The core argument of this book is that African Americans were unconstitutionally denied the means and the right to integration in middle-class neighborhoods, and because this denial was state-sponsored, the nation is obligated to remedy it.
We’ve developed other euphemisms, too, so that polite company doesn’t have to confront our history of racial exclusion. When we consider problems that arise when African Americans are absent in significant numbers from schools that whites attend, we say we seek diversity, not racial integration. When we wish to pretend that the nation did not single out African Americans in a system of segregation specifically aimed at them, we diffuse them as just another people of color.
In rural Louisiana in the early 1930s, the school year for African Americans was much shorter than for whites, because children like Frank were expected to hire out when planting or harvesting was to be done. “Actually,” Mr. Stevenson recalled, “they didn’t care too much whether you were going to school or not, if you were black. . . . White school would be continued, but they would turn the black school out because they wanted the kids to go to work on the farm. . . . Lots of times these white guys would . . . come to my dad and ask him to let us work for them one or two days of the week.” During this time, Franklin Roosevelt’s New Deal, first with industry codes and then with the Fair Labor Standards Act, prohibited child labor and established minimum wages of about twelve dollars a week in the South, rising to twenty-five cents an hour in 1938. But to pass such economic legislation, Roosevelt needed the votes of southern congressmen and senators, who agreed to support economic reform only if it excluded industries in which African Americans predominated, like agriculture. The Stevenson brothers were each paid only fifty cents a day to work in white farmers’ fields.
Although banks would generally make mortgage loans to affluent buyers without government involvement, they usually shied away from making loans to working-class families unless the mortgages were insured. With reduced risk, banks offered lower interest rates, making ownership more affordable to working-class families. For veterans, government approval also usually meant that no down payment was required. As in Rollingwood ten years earlier, one of the federal government’s specifications for mortgages insured in Milpitas was an openly stated prohibition on sales to African Americans. Because Milpitas had no apartments, and houses in the area were off-limits to black workers—though their incomes and economic circumstances were like those of whites on the assembly line—African Americans at Ford had to choose between giving up their good industrial jobs, moving to apartments in a segregated neighborhood of San Jose, or enduring lengthy commutes between North Richmond and Milpitas. Frank Stevenson bought a van, recruited eight others to share the costs, and made the drive daily for the next twenty years until he retired. The trip took more than an hour each way.
At the time, the Federal Housing Administration and Veterans Administration not only refused to insure mortgages for African Americans in designated white neighborhoods like Ladera; they also would not insure mortgages for whites in a neighborhood where African Americans were present. So once East Palo Alto was integrated, whites wanting to move into the area could no longer obtain government-insured mortgages. State-regulated insurance companies, like the Equitable Life Insurance Company and the Prudential Life Insurance Company, also declared that their policy was not to issue mortgages to whites in integrated neighborhoods. State insurance regulators had no objection to this stance. The Bank of America and other leading California banks had similar policies, also with the consent of federal banking regulators. Within six years the population of East Palo Alto was 82 percent black. Conditions deteriorated as African Americans who had been excluded from other neighborhoods doubled up in single-family homes. Their East Palo Alto houses had been priced so much higher than similar properties for whites that the owners had difficulty making payments without additional rental income. Federal and state housing policy had created a slum in East Palo Alto.
Public housing’s original purpose was to give shelter not to those too poor to afford it but to those who could afford decent housing but couldn’t find it because none was available.
In Gettysburg, Pennsylvania, an African American CCC unit was assigned to work alongside a white one to restore the historic battleground. The white unit was housed near the town itself, but the town’s residents objected to having the African American crew living in the vicinity, so the CCC set up a camp for the African American crew some twenty miles away.
The PWA designated many integrated neighborhoods as either white or black and then used public housing to make the designation come true—by installing whites-only projects in mixed neighborhoods it deemed “white” and blacks-only projects in those it deemed “colored.” The first PWA project, the Techwood Homes in Atlanta, opened in 1935. It was built on land cleared by demolishing the Flats, a low-income integrated neighborhood adjacent to downtown that had included 1600 families, nearly one-third of whom were African American. The PWA remade the neighborhood with 604 units for white families only. The Techwood project not only created a segregated white community, it also intensified the segregation of African American families who, evicted from their homes, could find new housing only by crowding into other neighborhoods where African Americans were already living.
