The Myth of De Facto Segregation

By Joseph Monardo

Last Friday the Berkeley Journal of African-American Law & Policy, Asian American Law Journal, La Raza Law Journal, and Journal of Middle Eastern & Islamic Law collaborated to present a symposium aiming to highlight work being done across issue areas that combat discrimination and promote equity. The event’s name was as bold as it was apt: “United against White Supremacy”.

Richard Rothstein delivered the opening speech, while Ian Haney Lòpez and Eva Paterson delivered the subsequent keynotes. Holding positions at the Economic Policy Institute, the Thurgood Marshall Institute of the NAACP Legal Defense Fund, and the Haas Institute at the University of California, Berkeley, Rothstein is the author of a number of books, most recently The Color of Law: A Forgotten History of How Our Government Segregated America. In his speech, as in his book, Rothstein led the audience through a history of policies enacted throughout the Twentieth Century. Even as federal and state governments disposed of Jim Crow Laws and left legalized segregation behind — to varying degrees and on varying timelines — Rothstein asserted that the country left untouched various forms of housing segregation, the most pernicious of which have left lasting, irreparable disparities in wealth and housing.  

And how is that possible? How is it that, at the same time society explicitly rooted out discriminatory practices, it preserved a housing system that maintained and promoted white supremacy? The answer, Rothstein said, is that it pretended housing discrimination was an accidental result of private preferences. We adopted a myth of de facto housing discrimination, removing the human agency and absolving the parties in power of both guilt and responsibility.

The reality is that the overwhelming and multi-faceted history of housing discrimination could only have been formalized through concerted government action. By expressly segregating public housing and empowering private developers to do the same, the United States government promoted white communities over communities of color.

Following World War II, the Federal Housing Administration and Veterans Administration enlisted developers to build mass housing projects that could accommodate returning veterans. But a precondition for those developments — among which Levittown remains one of the most famous — was a policy of housing whites only. During the same time period, conservative attempts to kill the 1949 Housing Act were only successful in preventing the subsequent expansion of public housing from being integrated. While white communities enjoyed housing developments in the suburbs with access to factories and jobs, black families were restricted to public housing in the urban centers and diminishing employment opportunities.

The racial segregation that resulted from these policies has had enduring consequences. While African-American families make about 60% as much as their white counterparts, their wealth holdings are closer to 10% of whites’. Rothstein asserts that the entirety of that difference is attributable to unconstitutional housing policy.

It’s not hard to understand why that is the case: for the median household, owned housing makes up roughly two-thirds of total wealth. As white families passed down the homes that were the direct results of preferential policy, the groundwork for an accelerating state of American inequality was set. Individuals and entire communities still feel the results of those decades-old disparities in housing access.

In response to the inequitable and detrimental effects of discriminatory housing law, Rothstein did introduce a few possible policy solutions. Prompted by a question regarding how reparations might fit into policy solutions, Rothstein suggested that for one, the government could buy houses as they come onto the market and sell at a reduced price to minority buyers, allowing the opportunity for families to begin to rebuild the wealth they were denied in previous generations. However, Rothstein acknowledged that such a strategy is far from politically feasible. Public opinion on the topic of affirmative action is predictive of what might happen should this idea be introduced as a legislative priority – Americans are still reluctant to admit there are disparities in educational access, despite more than sixty years of evidence to the contrary.  We might instead consider tackling some of the lowest-hanging fruit in housing discrimination, such as prioritizing integration in public housing policies. But  Section 8 housing vouchers continue to reinforce segregation by funding low-income housing almost exclusively in nonwhite neighborhoods. Even some of the most obvious policy changes will come with a significant political battle.

Rothstein’s immediate aim is instead to increase public understanding that segregated housing is the product of racist policies and concerted government effort. Only by fostering widespread recognition that government created segregation can society develop a belief that government can and should eliminate it. One of the most well-known articles on the legacy of formalized segregation, “The Case for Reparations”, is an especially impressive example of just that approach. In it, Ta-Nehisi Coates weaves family and national histories into a compelling case that makes intervention seem not only appropriate but wholly necessary. Before policymakers can effectively address the problem of housing segregation, they must first take aim at the myth that it was never an intentional creation to begin with.

Joseph Monardo is a Master of Public Policy candidate at the Goldman School of Public Policy and a Co-Editor-in-Chief of the Berkeley Public Policy Journal.