lions of African Amer­i­cans left the South for the North in search of eco­nomic op­por­tu­nity — and safety from racist vi­o­lence — seg­re­ga­tion had wors­ened sig­nif­i­cantly.

In 1950, achiev­ing a ran­dom racial dis­tri­bu­tion of in­hab­i­tants in the av­er­age metropoli­tan area would have re­quired nearly three­quar­ters of African Amer­i­cans to change res­i­dence. And that level of seg­re­ga­tion per­sisted through 1970.

In short, the mid­dle decades of the 20th cen­tury were an age of ghet­toiza­tion. In “The Color of Law,” Richard Rothstein shows how and why this hap­pened, and it wasn’t by ac­ci­dent. Blacks did not move into over­crowded slums as a mat­ter of group pref­er­ence. Nor was pri­vate racial dis­crim­i­na­tion by white devel­op­ers, banks and homeown­ers’ as­so­ci­a­tions ex­clu­sively to blame, though it was cer­tainly a key fac­tor.

Rather, the fed­eral gov­ern­ment used its ex­pand­ing power to pro­mote apartheid-like sep­a­ra­tion of whites and blacks in cities and towns across the coun­try.

When the U.S. hous­ing mar­ket col­lapsed in the Great De­pres­sion, Wash­ing­ton took con­trol and at­tempted to re­vive it through New Deal agen­cies, such as the Fed­eral Hous­ing Ad­min­is­tra­tion (FHA) and Home Own­ers Loan Cor­po­ra­tion.

The seg­re­ga­tion that Pres­i­dent Franklin D. Roo­sevelt’s ad­min­is­tra­tion in­her­ited re­flected pre­ex­ist­ing in­sti­tu­tions, of which re­stric­tive racial covenants may have been the most im­por­tant. They were still rel­a­tively new, how­ever. FDR might well have used his un­prece­dented lever­age over hous­ing fi­nance to undo them.

In­stead, the New Deal did the op­po­site. The FHA pro­moted racial covenants and other in­stru­ments of seg­re­ga­tion through un­der­writ­ing stan­dards dis­cour­ag­ing home loans in ar­eas “in­fil­trat[ed]” by “in­har­mo­nious racial or na­tion­al­ity groups.” The ra­tio­nale was the gov­ern­ment’s need to pro­tect its in­vest­ment, and those of white homeown­ers, against the threat African Amer­i­can neigh­bors would pose to prop­erty val­ues.

No data sup­ported this os­ten­si­ble con­cern, as Rothstein notes. The FHA’s pro-seg­re­ga­tion pol­icy re­flected racist as­sump­tions that per­vaded even pro­gres­sive cir­cles in the 1930s — plus FDR’s need to ap­pease his South­ern Demo­cratic sup­port­ers.

When World War II be­gan, the fed­eral gov­ern­ment con­structed dwellings for work­ers who flocked to de­fense-re­lated fac­to­ries. This hous­ing, too, was al­lo­cated by race. In some af­fected lo­cal­i­ties, there was no hous­ing seg­re­ga­tion, nor even any par­tic­u­lar his­tory of Jim Crow, un­til the feds cre­ated it.

Rothstein tells the story of Rich­mond, Calif., across the bay from San Fran­cisco. From 1940 to 1945, nearly 14,000 African Amer­i­cans flowed into what was then a small Pa­cific Coast ship­build­ing city. The gov­ern­ment housed them in poorer-qual­ity, of­fi­cially seg­re­gated build­ings, set­ting aside bet­ter homes for whites. This “es­tab­lished seg­re­gated liv­ing pat­terns that per­sist to this day,” Rothstein writes.

“The Color of Law” thus adds a nec­es­sary cor­rec­tive to es­tab­lished nar­ra­tives about the im­pact of the New Deal and World War II on U.S. do­mes­tic in­sti­tu­tions. Two decades of Demo­cratic dom­i­nance in Wash­ing­ton were in­deed a time “When Af­fir­ma­tive Ac­tion Was White,” as the ti­tle of his­to­rian Ira Katznel­son’s 2005 book about the pe­riod sug­gests.

And, as Rothstein shows, the ef­fects lin­gered for decades. Home­own­er­ship was a key path to wealth in post­war Amer­ica, yet many blacks were ex­cluded. To­day, the me­dian white house­hold’s net worth is 16 times that of the me­dian African Amer­i­can house­hold.

