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Welcome to The Moment. I’m Susan Smith Richardson, CEO of the Center for Public Integrity.

In his 2017 bestseller, “The Color of Law,” Richard Rothstein traces the history of residential segregation, debunking the myth that it just happened without government regulation and capturing how it affects racial disparities in home values, well-being and wealth today. The long history of government involvement in housing segregation, dating back to the early 20th century, is no secret, says Rothstein, part of a new national civil rights group addressing the issue, the National Committee to Redress Racial Segregation, but it hasn’t been taught.

The Fair Housing Act was created in 1968 to address housing discrimination, but the issue has persisted, Rothstein says, not because of a lack of policy remedies, but a lack of commitment. As a new administration prepares to take office, it seemed like the right time to talk to Rothstein about what more could be done to redress the impact of decades of racist housing policies. (I talked to him a week before U.S. Rep. Marcia Fudge was picked to be Secretary of Housing and Urban Development.)

And now a moment with Richard Rothstein…

*This interview was edited and condensed for clarity.

Why do you think some people are surprised by the explicit role government has played in creating segregation?

Richard Rothstein (Economic Policy Institute)

I think we’ve adopted this national myth of de facto segregation because at the end of the 1960s, when the civil rights movement had redressed all the obvious and easy things — lunch counters, buses, water fountains — this one was much harder. If we abolished  segregation in restaurants, next day you sit in any restaurant you want. But if you abolish segregation in neighborhoods, the next day things wouldn’t look much different. And so, I think we’ve adopted a national rationalization or excuse we give ourselves from continuing the civil rights struggles of the 20th century by addressing the most serious segregation of all, which is the fact that every neighborhood, every city in this country is residentially segregated.

But it’s a rationalization we give ourselves, and it reinforces itself. We don’t teach this history in schools. As you know, in “The Color of Law,” I give some time to a review of textbooks that are used in American schools today. And every one of them lies about this history. They promote the notion of de facto segregation. They talk about the great work that the New Deal [during the Great Depression] did in creating public housing for the first time, never mentioning that [the housing] was segregated. They talk about the great work that the Fair Deal did after the end of World War II in creating suburbs for working-class families, never mentioning it was for whites only. And now if the next generation and the generations since really the late 1960s don’t learn this history, they’ll be in this poor position to remedy it.

What is the origin of the term redlining, and how has it affected the racial wealth gap?

The term redlining originates with a program of the federal government in the early years of the Depression, when there were very, very few working-class families who owned homes. They were for the middle class only, and the kinds of mortgages that existed were interest-only mortgages that were pretty short term, five to seven years. And the family would take out one of these mortgages, a middle-class family, and at the end of the five to seven years would refinance it with another five-to-seven-year-interest-only mortgage. They didn’t gain any equity from these mortgages.

When the Depression hit, the banks were no longer willing to refinance these interest-only mortgages. And so, people at the end of the five- or seven-year period were being foreclosed upon and losing their homes. The Home Owners’ Loan Corporation, a federal agency, adopted the program of refinancing with long-term amortized mortgages for existing homeowners and also for new homeowners. And in the process of doing this, this agency of the federal government drew maps of every metropolitan area in the country, guiding them and other federal agencies into where it was riskier to, in their case, refinance these mortgages on an amortized long-term basis, 20 years or so. … One of the characteristics of a red neighborhood was that African Americans were living in it. The federal government and banks began to use these maps as guides about where they could issue mortgages. …

[But] the most powerful policy that the federal government followed was a refusal to issue mortgages to African Americans in predominantly white neighborhoods, which was not redlining, but that term is now broadly used. … The federal government created all-white suburbs around every metropolitan area. The Federal Housing Administration and Veterans administrations refused to issue mortgages to African Americans in those suburbs and refused to guarantee bank loans for developers who might create the suburbs.

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What housing policies do you want to see under the new Biden administration?

I’m not at all focused on the new administration. I think there is presently no political support for the kinds of policies that are necessary to redress segregation. If the federal government and the new administration does anything in the area of housing, its activities are likely to reinforce segregation.

Why do you say that?

Because it’s going to increase programs that are focused on supporting the housing of low-income African American and Hispanic families in already low-income neighborhoods. These are good programs, but they’re going to reinforce segregation. There is no political support for opening up white suburbs. There’s no political support for the kinds of programs that would prevent massive dislocation of African Americans who are living in gentrifying communities. There’s no political support for stabilizing desegregation in the communities experiencing white flight. So, what’s needed is not the program ideas. We know what to do, all the things I just mentioned. What’s needed is a new civil rights movement that’s going to make it uncomfortable to maintain segregation and is going to put pressure on public officials.

One area that we will try to create action for is things like increase the share of Section 8 vouchers. Secondary, as I mentioned before, is to resist massive displacement of existing African American, in particular, and Hispanic families from gentrification. We know what policies: Rent control, which limits condominium conversions; its inclusionary zoning programs; its freezes on property taxes for existing homeowners. The third area is opening up existing white suburbs to diverse residents … and the fourth area is stabilizing desegregation where it exists. Frequently, inner-ring suburbs look like they’re desegregated, but they’re really only in transition because of white flight.

Thanks for reading the newsletter. A lot of newsrooms don’t take government money because of fears this could make us accountable to them, and affect our journalism. But with COVID and the economic shutdown this summer, many newsrooms were forced to make an exception.

Read about how I and my newsroom dealt with this difficult issue — and how we took steps to ensure it didn’t change how we reported.

Email me with your thoughts and questions at ssmithrichardson@publicintegrity.org. Until next time.


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Susan Smith Richardson

Susan Smith Richardson is CEO of the Center for Public Integrity, a nonprofit nonpartisan newsroom that...