Government needs to address residential segregation that it helped create.
In the past couple of weeks, both the president and the U.S. Supreme Court have addressed the issue of fair housing because housing segregation continues to be a problem across the country, nearly 50 years after the Fair Housing Act became law in 1968.
Why do economic and racial segregation persist? And why does residential segregation matter?
It’s easiest to see why it matters. Multiple studies have shown that where people live affects their health, their access to jobs, their personal safety and the kind of education their children will get.
Most people don’t need studies to see most of that. People who have options choose neighborhoods carefully for all of those reasons. But sometimes we assume if we can do it, everyone can find a way to move up into a better neighborhood. That’s actually hard to do, especially when race is involved.
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I’ve been revisiting the issue, and a couple of ideas stick out. One is that we’re not talking about diversity for its own sake, or about having a nice mix to feel good about, but rather about power and access to opportunity. That’s an important distinction for understanding the persistence of housing segregation.
The other important idea is that segregation is not primarily driven by people in a minority simply choosing to live together, or by people in the majority choosing individually to exclude people from their neighborhoods. Both of those things happen, but they are not the main cause of the persistence.
A good report from The Leadership Conference, a coalition of 200 national organizations that advocates for civil and human rights, summarized the history. It focused on African Americans, the group most likely to live in segregated neighborhoods. (A separate 2013 study from Pew Research found that in New York City, for instance, neighborhoods’ integration of white, Hispanic and Asian-American residents had increased, while integration of black residents had not.)
Another article from the Economic Policy Institute, a think tank that focuses on labor issues, last year focused on the mechanisms of contemporary segregation.
The reports emphasize the role of government in supporting and even causing segregation.
As black people migrated out of the South early in the 1900s, some cities adopted “sundown rules” requiring black people who worked in town to leave by sundown. Some excluded black Americans entirely.
Southern cities often mandated separate neighborhoods for blacks and whites. And in many parts of the country, including in King County, restrictive covenants kept neighborhoods segregated, and the residential patterns they created persist. (In 1917, the U.S. Supreme Court ruled local governments couldn’t use racially restrictive covenants. Private covenants rose in their place, until they were ruled illegal in 1968.)
You can read more about local covenants in the Segregated Seattle section of University of Washington Seattle Civil Rights & Labor History Project site. Here’s one from Queen Anne: “No person or persons of Asiatic, African or Negro blood, lineage, or extraction shall be permitted to occupy a portion of said property.”
These days having enough money will get you into most neighborhoods regardless of your race or ethnicity, although it might cost you more than it would cost a white buyer.
But housing segregation has played a large role in shaping family income and even more important, household wealth.
In the 1930s and ’40s, black isolation was a given and it continued to increase even as New Deal programs helped white Americans increase their homeownership and the value of their homes.
Between 1934 and 1968, 98 percent of the home loans approved by federal agencies went to white Americans. Local and state governments by action or inaction allowed and created ways to keep black people poor and isolated.
The Fair Housing Act of 1968 was supposed to clean all that up, and yet, here we are, still segregated by race, and even more segregated by income than we were in 1968.
The Supreme Court ruling in June involved policies of the Texas Department of Housing & Community Affairs that had a negative effect on black Texans. In this case, the department rules had the effect of keeping public housing out of white neighborhoods.
These days race isn’t explicitly mentioned in policies that have racial impacts. Instead, advocates for fair-housing practices have used statistics to show that practices or policies have negative impacts on minority citizens. The court ruling allows the continued use of disparate-impact statistics as a tool to fight bias. Banks, insurance companies and some business groups disagreed with the ruling, which could be used to affect the way they do business, too.
The Obama administration announced last week that it will now provide communities with data to help them understand disparate impacts covered by the court ruling, and to act to reduce those impacts. Communities that get federal housing money will now be fined if they don’t address racial disparities in housing.
What’s your neighborhood like? The census tract I live in is 38 percent white, 26 percent black, 21 percent Asian American and 9 percent Hispanic, a mix that doesn’t reflect the rest of Seattle or King County.
Every neighborhood has a history that explains who lives there now and who benefits from or suffers the consequences of that history. Are we ready yet to chart a different future?