In Miami, for example, African Americans eligible for public housing were assigned to distinct projects while eligible whites were given vouchers for rentals of private apartments to subsidize their dispersal throughout the community. It was not until 1998 that civil rights groups won a requirement that vouchers be offered to African Americans as well—too late to reverse the city’s segregation.
Black supervisors were demoted to ensure that no African American oversaw a white employee. One official responsible for implementing segregation was the assistant secretary of the navy: Franklin Delano Roosevelt. He might or might not have been enthusiastic about segregation, but it was an aspect of the changing national political culture in which he matured and that he did not challenge.
Zoning thus had two faces. One face, developed in part to evade a prohibition on racially explicit zoning, attempted to keep African Americans out of white neighborhoods by making it difficult for lower-income families, large numbers of whom were African Americans, to live in expensive white neighborhoods. The other attempted to protect white neighborhoods from deterioration by ensuring that few industrial or environmentally unsafe businesses could locate in them. Prohibited in this fashion, polluting industry had no option but to locate near African American residences. The first contributed to creation of exclusive white suburbs, the second to creation of urban African American slums.
Terrified by the 1917 Russian revolution, government officials came to believe that communism could be defeated in the United States by getting as many white Americans as possible to become homeowners—the idea being that those who owned property would be invested in the capitalist system. So in 1917 the federal Department of Labor promoted an “Own-Your-Own-Home” campaign, handing out “We Own Our Own Home” buttons to schoolchildren and distributing pamphlets saying that it was a “patriotic duty” to cease renting and to build a single-family unit. The department printed more than two million posters to be hung in factories and other businesses and published newspaper advertisements throughout the country promoting single-family ownership—each one had an image of a white couple or family.
To solve the inability of middle-class renters to purchase single-family homes for the first time, Congress and President Roosevelt created the Federal Housing Administration in 1934. The FHA insured bank mortgages that covered 80 percent of purchase prices, had terms of twenty years, and were fully amortized. To be eligible for such insurance, the FHA insisted on doing its own appraisal of the property to make certain that the loan had a low risk of default. Because the FHA’s appraisal standards included a whites-only requirement, racial segregation now became an official requirement of the federal mortgage insurance program. The FHA judged that properties would probably be too risky for insurance if they were in racially mixed neighborhoods or even in white neighborhoods near black ones that might possibly integrate in the future.
The FHA discouraged banks from making any loans at all in urban neighborhoods rather than newly built suburbs; according to the Underwriting Manual, “older properties . . . have a tendency to accelerate the rate of transition to lower class occupancy.” The FHA favored mortgages in areas where boulevards or highways served to separate African American families from whites, stating that “[ n] atural or artificially established barriers will prove effective in protecting a neighborhood and the locations within it from adverse influences, . . . includ[ ing] prevention of the infiltration of . . . lower class occupancy, and inharmonious racial groups.”
In 1941, a New Jersey real estate agent representing a new development in suburban Fanwood, about twenty miles west of Newark, attempted to sell twelve properties to middle-class African Americans. All had good credit ratings, and banks were willing to issue mortgages if the FHA would approve. But the agency stated that “no loans will be given to colored developments.” When banks told the real estate agent that without FHA endorsement they would not issue the mortgages, he approached the Prudential Life Insurance Company, which also said that although the applicants were all creditworthy, it could not issue mortgages unless the FHA approved. Today, Fanwood’s population remains 5 percent black in a county with a black population of about 25 percent.
the most heroic American sailor at Pearl Harbor was Private Dorie Miller, an African American kitchen worker—he had run through flaming oil to carry his ship’s captain to safety and then grabbed a machine gun and shot down Japanese aircraft—
William Levitt’s refusal to sell a home to Vince Mereday was not a mere reflection of the builder’s prejudicial views. Had he felt differently and chosen to integrate Levittown, the federal government would have refused to subsidize him. In the decades following World War II, suburbs across the country—as in Milpitas and Palo Alto and Levittown—were created in this way, with the FHA administering an explicit racial policy that solidified segregation in every one of our metropolitan areas.
