A Just Economy requires a new Civil Rights movement

Richard Rothstein outlines what’s necessary to undo residential segregation in NCRC’s Just Economy Series.

“What’s missing is not ideas to address segregation — what’s missing is a new Civil Rights movement.”

In a webcast hosted by NCRC on June 9, 2020, historian Richard Rothstein spoke with an explicit urgency on de jure segregation. The term, used to describe the nexus of federal, state, local and organizational laws and policies that have restricted Black Americans from certain housing options, negates what many assume led to segregated cities in the United States. 

As Rothstein pointed out in The Color of Law: A Forgotten History of How Our Government Segregated America, our most common U.S. history books mischaracterize segregation as de facto instead of de jure. Whereas the former takes the attitudes and behaviors of people as facts outside the influence of law, de jure segregation implies discrimination is endogenous to some public policies.

Public officials throughout U.S. history took actions to further policies that excluded African Americans. In fact, the hallmark home of America’s nuclear family, the suburb, is itself an originally racist institution (and Donald Trump is running on it). Property deeds in new suburban projects explicitly excluded Black Americans and other people of color. 

As White families fled their well-funded, urban public housing projects, they bought up well-subsidized mortgages in suburbs with single-family zoning policies that excluded public and mixed-income housing, effectively reducing the available supply of housing and thereby increasing the values of their own homes and land.

This discounting and enrichment scheme for White Americans was orchestrated by the Federal Housing Administration (FHA). As the FHA aggressively pursued a new suburban policy, upkeep of public housing in urban locations became less urgent, and the Black families that took advantage of newly vacated rentals did not garner nearly as much attentiveness from their government servicers. 

The tragedy of all this is that when discrimination was finally outlawed through Civil Rights legislation, and specifically in housing by the Fair Housing Act, our cities’ foundations were already built, and the suburbs were already segregated. The stratification of wealth and local opportunity created by intentional disparities in suburban property ownership were merely held constant by Civil Rights legislation. 

In other words, segregation was not replaced with integration; it was replaced with mediation. The historical devaluation of Black life (through the systematic stripping of economic and political resources and agency) could only be litigated and labored out of rather than readily amended. 

“[Civil Rights reforms] basically left untouched the biggest segregation of all — that every metropolitan area in this country is segregated.”

What Rothstein says is needed is a new Civil Rights movement. Some people may think that drastic, but in the long run, he’s likely right. It’s a bit absurd to believe that our country’s first comprehensive attempt to grapple with our racist past nearly 100 years after Reconstruction would be the ultimate success. I doubt it should even be the penultimate one. 

As the country has more frequent conversations about what it means to be Black in America, White Americans must change their behavior accordingly. As the population with the most control (by representation and wealth) over the country’s political and economic levers and resources, White leaders rarely proactively value Black life — a necessity if they want to credibly tout the American entrepreneurship of equality and individual liberty. 

Living up to these principles requires equivalent economic subsidies for Black Americans as those offered to White Americans. For residential segregation, proactive policies like affirmative action housing programs or changing zoning laws to allow multi-unit and mixed-income housing could help restore agency and resources to disenfranchised communities. The most effective solution is probably a combination of both, but policies like these need political motivation and leadership. Also important and confounding to further progress: there is still an immense amount of work to be done to even enforce the Fair Housing Act. 

However, for Rothstein, substantive change on any front would be more possible if Americans drastically reconciled their misconceptions about how housing and federal policy impacted America’s cartographic and economic landscape. That necessitates a fundamentally different understanding of the role our institutions played in creating racial disparities.

“[Federal Housing Administration policy] is how a White noose was created around every metropolitan area in this country.”

Rothstein’s assessment is accurate: we already have the policy tools. NCRC’s Dedrick Asante-Muhammad lays out a clear agenda to address the racial wealth divide in America and poses the case for direct cash payments. It is not for a lack of solutions that Black Americans continue to be worse off than Whites on major outcomes like health and wealth; it is a lack of will absent a genuine collective understanding of historical and uniquely American racial wrongdoing and residential segregation’s persistent impact on Black communities’ economic opportunities and outcomes.

As the Black Lives Matter movement pushes people to do the individual work of deconstructing their subconscious biases, Americans must next make the jump from individual learning to institutional learning. We must actively reconstruct local, state and federal policies that fundamentally define economic opportunity for the entire range of individuals living under their jurisdiction. 

Civil Rights is not just about the redistribution of wealth alone. It must be realized through a redistribution of power, opportunity and political and economic control in the public and private institutions that structure our prosperity and wellbeing. 

We are not a free nation if Black Americans continue to statistically live absent economic and political parity. Racial wealth disparities and other misaligned outcomes are constructed; it is beyond time to deconstruct them — and that begins with legislation. A New Civil Rights movement could set the agenda. 

Maxim Applegate is a communications and development intern at NCRC.

Photo by Life Matters from Pexels

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