Thursday, July 16, 2015

The Silence on Housing Discrimination

MLK in 1966 in Chicago, where he pushed to end housing discrimination, an action largely forgotten in public memory due to its tendency to raise uncomfortable questions

There has been a great deal of discussion and action recently when it comes to the Confederate battle flag and of the memory of the Civil War generally.  While I am all for taking down the traitor flag and have called for a "memory offensive" on current public ways of viewing the Civil War, I do think that the discussion over the flag can be limiting.  It is easy for whites who live outside of the South to decry it, since they see it as embodying an Other.  Speaking from my time in East Texas, I can tell you that yes, there are a lot of good ole boy goobers in the rural South with violently racist dispositions.

However, there a lot more white people both inside and outside of the South who have benefited and continue to benefit from institutional racism in the form of housing discrimination.  I would even say that residential segregation is the root tool of racism in this country.  Living here in northern New Jersey it couldn't be plainer.  Those suburbs (like, say Summit)  touted for their safety and "good schools" are very, very white, while cities known for their crime and poverty, like Newark and East Orange, are overwhelmingly not white.

The historical past that made this present is well known.  These divisions are not natural, but are the intentional results of decades of policies that subsidized suburbanization, warehoused the poor in urban areas, and that made it easy for whites to get access to cheap home loans, and difficult for people of color.  When African Americans began moving into new neighborhoods and suburbs, white flight and block busting often followed.  The vast majority of white people, both in the postwar period and now, simply refuse to think of sharing a common fate with black people, especially poor black people.

Because of residential segregation, schools are more racially segregated than they were at the time of Brown.  This segregation leads to vastly different outcomes for children in different municipalities and neighborhoods that border each other.  Again, this is all by design, not by accident.  To give a local example, the grandchildren of Newark white flight living in nearby Livingston (where Chris Christie, born in Newark, went to high school after his family left Newark) have access to a renowned public schools system.  Their fate is entirely different than the children of Newark, who are currently being used as guinea pigs in a misguided "reform" scheme because Newarkers aren't allowed to run their own schools.  Those living in the protected municipalities can simply forget about those less fortunate, and never give them a dime of their local taxes.  Unless residential segregation is broken down, there is no hope whatsoever to stop either racism or severe economic inequality.

For that reason, the issues of fair housing and residential segregation ought to be prominent in the public sphere, especially now that the government is taking action on it.  The Obama administration recently announced that it is going to push for stricter enforcement of the Fair Housing Act of 1968.  There is a lot at stake in this announcement, which could potentially radically alter residential patterns in large swaths of the USA.  It's interesting, then, that there has hardly been any public discussion of it in the mainstream media.  Perhaps this is down to a busy news cycle, with Greece and Iraq dominating headlines, but I doubt it.

Most Americans (white ones especially) would really, really like to avoid a discussion of fair housing and residential segregation.  In the first place, it is a key example of how racism is systematic and institutional, when most would pretend to see it as a nasty attitude held only by the type of redneck who waves the rebel flag.  The vast majority of white people do not want to see themselves implicated in racism in any way.  Politically, as Thomas Edsall pointed out yesterday, this is a difficult issue for Democrats.  If their party is perceived as bringing poor minorities into affluent white communities, a lot of white voters will react extremely negatively.  That said, Republicans are also hesitant on it, partly because they do not want to admit that systemic racism exists, and also because they would prefer not to make their collusion with it so obvious.

To solve the problems of residential segregation would mean action on a vast and massive scale, action that the majority of Americans would really prefer not to take.  They would also prefer to see the current residential dividing lines as natural, and will just go on pretending the problem doesn't exist, and to wail and gnash their teeth whenever affordable housing is proposed for their community.   That issue will continue to be framed as a local, and not systemic one, and nothing much will change.  For it do so would require and actual acknowledgement of the true realities of economic and racial oppression in this country, which I don't see coming anytime soon.  I only hope that the Obama administration's efforts make things less awful. Until white people and the affluent really and truly see the fates of their children as being intertwined with those of children of color and poor children, the base problem will persist.

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