A helicopter flies over a section of Baltimore affected by riots. Recent unrest in Baltimore is the legacy of a century of federal, state and local policies designed to “quarantine Baltimore’s black population in isolated slums.”
DE JURE SEGREGATION
Historian Says Don’t ‘Sanitize’ How Our Government Created Ghettos
interview with Richard Rothstein / May 14, 2015
Fifty years after the repeal of Jim Crow, many African-Americans still live in segregated ghettos in the country’s metropolitan areas. Richard Rothstein, a research associate at the Economic Policy Institute, has spent years studying the history of residential segregation in America.
“We have a myth today that the ghettos in metropolitan areas around the country are what the Supreme Court calls ‘de-facto’ — just the accident of the fact that people have not enough income to move into middle class neighborhoods or because real estate agents steered black and white families to different neighborhoods or because there was white flight,” Rothstein tells Fresh Air’s Terry Gross. “It was not the unintended effect of benign policies,” he says. “It was an explicit, racially purposeful policy that was pursued at all levels of government, and that’s the reason we have these ghettos today and we are reaping the fruits of those policies.”
On using the word “ghetto”
One of the ways in which we forget our history is by sanitizing our language and pretending that these problems don’t exist. We have always recognized that these were “ghettos.” A ghetto is, as I define it, a neighborhood which is homogeneous and from which there are serious barriers to exit. That’s the technical definition of a ghetto. Robert Weaver, the first African-American member of the Cabinet appointed by President Johnson as his secretary of Housing and Urban Development, described many of the policies that I’ve described today in a book he published in 1948 calledThe Negro Ghetto. The Kerner Commission referred to the ghetto. This is a term that we no longer use because we’re embarrassed to talk about it, and we need to confront our history and stop sanitizing our language and talk openly about what we’ve done as a nation and what we need to do to undo it. And we can’t talk openly if we’re going to use euphemisms instead of being explicit about what the reality is.
On how the New Deal’s Public Works Administration led to the creation of segregated ghettos
Its policy was that public housing could be used only to house people of the same race as the neighborhood in which it was located, but, in fact, most of the public housing that was built in the early years was built in integrated neighborhoods, which they razed and then built segregated public housing in those neighborhoods. So public housing created racial segregation where none existed before. That was one of the chief policies.
On the Federal Housing Administration’s overtly racist policies in the 1930s, ’40s and ’50s
The second policy, which was probably even more effective in segregating metropolitan areas, was the Federal Housing Administration, which financed mass production builders of subdivisions starting in the ’30s and then going on to the ’40s and ’50s in which those mass production builders, places like Levittown [New York] for example, and Nassau County in New York and in every metropolitan area in the country, the Federal Housing Administration gave builders like Levitt concessionary loans through banks because they guaranteed loans at lower interest rates for banks that the developers could use to build these subdivisions on the condition that no homes in those subdivisions be sold to African-Americans.
On real estate agents’ practice of “blockbusting”
In the ghettos, government policy — municipal policy, for example — denied adequate services, garbage wasn’t collected frequently. African-Americans were crowded into neighborhoods in the ghetto because so much other housing was closed to them and as a result, housing prices in ghettos were much higher than similar housing in white areas. Rents were much higher than similar housing in white areas … because you had a smaller supply. It’s the basic laws of supply and demand. … So this created slum conditions. So when African-Americans managed to break out of those slums and buy a home in a neighboring area, whites could be persuaded that slum conditions were going to be brought with them. So the real estate agents would go into these neighborhoods and try to panic white families into selling their homes cheap to the real estate agents.
They used techniques: They would recruit blacks from the ghetto to walk around the neighborhood pushing baby carriages. They would phone call families in the white area and ask for names that were stereotypically African-American. … All intended to give the impression that this was rapidly turning into another black slum. The white families who panicked would then sell their homes to the real estate agents or the speculators at prices far below what they were worth. The speculators would then turn around and resell the homes to African-Americans at far more than they were worth because of the restricted supply, and this policy was called “blockbusting” and it was a policy that was condoned by state licensing boards throughout the country.
“Because Maryland was one of the few regions of the colonial United States that was already predominantly Roman Catholic, the apostolic prefecture was elevated to become the Diocese of Baltimore—the first diocese in the United States—on November 6, 1789.”