The FHA had its biggest impact on segregation, not in its discriminatory evaluations of individual mortgage applicants, but in its financing of entire subdivisions, in many cases entire suburbs, as racially exclusive white enclaves. Frank Stevenson was not denied the opportunity to follow his job to Milpitas because the FHA refused to insure an individual mortgage for him. Vince Mereday was not denied the opportunity to live in Levittown because a VA appraiser considered his individual purchase too risky for a mortgage guarantee. Rather, in these and thousands of other locales, mass-production builders created entire suburbs with the FHA-or VA-imposed condition that these suburbs be all white.
Government’s commitment to separating residential areas by race began nationwide following the violent suppression of Reconstruction after 1877. Although the Supreme Court in 1917 forbade the first wave of policies—racial segregation by zoning ordinance—the federal government began to recommend ways that cities could evade that ruling, not only in the southern and border states but across the country. In the 1920s a Harding administration committee promoted zoning ordinances that distinguished single-family from multifamily districts. Although government publications did not say it in as many words, committee members made little effort to hide that an important purpose was to prevent racial integration. Simultaneously, and through the 1920s and the Hoover administration, the government conducted a propaganda campaign directed at white middle-class families to persuade them to move out of apartments and into single-family dwellings. During the 1930s the Roosevelt administration created maps of every metropolitan area, divided into zones of foreclosure risk based in part on the race of their occupants. The administration then insured white homeowners’ mortgages if they lived in all-white neighborhoods into which there was little danger of African Americans moving. After World War II the federal government went further and spurred the suburbanization of every metropolitan area by guaranteeing bank loans to mass-production builders who would create the all-white subdivisions that came to ring American cities. In 1973, the U.S. Commission on Civil Rights concluded that the “housing industry, aided and abetted by Government, must bear the primary responsibility for the legacy of segregated housing. . . . Government and private industry came together to create a system of residential segregation.”
Between 1935 and 1944 W. E. Boeing, the founder of Boeing Aircraft, developed suburbs north of Seattle. During this period and after World War II, the South Seattle Land Company, the Puget Mill Company, and others constructed more suburbs. These builders all wrote racially restrictive language into their deeds. The result was a city whose African American population was encircled by all-white suburbs. Boeing’s property deeds stated, for example, “No property in said addition shall at any time be sold, conveyed, rented, or leased in whole or in part to any person or persons not of the White or Caucasian race.”
The full cycle went like this: when a neighborhood first integrated, property values increased because of African Americans’ need to pay higher prices for homes than whites. But then property values fell once speculators had panicked enough white homeowners into selling at deep discounts. Falling sale prices in neighborhoods where blockbusters created white panic was deemed as proof by the FHA that property values would decline if African Americans moved in. But if the agency had not adopted a discriminatory and unconstitutional racial policy, African Americans would have been able, like whites, to locate throughout metropolitan areas rather than attempting to establish presence in only a few blockbusted communities, and speculators would not have been able to prey on white fears that their neighborhoods would soon turn from all white to all black.
Because black contract buyers knew how easily they could lose their homes, they struggled to make their inflated monthly payments. Husbands and wives both worked double shifts. They neglected basic maintenance. They subdivided their apartments, crammed in extra tenants and, when possible, charged their tenants hefty rents. . . . White people observed that their new black neighbors overcrowded and neglected their properties. Overcrowded neighborhoods meant overcrowded schools; in Chicago, officials responded by “double-shifting” the students (half attending in the morning, half in the afternoon). Children were deprived of a full day of schooling and left to fend for themselves in the after-school hours. These conditions helped fuel the rise of gangs, which in turn terrorized shop owners and residents alike. In the end, whites fled these neighborhoods, not only because of the influx of black families, but also because they were upset about overcrowding, decaying schools and crime. . . . But black contract buyers did not have the option of leaving a declining neighborhood before their properties were paid for in full—if they did, they would lose everything they’d invested in that property to date. Whites could leave—blacks had to stay.
church involvement and leadership were commonplace in property owners’ associations that were organized to maintain neighborhood segregation. In North Philadelphia in 1942, a priest spearheaded a campaign to prevent African Americans from living in the neighborhood. The same year a priest in a Polish American parish in Buffalo, New York, directed the campaign to deny public housing for African American war workers, stalling a proposed project for two years.
