The place where a person lives is an important factor in determining their life chances. Not only does a good home bring safety and security, but it also grants easier access to a wide variety of resources. This is why residential segregation perpetuates inequality between white Americans and Americans of color. Living in a poor neighborhood makes it difficult to find good education, jobs, and places to buy helpful products and services. The large number of people of color who occupy such neighborhoods is not a result of their laziness. Rather, it is a sign of systematic racism and a lack of effort to give these people a fair opportunity to obtain a home elsewhere or to improve their neighborhoods.
In 1968, President Lyndon Johnson passed the Fair Housing Act in order to end segregation and discrimination in the housing market. The legislation formally outlawed any kind of deliberate effort to prevent someone of a certain race, religion, or gender from purchasing a home and also outlaws “steering” them into areas where that group is heavily concentrated. This was obviously a large step forward in the battle for civil rights, but the act did not have as dramatic an effect on racial integration as it could have had. One reason, for example, is that it did not outlaw economic discrimination, and it did not require the government or the Department of Housing and Urban Development to push for racial integration. It is clear from the amount of neighborhoods with large minority populations that fair housing legislation has not been widely enforced. Johnson’s successor, President Richard Nixon, was not interested in pushing for racial integration. This was largely because of his “Southern strategy” to win the favor of white voters in the South. During his presidency, he appointed Supreme Court justices who did not favor the cause of fair housing.
In the early 90s, Essential Information Inc. did a computer study that analyzed over a million loan applications gathered from sixteen large metropolitan areas. The results gave a strong indicator that lenders had broken anti-discrimination laws. They found 62 cases where minority neighborhoods were either ignored or not given the level of service which is legally required. Although this study is outdated, the patterns it found have not significantly changed. The NAACP claims that there are 4 million cases of housing discrimination each year, and that not every filed complaint gets processed. A new study should be conducted to figure out how widespread these practices are and who is carrying them out. Once the research is done and the law-breakers are identified, they ought to be prosecuted under the Fair Housing Act. This needs to be publicized in order to gather support for the movement against residential segregation. Their lending process needs to be examined in order to fix parts of it which may put minorities at a disadvantage. For example, the criteria for potential buyers cannot be structured in a way that is deliberately devised to exclude them. The “lending territory” needs to be regulated to ensure that all areas are included.
Residential segregation is persistent today partially because of private prejudice and colorblind racism. Before I describe these two forces at work, it first must be explained why they still exist today. Winning civil rights for African-Americans in the 1960s was very significant, but it is easy to overlook the fact that the American system still kept them at a disadvantage. Just because they now had legal rights didn’t mean that they suddenly gained access to wealth and resources. In a capitalist system, the amount of money and resources one starts their life with has a crucial effect on where they end up. Most African-Americans didn’t start with much because slavery and racist laws prevented their ancestors from accumulating any to pass down. This also means that there were few African-Americans in power who could help out friends and family looking for ways to climb the social ladder. In a society where the idea of “American Dream” is so prevalent, many see the lack of success among minorities compared to whites and acquire the belief that they must be lazy or inferior. Because racial inequality allows whites to keep their wealth and power, private prejudice and colorblind racism are reproduced. This is not saying that whites are bad people, but rather that the system in which we live is flawed. The success of a few African-Americans, such as Barack Obama, is often pointed to as proof that racism doesn’t exist, and this is also used to reproduce racial inequality. The statement is faulty because it is not saying that minorities can’t ever succeed, but rather that the significant majority of them are held at a disadvantage.
It is very difficult to crack down upon colorblind racism and private prejudice. Some lenders probably do not realize that they are continuing the trend of unequal housing, for various reasons. They may direct ethnic minorities towards concentrated neighborhoods because they feel that members of the same race would naturally want to live close to each other. Sometimes African-Americans may begin to populate a previously all-white neighborhood, only to see the whites begin moving away and suddenly turning the area into a “black neighborhood”. An African-American may have the finances to get a house in a desirable location, but lack the “cultural capital” to convince the lender that they are a legitimate member of the middle class. In other words, they may not have the typical appearance, attitudes, and behaviors that stereotypically associated with the middle class, leading a lender to the misconception that the person does not belong in a “white” middle-class neighborhood even though their resume suggests otherwise. This type of discrimination can be completely subconscious and difficult to reverse.
What can be done to resist future housing discrimination? One way is to support proposed legislation from politicians who aim to fight it. Currently, Congressman Al Green of Texas is one of the most active supporters of fair housing in our government. For the past couple years, he has proposed a bill that would require testing and increased funds to crack down on discrimination in the housing market. It has not yet made it far enough to be voted on by the House of Representatives. One way you can help is by contacting the representative of your local district and your state’s two senators and ask them to support the bill. You can check Congressman Green’s web site to stay updated on his actions related to housing.
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– Page authored by Samuel Hicks