From Ferguson to Baltimore: The Fruits of Government-Sponsored Segregation
by Richard Rothstein / April 29, 2015
In Baltimore in 1910, a black Yale law school graduate purchased a home in a previously all-white neighborhood. The Baltimore city government reacted by adopting a residential segregation ordinance, restricting African Americans to designated blocks. Explaining the policy, Baltimore’s mayor proclaimed, “Blacks should be quarantined in isolated slums in order to reduce the incidence of civil disturbance, to prevent the spread of communicable disease into the nearby White neighborhoods, and to protect property values among the White majority.” Thus began a century of federal, state, and local policies to quarantine Baltimore’s black population in isolated slums—policies that continue to the present day, as federal housing subsidy policies still disproportionately direct low-income black families to segregated neighborhoods and away from middle class suburbs.
Whenever young black men riot in response to police brutality or murder, as they have done in Baltimore, we’re tempted to think we can address the problem by improving police quality—training officers not to use excessive force, implementing community policing, encouraging police to be more sensitive, prohibiting racial profiling, and so on. These are all good, necessary, and important things to do. But such proposals ignore the obvious reality that the protests are not really (or primarily) about policing. In 1968, following hundreds of similar riots nationwide, a commission appointed by President Lyndon Johnson concluded that “[o]ur nation is moving toward two societies, one black, one white—separate and unequal” and that “[s]egregation and poverty have created in the racial ghetto a destructive environment totally unknown to most white Americans.” The Kerner Commission (headed by Illinois Governor Otto Kerner) added that “[w]hat white Americans have never fully understood—but what the Negro can never forget—is that white society is deeply implicated in the ghetto. White institutions created it, white institutions maintain it, and white society condones it.”
In the last 50 years, the two societies have become even more unequal. Although a relatively small black middle class has been permitted to integrate itself into mainstream America, those left behind are more segregated now than they were in 1968. When the Kerner Commission blamed “white society” and “white institutions,” it employed euphemisms to avoid naming the culprits everyone knew at the time. It was not a vague white society that created ghettos but government—federal, state, and local—that employed explicitly racial laws, policies, and regulations to ensure that black Americans would live impoverished, and separately from whites. Baltimore’s ghetto was not created by private discrimination, income differences, personal preferences, or demographic trends, but by purposeful action of government in violation of the Fifth, Thirteenth, and Fourteenth Amendments. These constitutional violations have never been remedied, and we are paying the price in the violence we saw this week.
Following the police killing of Michael Brown in Ferguson, Missouri, last August, I wrote The Making of Ferguson, a history of the state-sponsored segregation in St. Louis County that set the stage for police-community hostility there. Virtually every one of the racially explicit federal, state, and local policies of segregation pursued in St. Louis has a parallel in policies pursued by government in Baltimore. In 1917, the U.S. Supreme Court found ordinances like Baltimore’s 1910 segregation rule unconstitutional, not because they abridged African Americans’ rights to live where they could afford, but because they restricted the property rights of (white) homeowners to sell to whomever they wished.
Baltimore’s mayor responded by instructing city building inspectors and health department investigators to cite for code violations anyone who rented or sold to blacks in predominantly white neighborhoods. Five years later, the next Baltimore mayor formalized this approach by forming an official Committee on Segregation and appointing the City Solicitor to lead it. The committee coordinated the efforts of the building and health departments with those of the real estate industry and white community organizations to apply pressure to any whites tempted to sell or rent to blacks. Members of the city’s real estate board, for example, accompanied building and health inspectors to warn property owners not to violate the city’s color line.
In 1925, 18 Baltimore neighborhood associations came together to form the “Allied Civic and Protective Association” for the purpose of urging both new and existing property owners to sign restrictive covenants, which committed owners never to sell to an African American. Where neighbors jointly signed a covenant, any one of them could enforce it by asking a court to evict an African American family who purchased property in violation. Restrictive covenants were not merely private agreements between homeowners; they frequently had government sanction. In Baltimore, the city-sponsored Committee on Segregation organized neighborhood associations throughout the city that could circulate and enforce such covenants.
A 1939 Home Owners’ Loan Corporation “Residential Security Map” of Chicago shows discrimination against low-income and minority neighborhoods. The residents of the areas marked in red (representing “hazardous” real-estate markets) were denied FHA-backed mortgages.
Supplementing the covenants, African Americans were prevented from moving to white neighborhoods by explicit policy of the Federal Housing Administration (FHA), which barred suburban subdivision developers from qualifying for federally subsidized construction loans unless the developers committed to exclude African Americans from the community. The FHA also barred African Americans themselves from obtaining bank mortgages for house purchases even in suburban subdivisions which were privately financed without federal construction loan guarantees. The FHA not only refused to insure mortgages for black families in white neighborhoods, it also refused to insure mortgages in black neighborhoods—a policy that came to be known as “redlining,” because neighborhoods were colored red on government maps to indicate that these neighborhoods should be considered poor credit risks as a consequence of African Americans living in (or even near) them.
