The precarious state of poverty in which the South was left after the Civil War caused many African Americans to move to the North, an area seemingly against slavery that had its moral ideals challenged when faced with fleeing southern African Americans looking to live among these local Northerners. This propelled Northern metropolitan cities with vast resources to be responsible for the worst cases of housing segregation against African Americans in contemporary America. Northern metropolitan cities remain racially segregated and updated legislation needs to be implemented as social change has not proven to be enough since the Civil Rights Movement initiatives.
As we begin the conversation on this issue, we look back to what was done during the Civil Rights Movement in the 1960s and 1970s. Some of these campaigns led to the passing of the Fair Housing Act in 1968. Renowned civil rights activist Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. led the initiative to fight against housing segregation that led to the passing of this bill. As a matter of fact, the bill was passed a mere seven days after the passing of Martin Luther King and in a way, it served as an act honoring his legacy. Well, the act did pass in the legal books but was not honored in society. The act itself, according to the Encyclopaedia Britannica, prohibits discrimination on the basis of race, colour, religion, sex, disability, family status, and national origin in the sale, rental, financing, or advertising of housing. The way former U.S. President Lyndon B. Johnson described the act was: “Fair Housing for all — all human beings who live in this country — is now a part of the American way of life” (Lane). To this day we wonder how the Fair Housing Act was implemented and “how much [it] has contributed to improvement remains an empirical question” (Bianchi 48).
One may wonder why has the American public masked their discrimination against African Americans in the realm of housing inequality. Northerners that lived in these large metropolitan cities did not want to deal with the weight of their moral ideals or in other words, to actually have to help, in person, the underprivileged Americans. In a way, this meant that Northerners wanted “to avoid the property devaluation that black residents caused” in their cities (Lane). America’s past of segregation against people of color that still lingers today.
In contemporary America, we are seeing that “there is a high level of racial residential segregation in metropolitan areas” (Bianchi 37). This is not the only housing inequality facing African Americans. Sociologists like Dr. Bianchi have identified that “blacks typically live in lower quality housing than whites, occupy older housing, and are less likely to own their own homes” (37). This is the situation where we find racial housing segregation in Northern metropolitan cities but nevertheless, we have been seeing positive progress since the Housing Fair Act previously mentioned.
Washington Post columnist Charles Lane claims in a 2018 article that there has been progress between 1970 and 2010; “the United States as a whole is approaching a level of black-white residential segregation that researchers customarily consider ‘moderate.’” These conclusions matter because the date 1970 signifies the first few years after the housing legislation was passed, compared to contemporary America in 2010 and serves as an evaluation of the ‘moderate’ progress that there has been. Lane still felt compelled to add to his column that “black Americans remain far more likely than others to be concentrated racially and isolated geographically.”
An inequality so specific as this may lead one to ask why it matters, and more specifically, who may benefit from such segregation. While this discrimination was not legally enforced, landlords and real estate agencies may have an agenda that might profit from segregating neighborhoods by race and income. Real estate agencies have tried to accommodate their highest paying customers, which are often white Americans due to the simple reason that they represent the majority of the population.
Urban sociologists like Dr. Suzanne Bianchi discuss ideas that aim to explain housing segregation. One of these concepts is known as white flight. Bianchi describes white flight when “blacks are concentrated in central cities while the suburbs remain predominantly white” (37). Her statement is descriptive yet could go into more detail as to why these suburbs remain predominantly white. White flight in a sense tries to explain how white citizens choose to leave the city and move to the suburbs. This self-segregation allowed them to live away from people of color. The reasons for doing so are hard to generalize. Some may argue that people naturally want to live next to people like them; whether that may be for skin color, nationality, similar wealth or else. Nevertheless, it is halting true integration and that fear, therefore, is exclusionary and often classist. The problem does not end here, because there are “local laws [which] exclude or discourage poor and working-class people from moving into certain communities, keeping those areas primarily the domain of the white and wealthy” (Winkler).
