Sunday Commentary: Race and Housing Policies – Our Failures to Address the Legacy of Slavery and Racism Have Continued to this Day

By David M. Greenwald
Executive Editor

One of the more hotly contested issues that is still permeating back into American discourse is the issue of reparations from slavery.

In an essay in The 1619 Project written by Nikole Hannah-Jones she cites from eminent historian Eric Foner.

Toward the end of the civil war, Lincoln proposed the notion of “forty acres and a mule” and General Sherman picked up the mantra as a way to allow freed slaves a form of compensation and also to give them a chance for economic independence.

“Sherman was neither a humanitarian reformer nor a man with any particular concern for Blacks,” Eric Foner writes in his groundbreaking book Reconstruction: America’s Unfinished Revolution.

And yet, Foner writes, the “prospect beckoned of a transformation of Southern society more radical even than the end of slavery.”

However, as Hannah-Jones points out, “Andrew Johnson, the racist, pro-Southern vice president who took over, immediately reneged upon this promise of forty acres, overturning Sherman’s order.  And with that, the only real effort this nation ever made to compensate Black Americans for 250 years of chattel slavery ended. We still live with the legacy of this choice.”

We can imagine what might have been—had large numbers of Blacks, freed across the south, been granted by the government the means to subsist.

Of course there is no guarantee that that wealth would have been allowed to stay there.  One of the other essays in The 1619 Project told the tale of a rising Black businessman in the reconstruction south, who was attacked and murdered by white vigilantes and the result was that his entire family lost any chance at wealth that he was building.

I was reading recently Leah Rothstein’s Just Action and she reminds us that we have largely gotten residential segregation wrong, and we continue to underestimate its impact on the wealth gap between Blacks and whites.

We often encounter the statement that Blacks have equal rights under the law, so why do so many continue to struggle.  But imbedded in that statement is a lack of understanding of the structural forces at play.

As Rothstein notes in her book, “Twentieth-century discrimination in employment and education contributed to this disadvantage.”  She pointed out that “most powerful were actions of federal, state, and local government, in concert with banks, insurance, and real estate firms, to exclude black families from homeownership in both urban and suburban areas.”

Critical were the years when whites but not Blacks were given opportunities for homeownership.  And Blacks were redlined and otherwise excluded from the same opportunities.

Rothstein argues “increased black homeownership is also the main way to close today’s wealth gap. It’s one way, but not the only one, and it cannot close the gap alone.”

The problem now is that so many believe that neighborhoods are now more racially divided only because of “societal discrimination.”  The courts under John Roberts have basically accepted unchallenged the notion of the Court’s fiction of “de facto segregation.”

As Rothstein notes, “It is a mostly empty gesture to tell black families…  that they now have the right to move into neighborhoods that have become too costly but were affordable when African Americans were excluded.”

Later she argues, “If we are concerned about the wealth gap, as we should be, we must pursue a variety of economic reforms in addition to African American homeownership.”

She notes, for example, that in many locations “opponents of residential projects delay them for years by filing meritless challenges and lawsuits, often claiming to oppose new construction to protect the environment, but actually from a desire to exclude working-class and lower-income residents.”

Rothstein continues, “The lack of government subsidies for moderate-income housing is not the only reason that so many housing advocates seem interested only in ‘affordable’ units for the poor.”

There is a misconception at play here.  For, as Rothstein notes, only about one-sixth of Blacks are poor.  While that is triple that of the white rate, it is “still only a small share of Blacks.”

Toward some of the contemporary housing debates, she writes, “Community activists should not assume that nothing can be done for the missing middle.”

She adds, “Elsewhere, they should mobilize to persuade both local and state governments to create new programs that permit truly mixed-income and mixed-race projects.”

The point should be clear—the wealth gap is not the result of some accidental force, it is the logical consequence of years of government action to exclude Blacks from home ownership, to exclude Blacks from white neighborhoods, and the consequence is that 70 years after Brown v. Board of Education declared “separate is inherently unequal” we have a larger rate of residential segregation now than then.  And that is accompanied by the wealth gap.

Or, as Martin Luther King wrote 60 years ago: “A society that has done something special against the Negro for hundreds of years must now do something special for him, in order to equip him to compete on a just and equal basis.”

Just as we failed to address this following slavery, we have failed to address following the dismantling of Jim Crow.

About The Author

David Greenwald is the founder, editor, and executive director of the Davis Vanguard. He founded the Vanguard in 2006. David Greenwald moved to Davis in 1996 to attend Graduate School at UC Davis in Political Science. He lives in South Davis with his wife Cecilia Escamilla Greenwald and three children.

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