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The Fair Housing Act at 50


50 years ago today, Congress passed the Fair Housing Act. Attempts to pass similar legislation had failed in the Senate in 1966, but a bill passed in the wake of the assassination of Martin Luther King Jr.  As with voting rights, the current administration is fully committed to undermining this landmark civil rights legislation, despite housing segregation being an acute, ongoing problem:

In 1969, Johnson transformed the federal Housing and Home Finance Agency into the Department of Housing and Urban Development, charging it with supervising the battle against housing discrimination. HUD would become a powerful force in the national housing industry, a critical government regulator. But HUD would also operate at the direction of the sitting president. And through the years that has meant that HUD has produced inconsistent results in discouraging discrimination against homebuyers and renters.


Before the Fair Housing Act’s anniversary celebration could kick off, HUD’s current leader, Secretary Ben Carson, announced the department’s mission statement would be altered. It had read in part: “build inclusive and sustainable communities free from discrimination.” In a March 5 memo to HUD political staff, Amy Thompson, the department’s assistant secretary for public affairs, explained the mission statement was being updated “to align HUD’s mission with the secretary’s priorities and that of the administration.” The new mission statement reads: “to ensure Americans have access to fair, affordable housing and opportunities to achieve self-sufficiency.”

Tomorrow, my Law In Society class will finish our discussion of Richard Rothstein’s landmark new book, The Color of Law. One thing the book makes clear is that America’s separate and unequal housing is not just the result of the choices of private individuals or race-neutral policies that unduly burden racial minorities but explicit, formally discriminatory policy. Rachel Cohen’s review summarizes Rothstein’s research and conclusions:

The Color of Law resurrects an older view that had proven instrumental in the movements of the 1960s: that American government has betrayed a commitment it made with the adoption of the 13th, 14th, and 15th Amendments, to ensure that black Americans could take their place as equal members in American society. The book describes the systematic violation of black Americans’ constitutional rights, through the aggressive enactment and enforcement of racially discriminatory policies. Rothstein notes that these facts were “knowable” all along; the Supreme Court even ignored evidence of government discrimination presented in Milliken’s lower court trial.

Rothstein persuasively debunks many contemporary myths about racial discrimination. He goes after, for instance, the resilient misconception that racial separation was only government policy in the Jim Crow South, and that black entrants into neighborhoods cause white homeowners’ property values to fall. In one powerful section on zoning policies, Rothstein traces how hazardous waste sites were concentrated in segregated black neighborhoods. The episode mirrors the displacement of black families by urban renewal and interstate highway construction in mid-20th century. Even though it has long been recognized that these policies were immensely destructive and racially targeted, hardly any compensatory assistance has ever been provided.

Rothstein’s arguments are framed in the language of the civil rights movement, once common but much rarer today. In that vein, he affirmatively argues for a return to the harder-edged moralistic terminology of decades past. He refuses to shy away from words like “ghettos” and “slums,” because, he says, no alternative comes close to showing how government action is implicated in their creation. Even more strikingly, he eschews the modern euphemism “people of color,” saying American segregation has been first and foremost directed at black families, something that shouldn’t be obscured.

The most important de jure discrimination was the redlining in underwriting standards set by the Federal Housing Authority and other New Deal federal agencies.  The refusal to underwrite mortgages for predominantly African-American neighborhoods — and, in many cases, white neighborhoods that were perceived as being too close to African-American neighborhoods and hence “threatened” with integration — was explicit. From the 1936 FHA manual:

There are other examples, of course — when mobs would act to stop integration and attack African-American households, the victims were more likely to be tried tan the perpetrators. And whole blockbusting was largely generated by private real estate agents and speculators, it was profitable in large measure because of federal policies that effectively locked African-Americans out of white suburbs. Segregated housing was the result of systematic, explicit discrimination, and the idea that the effects of this quickly wash out in a country where home equity is the primary source of wealth for most families is absurd.

Starting later this, we’ll return to our discussion later this week, we’ll return to our discussion of the worst Supreme Court cases in history, looking at the cases that used the fallacy that neighborhood segregation was a fact of nature rather than a creation of state policy to gut Brown v. Board of Education.

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