Housing segregation did not happen by accident, it just seems that way. But participants in Wednesday’s “Color of Law” forum laid out the case for a willful government philosophy of separation by race, begun in the 1930s during the Roosevelt administration and then carried on after World War II.
“Here in Newark, the government built six projects,” explained Richard Rothstein, whose book “The Color of Law” chronicles the history of housing segregation in America, from the so-called projects to the suburbs. “Six public housing projects during World War II in Newark. Three of them were for whites only, the other three were segregated internally, that is separate projects for African-Americans and for whites.”
Rothstein was the keynoter at Wednesday’s forum and he recounted how this very same public housing, once reserved for whites, became increasingly black as whites began to relocate to suburbs, following the jobs. Again, not by accident, but by government policy, which helped to encourage developers — think Levittown in New York — who met specific criteria, including “an explicit commitment never to sell a home to an African-American. And with that commitment, the federal government would guarantee, ensure, their bank loans so that banks would lend them the money to build the development,” explained Rothstein. “The Federal Housing Administration even required that developers like Levitt, or any of the other developers, include in the deed of every home in these developments a clause prohibiting resale to African-Americans or rental to African-Americans.”
The “risk of infiltration by incompatible racial elements” was a guiding legal principle that carried on well into the 1970s, an institutional racism that explains why projects in urban areas became blacker and projects in suburbia became whiter. Even in cities, redlining by insurers and lenders guaranteed continued separation, as detailed in the exhibit “Undesign the Redline” from April DeSimone.
“This is a quote from a textbook that they used up until 1947, how they taught their realtors to steer communities,” she recounted. “And the quote sayd, ‘The colored people certainly have a right to life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness but they must recognize the economic disturbance which their presence in a white neighborhood causes and forgo their desire to split off from the established district where the rest of their race lives.’”
No one at the forum suggested that a solution is at hand. It will take years to undo the systemic racism that continues to separate communities. But teaching some of the history discussed would be a step in the right direction. Creating institutions, like a public advocate and a civil rights commission, both of which were abandoned by New Jersey, would help. But as one member of the audience put it in reference to the federal government’s ability to help, “If it couldn’t happen over the last eight years, how’s it going to happen over the next four?”