Metropolitan Life finally agreed to lease “some” apartments in Stuyvesant Town to “qualified Negro tenants.” But by then, the development was filled. New York City’s rent control laws, by which existing tenants pay significantly less than market-rate rents, helped to ensure that turnover would be slow. Rapidly rising rents in apartments that had been vacated made the development increasingly unaffordable to middle-income families. These conditions combined to make the initial segregation of Stuyvesant Town nearly permanent. By the 2010 census, only 4 percent of Stuyvesant Town residents were African American, in a New York metropolitan area that was 15 percent African American. As in so many other instances, the low-income neighborhood that the city razed to make way for Stuyvesant Town had been integrated and stable. About 40 percent of those evicted were African American or Puerto Rican, and many of them had no alternative but to move to racially isolated communities elsewhere in the city and beyond. Although New York ceased to allow future discrimination in publicly subsidized projects, it made no effort to remediate the segregation it had created.
These discriminatory practices were widespread throughout the industry at least since the late 1990s, with little state or federal regulatory response. Data on lending disparities suggest that the discrimination was based on race, not on economic status. Among homeowners who had refinanced in 2000 as the subprime bubble was expanding, lower-income African Americans were more than twice as likely as lower-income whites to have subprime loans, and higher-income African Americans were about three times as likely as higher-income whites to have subprime loans. The most extreme case occurred in Buffalo, New York, where three-quarters of all refinance loans to African Americans were subprime. In Chicago, borrowers in predominantly African American census tracts were four times as likely to have subprime loans as borrowers in predominantly white census tracts.
Several cities sued banks because of the enormous devastation that the foreclosure crisis imposed on African Americans. A case that the City of Memphis brought against Wells Fargo Bank was supported by affidavits of bank employees stating that they referred to subprime loans as “ghetto loans.” Bank supervisors instructed their marketing staffs to target solicitation to heavily African American zip codes, because residents there “weren’t savvy enough” to know they were being exploited. A sales group sought out elderly African Americans, believing they were particularly susceptible to pressure to take out high-cost loans. A similar suit by the City of Baltimore presented evidence that Wells Fargo established a unit staffed exclusively by African Americans whom supervisors instructed to visit black churches to market subprime loans. The bank had no similar practice of marketing such loans through white institutions.
It wasn’t only the large-scale federal programs of public housing and mortgage finance that created de jure segregation. Hundreds, if not thousands of smaller acts of government contributed. They included petty actions like denial of access to public utilities; determining, once African Americans wanted to build, that their property was, after all, needed for parkland; or discovering that a road leading to African American homes was “private.” They included routing interstate highways to create racial boundaries or to shift the residential placement of African American families. And they included choosing school sites to force families to move to segregated neighborhoods if they wanted education for their children. Taken in isolation, we can easily dismiss such devices as aberrations. But when we consider them as a whole, we can see that they were part of a national system by which state and local government supplemented federal efforts to maintain the status of African Americans as a lower caste,
federal appeals court ordered Black Jack to permit the pro-integration group to proceed. The court observed that hostility to the development was “repeatedly expressed in racial terms by persons whom the District Court found to be leaders of the incorporation movement, by individuals circulating petitions, and by zoning commissioners themselves.” The court continued: “Racial criticism [of the proposed development] was made and cheered at public meetings. The uncontradicted evidence indicates that, at all levels of opposition, race played a significant role, both in the drive to incorporate and the decision to rezone.” Citing similar cases from elsewhere in the country, the court concluded that Black Jack’s actions were “but one more factor confining blacks to low-income housing in the center city, confirming the inexorable process whereby the St. Louis metropolitan area becomes one that has the racial shape of a donut, with the Negroes in the hole and with mostly Whites occupying the ring.” The court further noted that Black Jack’s actions were exacerbating residential segregation that was “in large measure the result of deliberate racial discrimination in the housing market by the real estate industry and by agencies of the federal, state, and local governments.” This is de jure segregation.
“Justice delayed is justice denied” was the frequent experience of African Americans having to fight legal battles to obtain housing in white neighborhoods.
