The U.S. Supreme Court could be on the verge of issuing a major setback to racial integration efforts. In two weeks, it will hear oral arguments regarding whether the federal government and states should be permitted to pursue policies that perpetuate or exacerbate racial segregation in housing—even where no intent to segregate is proven.
The segregation of low-income minority families into economic and racial ghettos is one cause of the ongoing achievement gap in American education. Students from families with less literacy come to school less prepared to take advantage of good instruction. If they live in more distressed neighborhoods with more crime and violence, they come to school under stress that interferes with learning. When such students are concentrated in classrooms, even the best of teachers must spend more time on remediation and less on grade-level instruction.
The Economic Policy Institute, together with the Haas Institute for a Fair and Inclusive Society at the University of California, have organized a large group of housing scholars—historians and other social scientists—to sign a friend-of-the-court brief urging that housing policies perpetuating segregation should be banned.
The case was filed by the Inclusive Communities Project (ICP), a Dallas civil rights group that had been promoting racial integration in the Dallas area by assisting African American families who were eligible for rent subsidies (commonly known as “Section 8” vouchers) to find affordable apartments in predominantly white neighborhoods. This was difficult to accomplish because so many of the tax-subsidized low-income family housing developments that the Texas Department of Housing approved were located in heavily minority and low-income communities.
Those who defend practices like those of the Texas Department claim that they do not intentionally promote segregation but that developers pick minority and low-income communities for subsidized housing, not to purposely reinforce segregation, but because such communities are convenient for prospective tenants who live nearby.
Convenience should be no excuse, however, for perpetuating segregation.
Convenience should be no excuse, however, for perpetuating segregation. Our brief makes the following argument: historically, the federal, state and local governments have, in concert with each other and with private interests, acted to purposely segregate metropolitan areas by race. Once these patterns of segregation were established by deliberate racial policy, placement of federally subsidized housing (to be occupied predominantly by minority tenants) in already segregated neighborhoods unlawfully reinforces this segregation, even if Jim Crow policies are no longer in effect and no purposeful intent to segregate can be proven. It should be deemed unlawful for government agencies simply to respond to developer proposals without considering their racial impact, because the Fair Housing Act requires these agencies to affirmatively pursue integrated housing. As our brief recounts, a much earlier (1972) Supreme Court decision stated that the Fair Housing Act’s main purpose is to “replace ghettos ‘by truly integrated and balanced living patterns.’” This purpose would be improperly repudiated if the Court were now to permit practices like those of the Texas Department of Housing.
It is unlikely but possible that the Texas case will be settled before the Supreme Court issues its ruling. If so, developers will almost certainly seek another case in which the court will be invited to permit practices that perpetuate segregation, even where a deliberate intent to segregate cannot be proven. Possibly, we may again file a brief, tailored to the facts of a new case. If you are an historian or social scientist who would like to join any future such brief, please let us know at firstname.lastname@example.org email@example.com.
For more detail regarding the Supreme Court case, and why it is so crucial to the future of race relations in the U.S., see here.
The ideas expressed on the Haas Institute blog are not necessarily those of UC Berkeley or the Division of Equity & Inclusion, where the Haas Institute website is hosted. They are not official and not of one mind. Thoughts here are those of individual authors. We are committed to academic freedom, free speech and civil liberties.