In 1948, the Supreme Court ren­dered re­stric­tive covenants un­en­force­able. The post­war FHA even­tu­ally aban­doned “redlin­ing,” though not be­fore un­der­writ­ing new whitesonly sub­urbs for re­turn­ing vet­er­ans, in­clud­ing Long Is­land’s iconic Le­vit­town.

Not un­til 1968 would a dif­fer­ent kind of Demo­cratic ad­min­is­tra­tion, that of Pres­i­dent Lyn­don B. John­son, en­act the Fair Hous­ing Act to undo the dam­age done by its pre­de­ces­sors (and by the Repub­li­can Eisen­hower ad­min­is­tra­tion, whose In­ter­state High­way Sys­tem some­times dis­placed mi­nor­ity com­mu­ni­ties and fa­cil­i­tated the growth of white sub­urbs).

By out­law­ing overt dis­crim­i­na­tion, the Fair Hous­ing Act helped bring about change. As of 2010, ran­dom­iz­ing racial res­i­den­tial pat­terns in ma­jor metropoli­tan ar­eas would re­quire 47 per­cent of African Amer­i­cans to move. This is down sub­stan­tially from pre­vi­ous lev­els and 17 points away from the 30 per­cent level in­dica­tive of “low” neigh­bor­hood seg­re­ga­tion, ac­cord­ing to Uni­ver­sity of Michi­gan de­mog­ra­pher Wil­liam H. Frey.

Neigh­bor­hood seg­re­ga­tion also eased be­cause of fac­tors such as the mi­gra­tion of mid­dle-class blacks to sub­urbs in the South, in­clud­ing sub­di­vi­sions that did not even ex­ist prior to the Fair Hous­ing Act. Ur­ban sprawl, in that sense, has aided de­seg­re­ga­tion.

As Frey shows in his 2014 book, “Diver­sity Ex­plo­sion,” some of the least-seg­re­gated metropoli­tan ar­eas in Amer­ica now are places like Raleigh, N.C., and Las Ve­gas. Im­mi­gra­tion from Asia and Latin Amer­ica has mean­while fos­tered the rise of what Brown Uni­ver­sity so­ci­ol­o­gist John Lo­gan has called “global neigh­bor­hoods.”

A dis­cus­sion of such data would have strength­ened Rothstein’s oth­er­wise ex­cel­lent book. The fig­ures quan­tify how griev­ously mid-20th-cen­tury poli­cies harmed African Amer­i­cans, and the coun­try, but also how close we are — or were — to un­do­ing the dam­age.

Black-white seg­re­ga­tion is still shame­fully per­sis­tent, es­pe­cially in older North­ern cities such as Chicago and New York. Pres­i­den­tial ad­min­is­tra­tions of both par­ties never fully en­forced the most ag­gres­sive reme­dies in the Fair Hous­ing Act, which made lo­cal com­mu­ni­ties’ ac­cess to fed­eral hous­ing dol­lars con­tin­gent on their ef­forts to “af­fir­ma­tively fur­ther” fair hous­ing — the op­po­site of fed­eral pol­icy in the ’30s and ’40s.

In the wan­ing days of Pres­i­dent Barack Obama’s sec­ond term, his hous­ing sec­re­tary pro­duced a reg­u­la­tion re­quir­ing states and lo­cal­i­ties to as­sess pat­terns of seg­re­ga­tion and make plans to ad­dress them, with their fed­eral aid ul­ti­mately on the line.

Pres­i­dent Trump’s elec­tion casts that long­post­poned rule back into limbo. New Hous­ing Sec­re­tary Ben Car­son, an ul­tra­con­ser­va­tive African Amer­i­can neu­ro­sur­geon who grew up in seg­re­gated Detroit, de­nounced Obama’s ap­proach in a 2015 op-ed col­umn.

“These gov­ern­ment-en­gi­neered at­tempts to leg­is­late racial equal­ity cre­ate con­se­quences that of­ten make mat­ters worse,” Car­son wrote.


Blighted Spring­field Av­enue in Ne­wark, May 1, 1974. The mid­dle decades of the 20th cen­tury saw deep­en­ing seg­re­ga­tion in Amer­i­can cities, and gov­ern­ment hous­ing poli­cies were a sig­nif­i­cant fac­tor.

THE COLOR OF LAW A For­got­ten His­tory of How Our Gov­ern­ment Seg­re­gated Amer­ica By Richard Rothstein Liveright. 345 pp. $27.95

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