By Richard Rothstein, Economic Policy Institute
In “The Neighborhoods We Will Not Share,” an article published online at The New York Times, I describe how the Trump administration has proposed a rule that will make it virtually impossible to challenge many policies that reinforce residential racial segregation.
This is no small matter. Segregation underlies many of our most serious social problems. Educators can’t seem to make significant progress in their efforts to close the racial gap in academic achievement that persists in large part because we enroll the most socially and economically disadvantaged children in poorly resourced schools, located in poorly resourced neighborhoods. Health disparities by race stem, in part, from so many African Americans consigned to areas where they have less access to healthy air and healthy foods, and are more subject to stressful conditions. Black men’s high and unjustifiable rates of incarceration depend significantly on their concentration in segregated neighborhoods without good employment opportunities in the formal economy or the transportation to access good jobs. And segregation prevents us from overcoming our very dangerous and frightening political polarization, highly correlated with race. How can we ever develop the common national identity essential to the preservation of our democracy if so many African Americans and whites live so far from each other that we have no ability to understand and empathize with each other’s life experiences?
In my book The Color of Law, I described how 20th century federal, state, and local policies—explicitly racial—created, reinforced, and sustained racial boundaries in every metropolitan area in the United States. These unconstitutional government activities still predict today’s segregated landscape. For example, the explicit exclusion of black working class families from single-family homes, for which white working class family purchases were subsidized, bears substantial responsibility for the black-white wealth gap—while black family incomes are about about 60% of white family incomes, the median black household wealth is less than 10%of white household wealth, an enormous disparity that was propelled by the equity appreciation of white property while African Americans were consigned to neighborhoods where no similar appreciation occurred. The wealth gap predicts much of our contemporary racial inequality.
The Fair Housing Act of 1968 prohibited ongoing racial discrimination in housing but did little to explicitly prohibit policies that reinforce segregation where the racial intent is either masked, unconscious, or even absent. But federal courts, up to the Supreme Court have found that residential policies with a “disparate impact” on African Americans (and other protected groups) violate the Fair Housing Act if there is a reasonable nondiscriminatory alternative to accomplish a legitimate public purpose.
It is this court-sanctioned policy that the administration is now proposing to undermine. The rule has been through a required public comment period, and when finally released will effectively reduce the Fair Housing Act to legislation that only prohibits racial discrimination where policy proponents openly admit that bigotry is their intent.
The process of creating this rule has largely escaped public notice because it accomplishes its purpose in highly technical ways, not easily explained. For example, it changes the order in which complainants or defendants are required to submit different kinds of evidence in a Fair Housing Act proceeding at the Department of Housing and Urban Development. It will not be obvious to anyone but an experienced lawyer why such a change is fatal to the Fair Housing Act’s purpose.
In the article I published on Monday, I attempt to explain why this matters by describing two situations in which it should be obvious to everyone that a Fair Housing Act violation occurred, but where this would be virtually impossible to prove under the new rule. One of these involves homeowners in Syracuse’s low-income and predominantly African American neighborhoods who have been paying property taxes at an effectively higher rate than residents of wealthier and predominantly white neighborhoods. The other concerns policies enacted by a predominantly white New Orleans suburb, St. Bernard Parish, to prevent black families from returning to the community after Hurricane Katrina.
Recently, the Trump administration has announced two additional rule revisions that further entrench segregation. One effectively relieves suburban communities of an affirmative obligation to remove policies and practices that create or perpetuate segregation. The other relieves retail banks that take deposits from residents of low-income neighborhoods of an obligation to extend mortgage and other credit to residents of those neighborhoods.
The Trump administration’s hostility to justice for racial minorities continues unabated.