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Blame the Feds for a House Divided

April 17, 2001|EARL OFARI HUTCHINSON | Earl Ofari Hutchinson is the author of "The Disappearance of Black Leadership" (Middle Passage Press, 2000). E-mail:

In recent days, census officials have furiously issued press releases touting figures that show the United States is more racially diverse than ever. The implication is that the nation is closer to attaining an integrated, open society.

A recent report from Harvard's Civil Rights Project, however, shatters this myth. According to the report, big U.S. cities are more segregated than a decade ago. Most whites still live in white enclaves, and most blacks and Latinos live in inner-city ghettos and barrios.

Worse, it's not racist white landlords, lenders or real-estate agents who are responsible for housing apartheid. Surveys show that whites are more tolerant than ever of nonwhite neighbors. The federal government is the real culprit.

There are 2 million reported housing discrimination violations yearly. Yet during the Bill Clinton years, the Justice Department filed a paltry 20 housing discrimination lawsuits a year. Tell me if you think that President Bush will do any better.

The reluctance of federal officials to crack down on housing discrimination is buried deep in decades-old federal housing policies that enshrine the belief that blacks ruin property values and wreck neighborhoods.

In the early 1920s, state and local officials didn't bother to mask their terror of integrated neighborhoods. Oklahoma City, Baltimore, St. Louis and dozens of other cities officially established "racial zones." Blacks were forbidden by law to live outside these designated areas.

Though the U.S. Supreme Court eventually outlawed racial zones, federal housing officials still required that lenders and real-estate agents enforce whites-only covenants in home deeds as a condition for federal insurance.

Even after the U.S. Supreme Court in 1948 declared racial covenants unenforceable, the Federal Housing Administration and the Veterans Administration imposed no penalties on lenders that refused to loan money to blacks for home purchases in the suburbs.

The Civil Rights Bill of 1968 was supposed to end decades of housing segregation. But conservatives branded it a "forced housing bill" and did everything they could to kill it. A deeply resistant Congress passed the bill only after bloody riots rocked dozens of cities following the assassination of Martin Luther King Jr. in April 1968.

Even this bill, landmark that it was, was a public relations sop. It contained no provisions for Housing and Urban Development to sanction lenders or real-estate agents who discriminated. When President Nixon dumped HUD Secretary George Romney in 1972, civil rights leaders charged it was because Romney pressed FHA officials too hard to end discrimination in government-subsidized programs.

The Reagan administration was even more hostile to fair housing enforcement. It torpedoed a consent agreement the National Assn. for the Advancement of Colored People brokered with the Justice Department to increase loans to minority home buyers on the grounds that it promoted "racial quotas."

As white flight from the cities accelerated in the early 1970s, federal officials bowed to pressure from white city and state public officials to scrap plans to build new public housing in white suburbs. And federal programs continued to provide housing and rent subsidies to black and Latino buyers and renters for home purchases and public housing rentals only in the central cities.

A 1994 HUD report admitted that these subsidies had trapped blacks in exclusively black housing projects. President Clinton's HUD secretary, Henry Cisneros, publicly vowed to break the back of housing discrimination. Cisneros hit the same brick wall as his predecessors.

Congress sharply reduced HUD's budget and killed a HUD proposal to prod banks to earmark more loans to minority home buyers in the suburbs. Currently only three states--Ohio, Washington and Wisconsin--provide financial incentives for integrated housing. HUD has been reduced to issuing reports warning that housing segregation has worsened and pleading with lenders to voluntarily end lending discrimination.

That plea has fallen on deaf ears. Greenlining, a public advocacy group, reported last year that California's eight largest banks made fewer than 5% of their conventional home loans to blacks and Latinos in 1998. The pattern appears to be the same in other states.

Fair housing advocates demand that HUD, the FHA and private lenders set firm lending goals for minorities and provide more funds for loans in minority communities. They also want the Federal Reserve to require banks to gather data on the race and gender of home loan applicants; Congress to strengthen the enforcement provisions in housing laws; and the Justice Department to do more than file occasional high-profile lawsuits against landlords who discriminate.

During the presidential campaign, Al Gore and George W. Bush spoke out on such race-sensitive issues as hate crimes, racial profiling, the Confederate flag, school vouchers and drug sentencing laws, yet they were mute on housing discrimination. So far the Bush administration has not given any signal that it will take action on the demands of civil rights groups to attack housing discrimination.

The Civil Rights Project warns that at the present rate, U.S. cities will be even poorer and more racially segregated at the end of the decade. And for that the federal government can take the blame.

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