Unable to get mortgages, and restricted to overcrowded neighborhoods where housing was in short supply, African Americans either rented apartments at rents considerably higher than those for similar dwellings in white neighborhoods, or bought homes on installment plans. These arrangements, known as contract sales, differed from mortgages because monthly payments were not amortized, so a single missed payment meant loss of a home, with no accumulated equity. In the Atlantic last year, Ta-Nehisi Coates described how this system worked in Chicago. In summarizing her book, Family Properties, Rutgers University historian Beryl Satter described it this way:
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. They also understood that the longer they stayed, the less their property would be worth. 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.
The contract buying system was commonplace in Baltimore. Its existence was solely due to the federal government’s policy of denying mortgages to African Americans, in either black or white neighborhoods. Nationwide, black family incomes are now about 60 percent of white family incomes, but black household wealth is only about 5 percent of white household wealth. In Baltimore and elsewhere, the distressed condition of African American working- and lower-middle-class families is almost entirely attributable to federal policy that prohibited black families from accumulating housing equity during the suburban boom that moved white families into single-family homes from the mid-1930s to the mid-1960s—and thus from bequeathing that wealth to their children and grandchildren, as white suburbanites have done.
As I described in the Making of Ferguson, the federal government maintained a policy of segregation in public housing nationwide for decades. This was as true in northeastern cities like New York as it was in border cities like Baltimore and St. Louis. In 1994, civil rights groups sued the Department of Housing and Urban Development (HUD), alleging that HUD had segregated its public housing in Baltimore and then, after it had concentrated the poorest African American families in projects in the poorest neighborhoods, HUD and the city of Baltimore demolished the projects, and purposely relocated the former residents into other segregated black neighborhoods. An eventual settlement required the government to provide vouchers to former public housing residents for apartments in integrated neighborhoods, and supported this provision with counseling and social services to ensure that families’ moves to integrated neighborhoods would have a high likelihood of success. Although the program is generally considered a model, it affects only a small number of families, and has not substantially dismantled Baltimore’s black ghetto.
In 1970, declaring that the federal government had established a “white noose” around ghettos in Baltimore and other cities, HUD Secretary George Romney proposed denying federal funds for sewers, water projects, parkland, or redevelopment to all-white suburbs that resisted integration by maintaining exclusionary zoning ordinances (that prohibited multi-unit construction) or by refusing to accept subsidized moderate-income or public low-income housing. In the case of Baltimore County, he withheld a sewer grant that had previously been committed, because of the county’s policies of residential segregation. It was a very controversial move, but Romney got support from Vice President Spiro Agnew, who had been frustrated by unreasonable suburban resistance to integration and mixed income developments when he had been the Baltimore County Executive and governor of Maryland.
In a 1970 speech to the National Alliance of Businessmen, Agnew attacked attempts to solve the country’s racial problems by pouring money into the inner city as had been done in the Johnson administration. Agnew said that he flatly rejected the assumption that “because the primary problems of race and poverty are found in the ghettos of urban America, the solutions to these problems must also be found there… Resources needed to solve the urban poverty problem—land, money, and jobs—exist in substantial supply in suburban areas, but are not being sufficiently utilized in solving inner-city problems.” President Richard Nixon eventually restrained Romney, HUD’s integration programs were abandoned, Romney himself was forced out as HUD Secretary, and little has been done since to solve the urban poverty problem with the substantial resources that exist in the suburbs.
PDF of The Atlantic’s April 1972 profile of the Contract Buyers League.
Ten years ago, during the subprime lending boom, banks and other financial institutions targeted African Americans for the marketing of subprime loans. The loans had exploding interest rates and prohibitive prepayment penalties, leading to a wave of foreclosures that forced black homeowners back into ghetto apartments and devastated the middle class neighborhoods to which these families had moved. The City of Baltimore sued Wells Fargo Bank, presenting evidence that the bank had established a special unit staffed exclusively by African American bank employees who were instructed to visit black churches to market subprime loans. The bank had no similar practice of marketing such loans through white institutions. These policies were commonplace nationwide, but federal bank examiners responsible for supervising lending practices made no attempt to intervene. When a similar suit was filed in Cleveland, a federal judge observed that because mortgage lending is so heavily regulated by the federal and state governments, “there is no question that the subprime lending that occurred in Cleveland was conduct which ‘the law sanctions’.”