One of the main counterarguments against the idea that there, in fact, is housing segregation is that “white people wanting to live apart from black people is not white people oppressing black people” (Bodenner). In other less divisive words, some claim that “Americans seek to live near people with whom they have more in common” (Winkler). While this may seem an understanding thought, the argument of people would like to live among people similar to them is no longer valid because we see that there is legislation that benefits white people directly and not other races or ethnicities. So white citizens that have worked for the growth of white flight are undoubtedly racist. Discrimination and class bias have often motivated such white flight to happen because “there’s a fear that white wealth cannot exist without black poverty” (Fayyad). The fear is that by living next to “economic peers” — citizens with similar wealth and income — they would avoid others from “want[ing] to steal your stuff because their’[s]…is just as nice” (Bodenner). Statements as such can be traced back to the very beginnings of this country as the United States was built often relying on black slave labor. Overall, we see that white flight individuals may fear for a conflict of resources that people of color would want to be after their wealth of power.
Another sociological idea experts have come up with is snob-zoning which resembles white flight but addresses status over skin color. Snob-zoning is based on “government-instituted racial zoning policies” that “forbid builders from constructing apartment buildings [concerned that] smaller units could change the character of a community” (Winkler). This manipulative excuse avoids arranging smaller, and therefore cheaper, units. Unfortunately, there is “no federal legislation that says economic exclusion is improper” (Winkler). This practice is exclusionary and restricts the community of having a variety of citizens residing in it. This longing for not having diversity is framed under “aesthetic uniformity” which, in my opinion, is a euphemism for segregated housing inequality (Winkler). This inequality is a similar abuse as respectability politics where the white majority in power dictates to other minorities what is ethical and correct. In the case of housing, it is the same wealthy white people in power who dictate what is defined as “aesthetic uniformity,” which is masking their intent of demographic uniformity. “Uniformity” has become a buzzword for a type of neo-racial supremacy or socioeconomic supremacy. In simple terms, this is “the result of social engineering by federal and local governments” and this social engineering is not only about some racist neighborhoods but of local legislation working hand in hand with real estate agencies which segregate neighborhoods to the liking of the wealthy (Winkler).
Now that we have established the issue at hand it is important to understand that this economic exclusion does not affect equal access to housing only. Economic exclusion becomes a housing exclusion that dictates the quality of public education in each school county. The social engineering that takes place not only tailors housing for the wealthy but also access to education. How so, one may ask. Well, a neighborhood with mostly high-income families will pay much higher property taxes if homes are “uniform,” this, in turn, leads to a resource disparity in schooling and perpetuates inequality for minorities who cannot live in these snob-zones and therefore do not have access to adequate schooling since more and more resources are allocated to these socially engineered suburbs of white flight. Additionally, researchers have found that banks are also profiting from snob-zoning. Research shows that “as recently as 2006, a city government report found that affluent, nonwhite Milwaukeeans were 2.7 times likelier to be denied home loans than white people with similar incomes” (Eligon). Banks are also complicit in supporting white flight, which may be considered even more discriminatory than snob-zoning — a vaguer idea in racial terms. Whether the real estate industry, banks, or the neighbors are at fault, “the reality, however, is that the government is uniquely responsible for creating slums, which [Martin Luther] King viewed as ‘a system of internal colonialism’” (Fayyad).
Now I will describe to what degree African Americans have been affected by racial housing segregation. To do so we should consider some indicators to determine what is considered housing inequality. Sociologist Bianchi describes these “quality indicators” as three main ones; the amount of people per housing unit (crowded unit), the structural inadequacy of the unit, such as pipes or heating for example, and how old the housing unit is, where 30 years or more is usually deemed inadequate (39). Her research details other indicators as well but she recognizes these three as the pillars for her findings. Her results in these methods of measurement are that “blacks remain more likely to live in crowded, structurally inadequate and old units, and [are] less likely to live in owner-occupied units than whites” (Bianchi 50). Therefore, she has found how blacks are at a disadvantage in those factors of housing inequality and additionally do not usually own the housing unit they live in.