One slum clearance tool was the construction of the federal interstate highway system. In many cases, state and local governments, with federal acquiescence, designed interstate highway routes to destroy urban African American communities. Highway planners did not hide their racial motivations.* The story of such highway planning begins in 1938, when the federal government first considered aid for interstate highways. Secretary of Agriculture (and subsequently Vice President) Henry Wallace proposed to President Roosevelt that highways routed through cities could also accomplish “the elimination of unsightly and unsanitary districts.” Over the next two decades, the linkage between highway construction and removal of American Americans was a frequent theme of those who stood to profit from a federal road-building program. They found that an effective way to argue a case for highway spending was to stress the capacity of road construction to make business districts and their environs white. Mayors and other urban political leaders joined in, seizing on highway construction as a way to overcome the constitutional prohibition on zoning African Americans away from white neighborhoods near downtowns.
In 1956, the Florida State Road Department routed I-95 to do what Miami’s unconstitutional zoning ordinance had intended but failed to accomplish two decades earlier: clear African Americans from an area adjacent to downtown. An alternative route utilizing an abandoned railway right of way was rejected, although it would have resulted in little population removal. When the highway was eventually completed in the mid-1960s, it had reduced a community of 40,000 African Americans to 8,000.
During the mid-twentieth century, local police and the FBI went to extraordinary lengths to infiltrate and disrupt liberal and left-wing political groups as well as organized crime syndicates. That they did not act similarly in the case of a nationwide terror campaign against African Americans who integrated previously white communities should be deemed, at the least, complicity in the violence.
The officer testified that about half of the forty Klan members known to him were also in the police department and that his superiors condoned officers’ Klan membership, as long as the information did not become public.†
Everyone’s standard of living may grow from generation to generation, but an individual’s relative income—how it compares to the incomes of others in the present generation—is remarkably similar to how his or her parents’ incomes compared to others in their generation.
Following the Civil War, and intensifying after Reconstruction, a sharecropping system of indentured servitude perpetuated aspects of the slave system. After food and other living costs were deducted from their earnings, sharecroppers typically owed plantation owners more than their wages due. Local sheriffs enforced this peonage, preventing sharecroppers from seeking work elsewhere, by arresting, assaulting, or murdering those who attempted to leave, or by condoning violence perpetrated by owners. In many instances, African Americans were arrested for petty and phony offenses (like vagrancy if they came to town when off work), and when they were unable to pay fines and court fees, wardens sometimes sold prisoners to plantations, mines, and factories. Douglas Blackmon, in his book Slavery by Another Name, estimates that from the end of Reconstruction until World War II, the number enslaved in this way exceeded 100,000. Mines operated by U.S. Steel alone used tens of thousands of imprisoned African Americans. The practice ebbed during World War II, but it wasn’t until 1951 that Congress fulfilled its Thirteenth Amendment obligation and explicitly outlawed the practice.
IN THE 1930s, President Franklin D. Roosevelt could assemble the congressional majorities he needed to adopt New Deal legislation only by including southern Democrats, who were fiercely committed to white supremacy. In consequence, Social Security, minimum wage protection, and the recognition of labor unions all excluded from coverage occupations in which African Americans predominated: agriculture and domestic service.
residence in a community where economic disadvantage is concentrated itself depresses disposable income, which makes departure more difficult. Restricting African Americans’ housing supply led to higher rents and home prices in black neighborhoods than for similar accommodations in predominantly white ones. If African Americans had access to housing throughout metropolitan areas, supply and demand balances would have kept their rents and home prices at reasonable levels. Without access, landlords and sellers were free to take advantage of the greater demand, relative to supply, for African American housing.
Chicago Department of Public Welfare report in the mid-1920s stated that African Americans were charged about 20 percent more in rent than whites for similar dwellings. It also observed that in neighborhoods undergoing racial change, rents increased by 50 to 225 percent when African Americans occupied apartments that formerly housed whites. The limited supply of housing open to African Americans gave property owners in black neighborhoods the opportunity to make exorbitant profits.
Just as the incomes of all working-class Americans, white and black, began to stagnate, single-family home prices began to soar. From 1973 to 1980, the African American median wage fell by one percent, while the average American house price grew by 43 percent. In the next decade wages of African American workers fell by another percent, while the average house price increased yet another 8 percent. By the time the federal government decided finally to allow African Americans into the suburbs, the window of opportunity for an integrated nation had mostly closed. In 1948, for example, Levittown homes sold for about $ 8,000, or about $ 75,000 in today’s dollars. Now, properties in Levittown without major remodeling (i.e., one-bath houses) sell for $ 350,000 and up. White working-class families who bought those homes in 1948 have gained, over three generations, more than $ 200,000 in wealth. Most African American families—who were denied the opportunity to buy into Levittown or into the thousands of subdivisions like it across the country—remained renters, often in depressed neighborhoods, and gained no equity.
