The U.S. Supreme Court is poised to do what many realtors, developers and mortgage lenders have long chomped at the bit at and that’s to gut the 1968 Fair Housing Act. The law forbade intentional and, by extension, disparate discrimination in the sale or rental of housing.
The implicit understanding in the law was that residential segregation based on race and income ensured racially insulated and economically decayed neighborhoods. That resulted in failing, underserved segregated public schools and frayed neighborhood services.
The law gave civil rights organizations and housing justice advocates a powerful weapon to force Realtors and developers to end their decade’s long blatantly racially discriminatory and predatory practices. They could get sued.
The suits did not have to be based solely on proving intentional discrimination, but by showing there was a “disparate impact.” That meant that housing discrimination may be considered discriminatory and illegal if it harms individuals, namely racial minorities or the low income, which almost always is one and the same in housing discrimination cases.
The court’s hard core ideological four justices, led by Clarence Thomas, almost certainly will knock the “disparate impact” provision out. That would effectively bury the weapon that rights groups have used to force some concessions from builders and developers to build and make available housing to minorities and the poor in many residential neighborhoods.
If that happens, housing segregation which has been persistent and intractable will be even more so. Here’s how bad it is.
A report by the US 2010 Project in 2011 found that America’s most segregated cities were just as segregated as they were 20 years earlier. The report focused on the top 10 most segregated cities. It could have easily been expanded to find vast and unbroken pockets of racial segregation in many of the nation’s smaller and mid-size cities as well.
The following year, a Pew Research Center report examined housing segregation patterns in 30 cities. It found that in virtually every one of them Americans were more likely to live in economically segregated neighborhoods than they were 30 years earlier. Where one lived had everything to do with income. The poorer an individual or family was the likelihood was that they lived in a segregated neighborhood.
A casual drive through any of the major urban neighborhoods in America, a walk through the neighborhood schools, hospitals and clinics reveal the stark pattern of the two Americas — in fact, even three or four urban Americas: an America that is poor, black and Latino; an America that is black and middle class; an America that is white, working class and middle class; and one that’s white and wealthy.
Whichever urban America one travels through, the line dividing the neighborhoods is as deep as the Grand Canyon. There are the usual suspects to blame for the rigid segregation.
Poverty, crime, lender redlining, a decaying industrial and manufacturing inner city, white and middle-class black and Hispanic flight, crumbling inner-city schools, the refusal of major business and financial institutions to locate in minority neighborhoods, and cash-strapped city governments that have thrown in the towel on providing street repairs and basic services.
In the decades before the passage of the 1964 Civil Rights Act, the great migration of blacks from the South before and after both world wars, and the flight of whites from urban neighborhoods to the suburbs locked in place the economic, social, and political mindset that racial segregation was a fact of life in the North and would stay that way.
Redlining, zoning laws and the federal government’s deliberate policy of bolstering residential segregation ensured that. Even as the Jim Crow barriers tumbled in the South and blacks and whites mingled in schools, public facilities and more and more neighborhoods, residential segregation in the North remained America’s idée fixe.
Every census report in the post-civil rights era and the countless Urban League’s State of Black America reports showed that the inner cities continued to get blacker and browner and poorer, while the suburbs got whiter and wealthier. That trend isn’t likely to change.
The Republican-controlled Congress is hardly likely to propose any new spending or to deal with the continuing decay of urban neighborhoods. Some experts have pointed to the increasing gentrification by young whites and non-blacks of some urban neighborhoods as a hopeful sign that residential segregation could in time pass away. That’s not likely.
In fact, studies have shown that gentrification has not altered the neighborhood racial segregation patterns as much as is popularly presented. Many of the old homes that have been renovated as chic, pricey, apartments and townhouses, have been gobbled up, not by whites and non-blacks, but by upwardly mobile black professionals.
They are upscale, but they are still black, and so are the freshly gentrified neighborhoods they live in. The Obama administration will make a strong case before the high court that the Fair Housing Act must remain unchanged. Given the court’s hunt to roll back the civil rights laws of the 1960s, fair housing is in mortal danger. The result: America’s segregated towns and cities will stay that way.
Earl Ofari Hutchinson is an author, political analyst and a weekly co-host of the Al Sharpton Show on American Urban Radio Network. He is the author of “From King to Obama: Witness to a Turbulent History” (Middle Passage Press). Follow him on Twitter at http://twitter.com/earlhutchinson.