NYT in a Time Warp?

The following is a letter to the editor I submitted to The New York Times:

The Times’ Aug. 8 article, “Housing Program Moves Poor to the Suburbs, and Tensions Follow,” about which David Varady has written on Rooflines, is irresponsible journalism at its worst. It conflates the Section 8 housing voucher program and foreclosures, prefers anecdotes to objective facts, including solid studies, and encourages white suburbanites to fear and fight any opportunities for poor black people to move from terrible inner-city neighborhoods into areas that have good schools and safe streets.

It is particularly ironic that the Times article focused on Antioch, Calif., where subsidized tenants filed suit claiming that the police there were treating them as if they were criminals, because the article does precisely the same thing. Indeed, the quotes from white women sitting at Starbucks who talked about young black men “roaming” their neighborhoods, with the sympathetic context in which the comments are reported, make me wonder if I were reading a Mississippi paper from 1968, rather than The New York Times in 2008.

Would the woman whose father was robbed by a young African-American man feel any more secure if the robber had been white? Are we to take away from these comments that all black people are criminals or that all criminals are black people? If the robber were a Section 8 recipient, that anecdote might have been relevant. Since the Times’ story doesn’t say that he was, one must infer either that he wasn’t or that neither reporter nor editor made any effort to find out if he were.

The reality is that extensive social science research has shown that when Section 8 enables poor black families to move to neighborhoods of opportunity, both the movers and the neighborhoods do very well.

Unfortunately, because of the historic segregation that characterizes the residential areas of our country, racial fears and prejudices rise to the surface when efforts to break down those barriers are successful. It is shameful for The Times thus recklessly to defame a federal housing program that is, at long last and in far too few places, allowing low-income black people to move to places from which they have been excluded.

The Times owes its readers a careful, thorough discussion of the many studies that have shown the great benefits of Section 8 programs that allow poor black people to escape the resource-starved areas to which they have been confined.

Florence Wagman Roisman is the William F. Harvey Professor of Law at the Indiana University School of Law – Indianapolis, where she teaches property, housing discrimination and segregation, the civil rights movement, and comparative housing law.


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