The Fair Housing Act of 1968 prohibited future discrimination, but it was not primarily discrimination (although this still contributed) that kept African Americans out of most white suburbs after the law was passed. It was primarily unaffordability. The right that was unconstitutionally denied to African Americans in the late 1940s cannot be restored by passing a Fair Housing law that tells their descendants they can now buy homes in the suburbs, if only they can afford it. The advantage that FHA and VA loans gave the white lower-middle class in the 1940s and ’50s has become permanent.
median white household wealth (assets minus liabilities) is about $ 134,000, while median black household wealth is about $ 11,000—less than 10 percent as much. Not all of this enormous difference is attributable to the government’s racial housing policy, but a good portion of it certainly is. Equity that families have in their homes is the main source of wealth for middle-class Americans. African American families today, whose parents and grandparents were denied participation in the equity-accumulating boom of the 1950s and 1960s, have great difficulty catching up now. As with income, there is little mobility by wealth in America. In fact, intergenerational wealth mobility is even less than intergenerational income mobility.
white families are more often able to borrow from their home equity, if necessary, to weather medical emergencies, send their children to college, retire without becoming dependent on those children, aid family members experiencing hard times, or endure brief periods of joblessness without fear of losing a home or going hungry. If none of these emergencies consume their savings or home equity, families can bequeath wealth to the next generation.
In 1989, the most recent year for which such data are available, 6 percent of black households inherited wealth from the previous generation. Of those who inherited wealth, the average inheritance was $ 42,000. Four times as many white households—24 percent—inherited wealth, and the average inheritance was $ 145,000. In that year 18 percent of black households received cash gifts from parents who were still living, in an average amount of $ 800. About the same share of white households received such gifts, but the average amount—$ 2,800—was much greater. This, too, is the consequence of government’s twentieth-century racial policy in housing and income.
The consequences of being exposed to neighborhood poverty are greater than the consequences of being poor itself. Children who grow up in poor neighborhoods have few adult role models who have been educationally and occupationally successful. Their ability to do well in school is compromised from stress that can result from exposure to violence. They have few, if any, summer job opportunities. Libraries and bookstores are less accessible. There are fewer primary care physicians. Fresh food is harder to get. Airborne pollutants are more present, leading to greater school absence from respiratory illness. The concentration of many disadvantaged children in the same classroom deprives each child of the special attention needed to be successful. All these challenges are added to those from which poor children suffer in any neighborhood—instability and stress resulting from parental unemployment, fewer literacy experiences when parents are poorly educated, more overcrowded living arrangements that offer few quiet corners to study, and less adequate health care, all of which contribute to worse average school performance and, as a result, less occupational success as adults.
Social psychologists have found that segregation can give whites an unrealistic belief in their own superiority, leading to poorer performance if they feel less need to challenge themselves. Experiments show that when we are in teams with others from similar backgrounds, we tend to go along with the popular view rather than think for ourselves, resulting in less creative groups more prone to make errors.
Historically, African Americans have made progress mostly when opportunity is expanding for all and whites are less fearful of competition from others. Thus, to provide an adequate environment for integration efforts, the United States also needs a full employment policy, minimum wages that return to their historic level and keep up with inflation, and a transportation infrastructure that makes it possible for low-income workers to get to jobs that are available.
One of the most commonly used American history textbooks is The Americans: Reconstruction to the 21st Century. A thousand-page volume, published by Holt McDougal, a division of the publishing giant Houghton Mifflin Harcourt, it lists several well-respected professors as authors and editors. The 2012 edition has this to say about residential segregation in the North: “African Americans found themselves forced into segregated neighborhoods.” That’s it. One passive voice sentence. No suggestion of who might have done the forcing or how it was implemented. The Americans also contains this paragraph: “A number of New Deal programs concerned housing and home mortgage problems. The Home Owners Loan Corporation (HOLC) provided government loans to homeowners who faced foreclosure because they couldn’t meet their loan payments. In addition, the 1934 National Housing Act created the Federal Housing Administration (FHA). This agency continues to furnish loans for home mortgages and repairs today.” The authors do not mention that an enduring legacy of the HOLC was to color-code every urban neighborhood by race so that African Americans would have great difficulty getting mortgages. That the FHA suburbanized the entire nation on a whites-only basis is overlooked. The textbook does acknowledge that “a number of” New Deal agencies—the truth is that it was virtually all—paid lower wages to African Americans than to whites but fails to refer to the residential segregation imposed by the government’s public housing projects.