Baltimore, not at all uniquely, has experienced a century of public policy designed, consciously so, to segregate and impoverish its black population. A legacy of these policies is the rioting we have seen in Baltimore. Whether after the 1967 wave of riots that led to the Kerner Commission report, after the 1992 Los Angeles riot that followed the acquittal of police officers who beat Rodney King, or after the recent wave of confrontations and vandalism following police killings of black men, community leaders typically say, properly, that violence isn’t the answer and that after peace is restored, we can deal with the underlying problems. We never do so. Certainly, African American citizens of Baltimore were provoked by aggressive, hostile, even murderous policing, but Spiro Agnew had it right. Without suburban integration, something barely on today’s public policy agenda, ghetto conditions will persist, giving rise to aggressive policing and the riots that inevitably ensue. Like Ferguson before it, Baltimore will not be the last such conflagration the nation needlessly experiences.
RACISM as PUBLIC POLICY
Misteaching History on Racial Segregation: Ignoring purposeful discriminatory government policies of the past contributes to the ongoing achievement gap
by Richard Rothstein / December 12, 2013
This article first appeared in School Administrator.
To much of the public, it’s self-evident that public schools are “failing” when large achievement gaps separate middle-class white and low-income minority youth. Why, they ask, should skin color or family earnings affect whether children may benefit from effective teachers? Of course, minority or low-income status does not itself depress achievement, but on average, disadvantaged children achieve at lower levels. International tests confirm this in every industrialized country. Why is this so? Poor nutrition, inadequate health care, substandard housing and unstable families — all are factors that contribute to a child’s inability to learn at high levels. Each of these well-documented social class differences between middle-class and low-income students has a small effect on average performance, but their cumulative effect explains much of the achievement gap.
“Because of its strong Catholic identity and having been the mother diocese of many dioceses in the midwest, the archdiocese was often referred to as “the Rome of the west”
The negative effects of racial and economic disadvantage are exacerbated when low-income black students are concentrated in segregated schools. Remediation becomes routine, and teachers must focus more on discipline and less on instruction, leaving them little time to challenge those exceptional students who can overcome personal, family and community hardships that typically interfere with learning. This isolation is a problem not only of poverty but of race. In urban areas, low-income white students are more likely integrated into middle-class neighborhoods and less likely to attend schools filled with other disadvantaged students. Nationwide, low-income black students’ isolation has increased. The share of black students attending schools that are less than 10 percent white increased from less than 34 percent in 1989 to 39 percent in 2007. In 1989, black students typically attended schools where 43 percent of students were low-income; by 2007, this grew to 59 percent. (Statistics provided by a 2009 report by the Civil Rights Project at UCLA, http://civilrightsproject.ucla.edu.) Schools with poorly performing students cannot be turned around while they remain racially and socioeconomically isolated. The problems these students bring to school are so overwhelming that policy should never assume that even the most skilled faculty can overcome them. Schools certainly can make a difference, but they cannot fully erase damage caused by concentrated poverty and racial isolation.
Throughout most of the 20th century, federal policy created black ghettos in metropolitan areas by placing public housing for white and black families in separate neighborhoods; guaranteeing low-cost mortgages for white (but not black) families to move from this public housing and from other urban neighborhoods to all-white suburbs of single-family homes; establishing bank and savings and loan regulatory policies that included racial discrimination as part of sound lending policy; granting tax exemptions to organizations formed for the purpose of enforcing racial barriers and to other organizations (and churches) for whom this was also a purpose; and deliberately routing federal highways through cities to create racial barriers and segregation. State governments heavily regulated a real estate industry that sold and rented homes to whites in neighborhoods designated for whites, and (if at all) to blacks in neighborhoods designated for blacks. State prosecutors and local police tolerated, even encouraged, mob violence against African Americans who dared try to move into white-only neighborhoods.
High Court Ruling
Sociological, economic and historical research demonstrates that black student performance improves with integration, without any loss for whites. However, in 2007, the U.S. Supreme Court, in its Parents Involved in Community Schools v. Seattle School District No. 1 ruling, prohibited districts from taking race into account when assigning pupils to schools in an attempt to integrate. The decision arose from cases in Seattle, Wash., and Louisville, Ky., where the school districts used race as a factor to achieve diversity when assigning students to schools. Expressing the plurality opinion, Chief Justice John Roberts asserted that explicit racial integration was permissible only to remedy a previous explicit policy of segregation. He said that black students’ isolation today is not deliberate; rather, it results from de facto neighborhood segregation that arose from income differences, demographic trends, and choices of white and black families to live in same-race neighborhoods.
