De Jure versus De Facto Racism

Torino As we move forward on the Home Savers Campaign we are finding victims of predatory practices among all communities black, white, and brown, but more often than not since these are lower income communities, there seems to be a significant tilt towards residential segregation. Lawsuits in some cities and research reports are starting to argue that this is blatant discrimination.

Reading an excellent, recently published, book, The Color of Law: The Forgotten History of How Our Government Segregated America by Richard Rothstein, marshals the evidence that the impact on our communities was not accidental. He makes the case overwhelmingly that, contrary to recent Supreme Court decisions, this is not de facto racism, meaning just the fact that that people are prejudiced and don’t care to live near each other, but is de jure racism, a matter of longstanding public policy. Rothstein sums up the argument of his book early, writing,

The Color of Law demonstrates that racially explicit government policies to segregate our metropolitan areas are not vestiges, were neither subtle nor intangible, and were sufficiently controlling to construct the de jure segregation that is now with us in neighborhoods and hence in schools. 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.

Rothstein demonstrates how de jure segregation worked most effectively in general housing and housing finance policy, but also in the areas of school location by local communities and tax assessment policies that over assessed lower income areas and under-assessed largely while middle income areas. The situation around redlining and the failure of the Federal Housing Authority to guarantee mortgages in non-white areas until the mid-1970s is well known, but Rothstein moves the clock back as well, citing a 1910 Baltimore “ordinance prohibiting African-Americans from buying homes on blocks where whites were a majority and vice versa.” He notes that similar zoning restrictions were passed in Atlanta, Birmingham, Miami, Charleston, Dallas, Louisville, New Orleans, Oklahoma City, St. Louis, and Richmond among other cities.

De jure segregation was not just a Southern and border state phenomena. Taking the segregation and siting of public housing projects as an example, he notes that a dozen states passed laws in the 1950s requiring a popular vote before approval of a location. That dirty dozen included California, Iowa, Wisconsin, and Minnesota, hardly Southern strongholds. He tells the story of the committed segregationist city fathers of Boston, Massachusetts who built the Mission Hill housing project, where I hit the doors as a young organizer, and then built a Mission Hill Extension, so that the first was black, and the second was white. The fight to keep Detroit a haven for white homeowners propelled neighborhood segregationist into the mayor’s office there. Rothstein also effectively argues that suburbanization was a governmental supported and enabled segregation project.

And, of course he revives the argument that rent-to-own and installment land purchases in urban areas, forced by the inability to acquire home ownership by minorities in any other way, created ghettos and exploited African-Americans. As we know from hitting the doors in Philadelphia, Pittsburgh, Youngstown, Detroit, Akron, and so many other cities with ACORN’s Home Savers Campaign, that’s still the case.

Finishing the book or walking the streets of urban America, there’s never a doubt that governmental fiat blocked natural integration and mandated segregation. When will justice be served and a remedy be offered?


Cutting Corners on Building Codes Kills

New Orleans  The fire that has thus far counted 79 tenants in the Grenfell Tower, a low income housing project in the wealthy West London Royal Borough of Kensington and Chelsea has been described as the “Katrina moment” for British Prime Minister Theresa May for her early ham-fisted handling of the tragedy. Katrina involved a lot of back and forth finger pointing for months with some issues still contentious, but in London the enablers of this tragedy are being quickly identified.

The fire is attributed to an apartment refrigerator provided by a company acquired in 2014 by American brand, Whirpool, that had a plastic backing. In the US refrigerators are sold with a metallic backing to provide more fire resistance. Too many think of refrigerators and “cold” at the same time, but the motors running them are hot obviously where the business machinery of refrigeration is happening. The related culprits identified by fire officials point to poor insulation and aluminum cladding on the outside of the building. The cladding was made by Arconic, an American company that is an outgrowth of the better known Alcoa, the iconic aluminum company. Their stock is down 21% and they have indicated they will no long sell the paneling for use in high-rise structures. Buildings over a certain height in the US are required to have two concrete encased fire exists and fire doors, but not so in Britain. Other cities and countries around the world are reportedly hurriedly reexamining their codes.

Developers and owners have been more successful in pushing back building codes in the UK than in the US, but don’t get the big head and start feeling all safe, because it’s just a matter of degree, and it’s still all about the money. Codes are routinely flaunted making them literally “dead letters” without sufficient enforcement. In dealing with “as is” contracts with the Home Savers Campaign we initially thought that the Toledo, Ohio ordinance that required a certificate of occupancy before a contract could be signed might protect families until we hit the doors in Detroit and found that the same ordinance prevailed there, but was simply not enforced. We met a woman in Pittsburgh who was injured in a Harbour Portfolio property when the stairs collapsed underneath her. A man in Akron in another Harbour property told about his sister, now disabled and unable to work, after a ceiling in the shower collapsed underneath her.

Even knowing the cause doesn’t remove all culpability, which is part of my point about the deadly collusion of the authorities, developers and owners, and lax regulators and enforcers. ACORN organizers have played a supportive role to tenants and tenant organizations in the wake of the Grenfell fire, and have noted similarities to ACORN’s work in New Orleans in post-Katrina. The dispersion and evacuation has made it difficult to reach Grenfell tenants now sheltered all over, just as was the case in Katrina, where ACORN was often the only point of contact for many as a membership organization. There will also be a long debate about unheeded concerns raised by tenants at Grenfell about fire safety before the tragedy just as residents of New Orleans 9th ward had voiced opposition to MR-GO, the Mississippi River Gulf Outlet, and expansion of the Industrial Canal to hurricane safety.

As organizers, we constantly have to ask whether we should have done more. Building codes are boring, but despite the low value policy makers and politicians put on the purchase of the lives of low and moderate income families, these families, more than anything else, have to be our priority, and the devil is truly in those details, bringing hell and death, when attention is not paid.