Housing discrimination ‘injures but does not bruise’

If you sought to advantage one group of Americans and disadvantage another, you could scarcely choose a more graceful method than housing discrimination. Housing determines access to transportation, green spaces, decent schools, decent food, decent jobs, and decent services… And housing discrimination is as quiet as it is deadly.                 —Ta-Nehesi Coates

As of 2016, the median wealth for black families in America was $17,600, while the median wealth for white families was $171,000. One of the biggest factors driving these disparities is housing… [Homeownership] has always been the easiest way to climb up the socioeconomic ladder. But that option hasn’t always been available to everyone, especially black families.       —Sean Illing

As I recently reflected on some of the topics this column covered in the past year, I was immediately reminded of the flagrant discrimination and disparities that persist around housing both here in the Twin Cities and throughout the rest of America.

There were two detailed studies from 2019 that particularly stand out in my mind. The first was from the University of Minnesota’s Mapping Prejudice project, which demonstrated how racial housing covenants dating back to the beginning of the 20th century segregated and shaped the city of Minneapolis today.

The aptly titled documentary “Jim Crow of the North” that accompanied this report further helps to explain why the Twin Cities metro, in spite of its national status as a “model” economy, boasts some of the largest Black-White gaps in the nation.

The second report from Duke University, this one titled “The Plunder of Black Wealth in Chicago,” revealed that between 1950 and 1970 the scandalous practice of home sale contracts cost African American homeowners upwards of $3.3 billion. The devastation that this meticulous treachery caused endures on the city’s South and West sides to this day. 

Now, as the calendar turns to 2020, there are a couple of new studies—both from the city of Portland, Oregon—that highlight how the structural and systematic racism of the past continues to fuel and exacerbate racial inequity in the present.

In its document “The Historical Context of Racist Planning,” Portland’s Bureau of Planning and Stability essentially replicates the research conducted here in Minnesota by the Mapping Prejudice project. And, as was the case in Minneapolis, racial covenants in Portland relegated African American families and other populations of color to “select zones” within the city limits.

Thus, it should be no surprise that a second report released just last month by the Multnomah County Commission for Economic Dignity shows that approximately two in every five families in Portland struggles to afford basic needs such as housing, food, transportation and health care. This is in a city that already possess one of the fastest rising and overall highest median incomes in the entire United States.

Not surprisingly, People of Color are significantly overrepresented among those labouring to make ends meet, just as it is here in the Twin Cities and greater Minnesota. And just like it is all over the country as evidenced by new data from The Heller School for Social Policy and Management at Brandeis University.

One of the most painful ironies in all of this is that African Americans who were “legally” concentrated in “restrictively zoned” neighborhoods in Minneapolis and St. Paul are at increasing risk of being displaced through gentrification. In cities such as Portland, Seattle, San Francisco, Atlanta, and Washington, D.C., this process has already completely decimated historic communities under such banners as “redevelopment,” “prosperity” and “progress.”

Yet it seems to me that gentrification just might be the 21st Century equivalent of the restrictive housing covenant. In recent years, the Fair Housing Act of 1968 has been undermined, and its very existence remains under increasing threat. Affordable housing remains one of the most pressing issues of our time, and with each passing day it soars out of reach for more and more Americans.

Perhaps these are just some of the realities Ta-Nehisi Coates is referring to when he speaks of “elegant racism.” With regard to housing discrimination, in both its old and new forms, Coates writes: “[Housing discrimination] can be pursued through violence and terrorism, but it doesn’t need it.

“Housing discrimination is hard to detect, hard to prove, and hard to prosecute. Even today most people believe that Chicago is the work of organist sorting, as opposed to segregationist social engineering. Housing segregation is the weapon that mortally injures, but does not bruise.”

Suitable, stable, and affordable housing is not only an essential need but also a fundamental human right, a right that is rooted in the dignity of all. As Matthew Desmond adds “Without stable shelter, everything else falls apart.”

Fair housing is central to reducing poverty and inequality. It is central to justice. Regrettably and quite deplorably, current trends are moving us further and further away from this moral imperative that we so assiduously seek: fair housing for all.

Somehow, we must find a way to change this reality. History shall no doubt judge us harshly if we don’t.

Clarence Hightower is the executive director of Community Action Partnership of Ramsey & Washington Counties. Dr. Hightower holds a Ph.D. in urban higher education from Jackson State University. He welcomes reader responses to 450 Syndicate Street North, St. Paul, MN 55104.