The dissent, by liberal Justice Stephen Breyer, did not disagree on this point, arguing only that for de facto segregation, it is good public policy to permit districts voluntarily to integrate, even if not constitutionally compelled to do so. But segregation in Seattle and Louisville was no accident. It was created largely by public policy.
“Deputy sheriffs patrol a Chicago street in 1970 after a dozen Contract Buyers League families were evicted.” (Sun-Times Media)
In Seattle, subdivisions created by mega-builders (such as William Boeing) were financed by the federal government with racial restrictions, or designated for whites-only in plans approved by the city and county. In Louisville, when a pro-integration couple sold a home in their white neighborhood to a black purchaser, not only did police stand by during the ensuing riot, but prosecutors responded by trying, convicting and imprisoning the white seller for “sedition.”
Both Roberts’ and Breyer’s opinions reflect colossal historical amnesia. In truth, neighborhoods across the nation in which our schools are located were segregated by purposeful federal, state and local government policy. Many such policies are no longer in force, but their effects endure. In 1954, the Supreme Court, in Brown v. Board of Education, prohibited school districts from maintaining separate schools for blacks and whites. The decision was aimed at practices in the South and assumed that blacks and whites lived in the same neighborhoods and could attend the same schools if permitted to do so. But the Brown decision could do little to remedy segregation that results not from a racial pupil assignment plan but from geographic separation of the races. Busing is rarely a solution because distances between affluent white suburbs and urban black ghettos are now too great in many metropolitan areas.
Simply repealing the kind of school segregation policy banned by the Brown decision can integrate schools if districts draw integrated school attendance zones. But repealing an intentional residential segregation policy that already has led to substantial racial isolation accomplishes little, because once populations have been firmly established in separate areas, even modest integration could take decades if left to ordinary vacancies and in-migration. Consider the iconic Levittown suburb in Nassau County, N.Y. In 1947, a vast housing shortage existed for both black and white workers and returning war veterans. The federal government financed the Levitt company to construct 17,000 units. These Levittown homes were easily affordable, but the government explicitly prohibited Levitt from selling (or renting) to African Americans. (Similar federal restrictions applied to other projects, many obscure and some well known, like the giant Lakewood development south of Los Angeles and the Daly City suburb south of San Francisco, memorialized by Malvina Reynolds’ song about “ticky tacky” houses.)
An executive order by President Kennedy in 1962 and the 1968 Fair Housing Act repealed government policies requiring racial housing segregation. Yet although many black families in New York City and Nassau County need better housing, Levittown remains today less than 1 percent black, compared to the nearby Long Island town of Roosevelt, which is 79 percent black. In part, this is because white families fortunate enough to purchase Levittown homes in the 1940s and ’50s saw their equity appreciate more rapidly than their wages, so asset values helped propel them into the middle class. But by the time legal barriers to segregation fell, these homes were no longer affordable for working families, so African Americans were permanently excluded from the suburban boom and its amenities.
A Myth Perpetuated
That our segregation is de facto, not de jure (created by law and public policy) is an urban myth, shared by Supreme Court justices, national policymakers, legislators and educators. We continue to teach this myth in public schools, where social studies curricula characterize residential racial segregation as resulting only from private discrimination or as a purely random phenomenon. For example, in the more than 1,200 pages of McDougal Littell’s widely used high school textbook, The Americans, a single paragraph is devoted to “Discrimination in the North” in the 20th century. The book devotes one sentence to residential segregation: “African Americans found themselves forced into segregated neighborhoods,” with no further explanation of how this happened or who was responsible. Similar cover-ups characterize the textbooks of other publishers.
Superintendents cannot hope to narrow the achievement gap without integrating their student populations, and they cannot hope to do this until the neighborhoods from which students come are integrated. Although federal, state and local governments have many policy alternatives they could employ to promote residential integration, there is no popular support for such policies. This lack of public support is partly our own fault, because we fail to teach an accurate account of the segregation policies that were the most important determinant of our contemporary metropolitan landscape. As a result, the myth of de facto segregation endures. If we don’t teach students that residential segregation was unconstitutionally created by our government, and requires a constitutional remedy, how can we expect them, as adults, to act on this understanding?
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