With very rare exceptions, textbook after textbook adopts the same mythology. If middle and high school students are being taught a false history, is it any wonder that they come to believe that African Americans are segregated only because they don’t want to marry or because they prefer to live only among themselves? Is it any wonder that they grow up inclined to think that programs to ameliorate ghetto conditions are simply undeserved handouts?
We might contemplate a remedy like this: Considering that African Americans comprise about 15 percent of the population of the New York metropolitan area, the federal government should purchase the next 15 percent of houses that come up for sale in Levittown at today’s market rates (approximately $ 350,000). It should then resell the properties to qualified African Americans for $ 75,000, the price (in today’s dollars) that their grandparents would have paid if permitted to do so. The government should enact this program in every suburban development whose construction complied with the FHA’s discriminatory requirements. If Congress established such a program and justified it based on the history of de jure segregation, courts should uphold it as appropriate. Of course, no presently constituted Congress would adopt such a policy and no presently constituted court would uphold it. Taxpayers would rebel at the cost, as well as at the perceived undeserved gift to African Americans. I present this not as a practical proposal but only to illustrate the kind of remedy that we would consider and debate if we disabused ourselves of the de facto segregation myth.
Montgomery County, Maryland, has a strong countywide inclusionary zoning ordinance. Like most such regulations, it requires developers in even the most affluent communities to set aside a percentage of units (in the case of Montgomery County, 12 to 15 percent) for moderate-income families. It then goes further: the public housing authority purchases a third of these set-aside units for rental to the lowest-income families. The program’s success is evidenced by the measurably higher achievement of low-income African American children who live and attend school in the county’s wealthiest suburbs. Montgomery County’s program should be widely duplicated.
If government had declined to build racially separate public housing in cities where segregation hadn’t previously taken root, and instead had scattered integrated developments throughout the community, those cities might have developed in a less racially toxic fashion, with fewer desperate ghettos and more diverse suburbs. If the federal government had not urged suburbs to adopt exclusionary zoning laws, white flight would have been minimized because there would have been fewer racially exclusive suburbs to which frightened homeowners could flee. If the government had told developers that they could have FHA guarantees only if the homes they built were open to all, integrated working-class suburbs would likely have matured with both African Americans and whites sharing the benefits. If state courts had not blessed private discrimination by ordering the eviction of African American homeowners in neighborhoods where association rules and restrictive covenants barred their residence, middle-class African Americans would have been able gradually to integrate previously white communities as they developed the financial means to do so. If churches, universities, and hospitals had faced loss of tax-exempt status for their promotion of restrictive covenants, they most likely would have refrained from such activity. If police had arrested, rather than encouraged, leaders of mob violence when African Americans moved into previously white neighborhoods, racial transitions would have been smoother. If state real estate commissions had denied licenses to brokers who claimed an “ethical” obligation to impose segregation, those brokers might have guided the evolution of interracial neighborhoods. If school boards had not placed schools and drawn attendance boundaries to ensure the separation of black and white pupils, families might not have had to relocate to have access to education for their children. If federal and state highway planners had not used urban interstates to demolish African American neighborhoods and force their residents deeper into urban ghettos, black impoverishment would have lessened, and some displaced families might have accumulated the resources to improve their housing and its location. If government had given African Americans the same labor-market rights that other citizens enjoyed, African American working-class families would not have been trapped in lower-income minority communities, from lack of funds to live elsewhere. If the federal government had not exploited the racial boundaries it had created in metropolitan areas, by spending billions on tax breaks for single-family suburban homeowners, while failing to spend adequate funds on transportation networks that could bring African Americans to job opportunities, the inequality on which segregation feeds would have diminished. If federal programs were not, even to this day, reinforcing racial isolation by disproportionately directing low-income African Americans who receive housing assistance into the segregated neighborhoods that government had previously established, we might see many more inclusive communities.