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US housing policies fueled racial discrimination

Many disturbing trends persist that have made integrated communities, and therefore integrated neighborhood schools, more elusive.

Students line up to enter Christa McAuliffe School in Jersey City, N.J. on April 29.
Students line up to enter Christa McAuliffe School in Jersey City, N.J. on April 29.Seth Wenig/Associated Press

In February 1963, nearly a decade after the US Supreme Court’s historic school desegregation case, Brown v. Board of Education, a group of Black parents in Englewood, N.J., organized a boycott of their children’s predominantly Black schools and directed their children to “sit in” at a mostly white school. The local board of education told teachers to treat the 32 children “courteously and in a friendly manner. . . . But since they are not enrolled, their attendance cannot be recorded. They are still considered absent without excuse from the school to which they are assigned by Board policy.” In short, they were “unauthorized visitors.”

But the policy to treat the Black children courteously had a far more benign ring than what actually occurred. One teacher said that teachers at her school were told to give the children a “silent treatment” and to withhold homework assignments and not to allow the “visiting” children to participate in lessons. Defying the ruling, she refused segregrate the sit-in children in a corner of the classroom and ignore them, which was the practice of the other teachers in her school. Moreover, since the children were not officially in school, they would be held back. Parents and the board ultimately agreed that if the children could pass an exam, they would be promoted.


In response, a group of volunteers, myself included (a 16-year-old White high school graduate from Brooklyn) spent much of the summer in Englewood tutoring the children. One newspaper account from October 1963 stated that 14 of the 18 children who had taken the test had passed and had been promoted.

Fifty-eight years later, largely as a result of segregated neighborhoods, schools across the country are still mostly segregated. Further, the Minneapolis police murder of George Floyd has stimulated serious consideration about race in America. A productive conversation, followed by an action plan, requires us to understand structural racism, accept responsibility for the harm that has been done, and assess options and implement strategies of redress.


But to understand structural racism and the roots of segregated neighborhoods, all of us need to acknowledge our country’s history of discriminatory governmental policies and programs.

▪ In 1926, the Supreme Court decision in Village of Euclid v. Ambler Realty Co. provided support and a rationale for what later became known as not-in-my-backyard opposition to affordable housing. Quoting the Supreme Court of Louisiana in State v. City of New Orleans, which called apartment buildings parasites, the Court also concurred with the Supreme Court of Mississippi that “the residential character of the neighborhood and its desirability as a place of detached residences [would be] utterly destroyed.”

▪ In 1934, the Federal Housing Administration was created to insure home mortgages for financial institutions, thereby helping to stimulate the building and lending industries during the Depression. Rather than providing equal access to people of color, the agency’s underwriting manual explicitly directed personnel not to insure homes where there were “inharmonious racial groups” or if there was a possibility of “invasions” by such groups.

▪ The public housing program of 1937 was largely limited to white households. When Black households were given access, their apartments were often in separate buildings. As public housing subsequently came to be occupied predominantly by households of color, funding for modernization and repairs was inadequate, contributing to the stereotypically negative images of the program.


▪ The urban renewal program of the 1950s and 1960s was particularly damaging to communities of color, with Black neighborhoods dismantled and thousands of households displaced. Together with the federal interstate highway program, which started in the mid-1950s, routes through lower-income communities of color were typically chosen, resulting in more displacement.

▪ In 1968, a new federally subsidized homeownership program was enacted with many lower-income home buyers of color targeted. However, households were often inadequately screened and homes needing extensive repairs were often approved by the FHA. The disappointing outcomes prompted a series of congressional hearings and investigations.

Since then, a number of federal and state housing laws aimed at banning racial discrimination in mortgage lending and in housing sales and rentals have been enacted. Nevertheless, housing problems are disproportionately experienced by households of color.

Many disturbing trends persist that have made integrated communities, and therefore integrated neighborhood schools, even more elusive. For example, in 2017, in Massachusetts, denial rates for conventional home-purchase loans to Black and Latino borrowers were generally much higher than the denial rates for comparable white households. This has contributed to an enormous disparity in Black and white homeownership rates and this, in turn, has contributed to the wealth gap. In addition, as of 2019, most of the 100 municipalities in Greater Boston effectively prohibited the development of multifamily housing. And, further, analysts at the Federal Reserve Bank of Boston found that recipients of federal Housing Choice Vouchers “have limited access to higher opportunity areas — neighborhoods that positively influence residents’ health and social and economic well-being.”


To help counter these trends, housing advocates have proposed ways to expand housing opportunities by increasing funding for affordable housing, overcoming local exclusionary zoning policies, better enforcing fair housing laws, and promoting housing subsidy utilization in the suburbs.

In the long run, we may hope to be a truly color-blind society, but for now, we must be more color-conscious. We must take responsibility for the damage that was done when the children in those Englewood, N.J., classrooms were treated as invisible “visitors” in the white schools. We owe them, and the millions of others harmed by governmental initiatives with racist impacts a meaningful, tangible apology.

A serious discussion about race in 2021 demands that, however complex to devise, reparations must be considered. Several locales are currently experimenting with such strategies related to housing and, in California, land taken from a Black family under false pretenses in the 1920s may be returned to their descendants. These efforts need to be carefully assessed with the goal of creating a national initiative that attempts to make amends for past and ongoing race-related injustices.

Rachel G. Bratt is a professor emerita in the Department of Urban and Environmental Policy and Planning at Tufts University.