Housing Segregation Fuels Inequalities of U.S. Justice System, says Historian

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Highbridge neighborhood in The Bronx, NY is one of America’s poorest communities, with the majority Puerto Rican or African American. De facto segregated communities like these were a consequence of of government housing policies, says Richard Rothstein. Photo by Ken Lund via Flickr

Systemic residential segregation continues to have a corrosive effect on U.S. justice, a noted researcher and historian said Thursday

Richard Rothstein, author of “The Color of Law: A Forgotten History of How Our Government Segregated America,” told an audience at the John Jay College of Criminal Justice that decades of discriminatory federal housing policies had institutionalized racial divisions in communities across America, which in turn exacerbated racial inequalities in the U.S. justice system.

Richard Rothstein

Richard Rothstein

He called for a “new civil rights movement” to dismantle those policies.

“Some of the nation’s biggest problems—police brutality and mass incarceration, education, income and health disparities—are tied to residential segregation,” Rothstein told his audience, most of them college students.

“Now it’s up to you end it.”

But Rothstein, a Distinguished Fellow of the Economic Policy Institute and a Senior Fellow, emeritus, at the Thurgood Marshall Institute of the NAACP Legal Defense Fund, also warned that the divisive policies and rhetoric of the administration of President Donald Trump now represent the most formidable obstacles to policy change.

Echoing other Trump critics, he cited the polarizing effect of the president’s hard-line stance on immigration, his refusal to condemn white supremacists after a deadly brawl in Charlottesville, Va. last summer, and his repeated Twitter attacks on professional football player Colin Kaepernick and other players who kneel during the national anthem before games to protests police brutality against African Americans.

“We live in a political climate that is very polarized,” Rothstein said in an interview with The Crime Report after his talk.

“We have both the resurgence or the exposure of white supremacy, but we also have a new conversation about race that is very positive—both are a part of the political climate and I’m hoping the second will overwhelm the first.”

Rothstein’s contention that urban neighborhoods throughout the country remain deeply segregated despite the increasing diversity of the U.S. population was corroborated by a recent Washington Post analysis.

Rothstein chronicles the history of racial segregation in “The Color of Law,” pinpointing President Franklin D. Roosevelt’s New Deal of the 1930s as the start of a deliberate government plan to create residential segregation. The administration launched one of the first public housing projects, but built separate projects for African Americans, segregated complexes by race, or excluded African Americans from some housing programs.

color of lawThat set the landscape for future lawmakers to roll out policies and programs perpetuating racial segregation.

“The notion that residential segregation happened by accident—that it happened because of personal preferences or as a consequence of socioeconomic status—is a myth,” Rothstein said. “Written government policy created segregation. It’s unconstitutional, but we all accept this as the natural environment.”

Although the president has angrily denied he is a racist, comments and actions attributed to him before he entered the White House and since have suggested the opposite, according to press reviews of his record.

In a case that seems to underline Rothstein’s argument about systemic segregation, the Trump Management Company, Donald Trump and his father Fred Trump, were sued in October, 1973 by the Department of Justice’s Civil Rights Division for allegedly excluding African-Americans and Puerto Ricans from apartments in buildings owned or operated by the company.

The Trumps filed a $100 million countersuit accusing the government of defamation. The case ended after the company signed a consent decree in 1975, requiring it to institute safeguards to ensure race, color, religion, sex or national origin were not used to determine who could live in its buildings.

Under the agreement, the Trumps did not admit to any wrongdoing. But the FBI has since released 400 pages of documents pertaining to the suit, which included interviews with supervisors who said they were told to quote a rent more than twice the amount listed to would-be African-American renters in order to dissuade them.

Meanwhile, Ben Carson, Trump’s appointee as Secretary of Housing and Urban Development (HUD), has allegedly been waging a stealth campaign to dismantle fair-housing policies established during the Obama administration. In May, HUD announced it was withdrawing a computer mapping tool that could be used by communities to gauge the extent of neighborhood segregation. HUD claimed the tool was “confusing, difficult to use, and frequently produced unacceptable assessments.”

J. Gabriel Ware is a TCR news intern. Readers’ comments are welcome.

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