The Big, Fat Long Tail of Neighborhood Segregation

Ideas and Issues

Manchester     The “long tail” is a tech-marketing concept that pundits and futurists promote with some enthusiasm.  The heart of it is that some businesses, especially enabled by the internet and the Amazon world view, could make money on small, niche products, even at low sale volumes, almost forever.  Some things are not small market, but seem to have even longer, larger, and fatter tails, and one of those is segregation in housing and neighborhoods and its continuing ability from the Civil War through the white supremacists push back to end Reconstruction to the rise of the KKK and then embedded as an ideology nationally and in the South not just in culture but also in governmental policy.

In 2017, Richard Rothstein published a brilliant book, The Color of Law:  The Forgotten History of How Our Government Segregated America, that made it clear that the residual impact of segregation was a national policy, rigorously applied by government, private enterprise and banking in the middle of the 20th century going forward until the late 1960s and the passage of the Fair Housing Act and other reforms.   The book was also crystal clear that the racial wealth gap endured in robust fashion today, since so much of individual citizen wealth comes from home ownership and thereby neighborhood value, because of the enduring impact – the long tail – of these overly segregationist practices.

In an op-ed in the New York Times, Rothstein reprised his Color of Law arguments in looking at the proposals of the Trump administration for housing policy now under Secretary Ben Carson to eliminate challenges to efforts to re-segregate or perpetuate segregation in housing.  Central to enforcement of Fair Housing requirements, upheld by all federal appeals courts, has been the ability to prove adverse impact through the theory and practice of “disparate impact” on racial minorities.  Essentially, even if overt racism could not be proven, if we were able to establish that the impact was averse to minorities, regardless of intent, then there was a remedy.

Trump’s HUD is now trying to unravel this doctrine, as Rothstein makes clear, by forcing complaints to overcome innumerable obstacles.  As Rothstein writes,

complainants would have to imagine every conceivable justification that the city might assert, and prove that each was not legitimate, without knowing what actual defense the city might claim or what standard of legitimacy HUD would impose. If the city then came up with a justification that the homeowners hadn’t refuted to HUD’s satisfaction … HUD could dismiss the disparate impact action. A process that requires complainants to refute defenses that haven’t yet been offered is one that is designed to block civil rights, not protect them.

This is a policy that seems so Catch-22 and bizarre that it seems unimaginable that it is even contemplated, much less in the process of being formulated and imposed.  Unbelievably, the new HUD policy seems to track the racist effort of Louisiana’s St. Bernard Parish to prevent a project’s construction with diverse and contradictory claims to disguise their actions as something other than discrimination.  The Supreme Court ruled their effort illegal, but now HUD is attempting to recraft their rejection of St. Bernard’s excuses, as requirements of their rule. Other new HUD policies, Rothstein notes, attempt to delete any mention of “segregation,” further diluting the protections of the Fair Housing Act.

Welcome to America where on one day we can celebrate the legacy of Martin Luther King and on the next we can contemplate the work of yet another government agency and another racist administration doing its damnedest to eliminate the civil rights and economic justice won with a return to segregation perpetuating inequality.