We have understood that African Americans are suffering from housing inequality, how so, who is at fault, but we have not yet placed the problem in a specific area of the United States. Experts have shown that Northern metropolitan cities have reported the worst cases of racial housing segregation. Dr. Bianchi researched housing inequality on a micro-level, while Charles Lane has researched the macro-level which led him to findings of Northern metropolitan cities being the worst in housing inequality for African Americans and Latinos. His findings show that “for blacks, nine of the 10 most segregated metropolitan areas are northern cities such as Detroit, Cleveland, Chicago, and Philadelphia” (Lane). Other researchers like Dr. Winkler suggest that snob-zoning — his area of research — is “particularly popular in the Northeast and Midwest” which aligns with the findings of Lane. Moreover, the end result is that blacks and whites have drastic disparities in access to housing when compared with income. For example, “in many of America’s largest metropolitan areas, including New York, Chicago, and Los Angeles, black families making $100,000 or more are more likely to live in poorer neighborhoods than even white households making less than $25,000” (Eligon). So, this leaves little doubt whether or not the housing differences are racially motivated or not.
So now I wonder why racial housing segregation has been overlooked since the end of the Civil Rights Movement. Why or why not, remains a question as we aim to change the systemic demoralization of our own livelihood” that housing segregation has meant for African Americans in metropolitan cities in the North of the United States. Thankfully, racial differences have narrowed since 1977 in access to equal housing (Bianchi 50). The dissimilarity index — which indicates the level of housing inequality between races — studied by sociologists, now stands at 76, down only slightly from 84 in 1970 (Lane). In contemporary times we have had less racial housing segregation during the Obama era in office. Nevertheless,
“Earlier this year, when the Trump administration delayed an Obama-era rule that incentivized metropolitan areas across the country to desegregate, it was not acting out of step with the nation’s long history of housing discrimination. In fact, since King’s death, the government has seldom taken seriously its promise to desegregate communities, and most of its efforts to do so have been lackluster. (Fayyad)
These promises can no longer be simply King’s dreams. The government has to instill laws that do not focus on new social initiatives and wishes for change, but ones that directly prosecute cases of government-funded and privately-owned businesses being guilty of perpetuating racial housing segregation. Laws that may even be profit-motivated to denounce enablers of racial housing segregation.
All this information provides some background analysis of the state of racial housing segregation in Northern metropolitan cities after the Civil Rights Movement. Unfortunately, analyzing this housing inequality is not enough. We need research done that shows accurately how the Fair Housing Act has fallen short of eradicating racial housing segregation. After that research explicitly shows these shortcomings, we should shift our focus to changing the legislation to prosecute any entity that enables or promotes racial housing segregation. If we work towards both doing the research and creating proactive legislation, we will be nearing a halt to this kind of modern-day segregation and in turn, serve to truly pay homage to King’s civil rights work for racial equality.
Bianchi, Suzanne M., et al. “Racial Inequalities in Housing: An Examination of Recent Trends.” Demography, vol. 19, no. 1, 1982, pp. 37–51. JSTOR, JSTOR, www.jstor.org/stable/2061127.
Bodenner, Chris. “What’s So Bad About Segregated Housing? Your Thoughts.” The Atlantic, 25 June 2015, www.theatlantic.com/business/archive/2015/06/housing-integration-segregation-/396605/
Eligon, John, and Robert Gebeloff. “Affluent and Black, and Still Trapped by Segregation.” The New York Times, 20 Aug. 2016, www.nytimes.com/2016/08/21/us/milwaukee-segregation-wealthy-black-families.html.
Fayyad, Abdallah. “The Unfulfilled Promise of Fair Housing.” The Atlantic, 31 Mar. 2018, www.theatlantic.com/politics/archive/2018/03/the-unfulfilled-promise-of-fair-housing/557009/.
Lane, Charles. “The Ghettoization of Black Americans Hasn’t Been Reversed.” The Washington Post, 9 Apr. 2018, www.washingtonpost.com/opinions/why-the-residential-segregation-of-black-and-white-people-persists/2018/04/09/8b11bc46-3c08-11e8-974f-aacd97698cef_story.html?noredirect=on&utm_term=.0f724807f892.
Winkler, Elizabeth. “‘Snob Zoning’ Is Racial Housing Segregation by Another Name.” The Washington Post, 25 Sept. 2017, www.washingtonpost.com/news/wonk/wp/2017/09/25/snob-zoning-is-racial-housing-segregation-by-another-name/?utm_term=.c240146ee331.