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?

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Integrating the Suburbs

Chicago.CBL.protest-aKiln, Mississippi    Peter Drier, comrade, housing expert, and professor at Occidental College in Los Angeles, made an interesting point in a piece he wrote recently about segregation. Reflecting on Ferguson, Missouri, although it could have been hundreds of places he wrote:

Sociologists have invented a way to measure segregation called the “index of dissimilarity,” which shows the percentage of black (or Latino, or Asian) households that would have to move to achieve racial balance across the region. In the St. Louis area, at least 70 percent of all black families would have to move if every part of the metro area was to have a mix of black and white families that reflects their proportion in the entire region.

We’re talking Katrina-level displacement in one urban area after another. Little surprise that most community-based organizations concentrate on improving the communities where low-and-moderate income families, who are often also minorities, live, rather than making their major campaign integrating the suburbs.

Drier is clear that if that were our mission, we would be taking on a mission of Herculean proportions. Our people can’t handle the sticker shock of the suburbs, when means finding affordable apartments, but

…there simply aren’t enough apartment units in most suburbs, especially the more affluent ones. This is due to the widespread practice of suburban “exclusionary zoning”—not only in St. Louis, but in most metro areas. Rentals comprise half of all housing units in cities, but only one-quarter of those in suburbs, and many suburbs have almost no rental housing at all. The Section 8 program won’t help break down residential segregation if there aren’t enough suburban apartments to rent. It would be like giving people food stamps when the supermarket shelves are empty.

The last nationwide study of the Section 8 program’s success rate, conducted in 2000, found that 31 percent of families with Section 8 vouchers couldn’t find an apartment to rent, but the figure varied from city to city; in Los Angeles, 53 percent of families with vouchers had to return them unused; in New York City, 43 percent of the families with vouchers came back empty-handed. The scarcity of apartments was certainly the major cause of families’ inability to take advantage of their housing subsidy, but racism played a role, too; the 2000 study found that whites had a higher success rate than blacks of using their Section 8 subsidy to rent an apartment.

There are things that can be done, and Peter lists several of them.

We can “ban discrimination by landlords,” and recent decisions of the United States Supreme Court should technically make that easier to do so because we would only have to prove “disparate impact,” rather than deliberate intent. But, private landlords do not have to accept Section 8 vouchers, the program is voluntary for them, so it would only be possible to punish landlords who were willing to allow Section 8 in the first place. Secondly, we could mandate that suburbs have to build a certain number of apartments not simply that a small number of any that are built have to be reserved as affordable. Thirdly, we could greatly expand the number of Section 8 vouchers. Though Section 8 is one of the largest housing programs for low-income families, it is based on a lottery and is not an entitlement only benefiting about 25% of those eligible, and that’s if they can find a place to use their vouchers, which many cannot. This is a vicious cycle that returns us back to square one in many cases.

We can hold our breath, but few of these recommendations are likely to find enough love in Congress and its Republican majority that survives largely because of its firm commitment to racial gerrymandering constructed on a legacy of racial segregation in suburban and exurban metropolitan areas that is vital to their future as well. Absent a new civil rights movement focused on integrating the suburbs and based on a consensus about its need and desirability that does not exist today, count on the “dissimilarity index” and the putative Republican majority both coexisting happily for years to come, even if a sad situation for the rest of us.

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A Diversity Garden Comes to Benjamin Franklin High School in New Orleans

1395960_746516154079_227933241_nNew Orleans   Fifty years ago, the Class of 1966 entered Benjamin Franklin High School in New Orleans in the fall of 1963, not unlike tens of thousands of others entering their public high schools in cities and towns all over the United States, all of whom hoped undoubtedly they were special in some personal way, but all of whom were the same in some ordinary way as the generation marched slowly forward.   This particular class was unique in New Orleans, because the high school was a bit different and in the midst of the historic changes in the South at that time, this was the first high school class to be integrated in the city, as fourteen young African-American men and women joined the others, including me, in starting high school then.

            Even though elementary schools began integration only three years before in 1960, grade by grade, Franklin became the only high school to be integrated and jump out of the gradual court ordered sequence, because lawyers could not argue that there was any other equivalent “separate but equal” alternative to the special entry, college preparatory offering of the school.  Entry into Franklin required certain achievement test scores and IQ testing to a certain level, and continued attendance required maintaining at the time a specific grade level, and the school only in operation for several years at the time, prided itself on sending virtually every graduate on to a college or university.

            There was publicity, but none of the violence and disruption that met the initial integration several years before in New Orleans, although there should be no misunderstanding that the end of segregation at this level was not greeted with open arms.   For example no other public school in the Orleans Parish School District was willing to play Franklin in any sports.  Even by our senior year, that remained the case, with a football schedule an odd mix of private schools and parochial schools often outmatching us so terribly that to win even a single game in the season was an accomplishment.  What we won were science fairs and places on the list of National Merit Finalists and catcalls on the street and fights in more than one parking lot, as well as a small feeling of being a footnote to history.

            Thanks to the determined organizing of classmate, gentleman, and scholar Dan Russell, a professor at Springfield College in Massachusetts, our small Class of 1966 pulled together and more than 20 donors contributed to help finance a Diversity Garden to commemorate that time and that small accomplishment still important to many of us.   Sharon Carter Sheridan, one of the first 14, in that class spoke briefly at the dedication of the garden in the school courtyard of how it felt to be “invisible” then and the important contributions of African-American graduates of the school subsequently. 

            In the self-absorption that seems epidemic to teenagers, Sharon was no doubt hitting the nail on the head.  Only a few of the original 14 survived to graduation.  We all could, and should, have done more to make success of the experience for all, but we were all fighting to find ourselves and missed many such opportunities, and for some of us, given our life’s trajectory, the responsibility still weighs heavy, which makes the Diversity Garden more important than simply being a showcase for native plants.  

            The principal spoke with pride of the diversity of the student body, but it was impossible not to hear in a school system that is overwhelmingly African-American in a city that has been more than a majority African-American for decades, that barely a third of the Franklin student body is African-American.  The school is now a charter high school since Hurricane Katrina and outside of the elected school board’s scrutiny and accountability now, though part of its failure to return undoubtedly lies in the continuing tension about its diversity that was an ever present issue with the school board before the storm

            The Diversity Garden was inspiring and come spring will be beautiful, but like any garden for it to flourish it will require constant attention and work, just as successful integration of people and their races, gender, and cultures requires the same ongoing struggle.  After 50 years there is still huge work to be done, and a call to leadership from this school and its graduates is still often unheeded.  This will be another small step in continuing to make a difference in the future on issues that remain difficult in the present.

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