An Unfinished Agenda

Why it's time for fair housing and community development to reunite to fight the vestiges of segregation.

In the fall 2007 issue of Shelterforce, Greg Squires argues that the appropriate response to the U.S. Supreme Court’s recent rejection of voluntary programs designed to desegregate public schools is a more aggressive fair-housing movement. I agree. Earlier in the year, in a short piece in the January/February 2007 issue of Poverty and Race about what I would propose that the 110th Congress do to effect progressive change around the intersections of race and poverty, I urged that the Democratic-controlled Congress address the issues and challenges presented by our country’s segregated condition. Squires urges candidates for the presidency in 2008 to give more attention to the issues related to race, housing, and community-development concerns.

But while both Squires and I strive for a polity in which our elected representatives will address the nation’s social and economic inequities, I do not believe that the results we hope for can be achieved either in the context of a political campaign or in the context of public policymaking without (1) the fair-housing and community-development communities coming together around a common agenda that rejects racial segregation as an organizing principle for community and (2) grass-roots advocacy that demands that agenda be reflected in housing and community-development policy at the local, state, and national levels. While this article is primarily directed to those who see themselves as practitioners in the fields of fair housing and community development, because it is at the grass-roots level that this discussion must start, the geography of race is a subject that the country needs to address, and that requires leadership at all levels.

Squires rightly decries Justice Roberts’ insistence on “colorblindness” as reflecting either ignorance of the nation’s racial history or just another effort to maintain white privilege. But aren’t we advocates for low-income people guilty of the same diversionary tactics? In approaching our work, how often have we said among ourselves that “it’s class, not race?” We may say it because we want to believe it, or we may say it because we think that the white majority will be more generous in addressing poverty if it is not thought of as a “race issue.” Whatever the reason, it is just another way of denying the very real role that race plays in the creation and perpetuation of distressed communities.

If it is not race but only class discrimination that causes social and economic inequities, why are there such stark disparities between poor whites and poor people of color? And if it is race, then why is it race? Is it because white people are inherently more functional, capable, etc.? Or is it because America historically erected a social, legal, and political structure that was built upon that assumption, and as a society we have never completely dismantled it? I imagine that Shelterforce‘s readers would say we believe the latter, but we don’t act like we believe it. Otherwise, the fair housers and the community developers would be working together more effectively to redress the race-based geographic inequality that oppresses communities of color and the de-facto segregation that limits individual opportunity and choice.

Racial disparities exist in almost every indicator of individual health and well-being. Those disparities play themselves out particularly viciously in the context of low-income communities. By and large, poor whites do not live in or suffer from the conditions that exist in communities of concentrated poverty to the extent that blacks or Hispanics do. These conditions are largely the products of segregation and discrimination, and the solutions must address that legacy directly.

What, specifically, is the legacy of segregation?

  1. Minority communities that are located in environmentally degraded areas.
  2. Minority communities subjected to decades of discrimination in the provision of public services.
  3. Minority communities avoided by private retail investment because of residents’ race, and assumptions about their ability to function as a “market.”
  4. Minority communities avoided by job creators because of assumptions about the conditions in the community and the abilities of the work force that lives there.
  5. Chronically under-funded schools in minority communities, the consequence of unequal distribution of resources based upon racial geography, which continue to struggle to serve a student population that is disproportionately disadvantaged.
  6. Minority individuals subjected to economic discrimination that depressed earning power and incomes.
  7. Minority individuals whose parents were not able to acquire property and accumulate wealth on the same terms as whites because of discrimination in the real-estate market, leading to a racial gap in inherited wealth particularly with the aging of the Baby Boomer generation.
  8. White communities that, as they became more racially diverse, were targeted for disinvestment by the public and private sectors, making it more difficult to achieve the benefits of a more integrated community.
  9. Exclusive white communities whose real-estate prices and property values are based upon assumptions about the negative impact of “too much” of a minority presence. This “segregation premium,” which whites are often willing to pay for that reason, reinforces the notion that more inclusive racially and economically diverse communities are undesirable.

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