, Research Paper
As we look back at the history of the United States, one of our worst legacies is our poor treatment of minorities. In our country’s earliest years we were importing and selling blacks into slavery, an issue that tore our country in two. Yet through trying and often tragic efforts, minority leaders have elevated the legal status of blacks. With the passing of the Civil Rights Act early this century, the 1968 signing of the Fair Housing Act, and the recent enactment of Affirmative Action, it seemed as if African Americans would now have the same opportunities as white Americans. However, this is clearly not the case. Through subverted and underhanded tactics, many white Americans continue to limit the opportunities of minorities, and because of the nature of these tactics, the individual oppressed minorities are usually unaware of their existence. The problem lies in the racism that is deeply rooted in the foundation of this country, whose capitalist origins started in large slave owning plantations. As a result, a general attitude of minority inferiority has permeated our culture. Because of these attitudes, many white Americans in a position of authority segregate minorities and subsequently segregate themselves, altogether eliminating contact between the two groups despite their relative proximity to one another. These segregated areas are the poverty stricken inner cities inhabited by minorities, and the wealthy suburbs, inhabited by whites. Because of the lack of interaction between the two groups, white American attitudes toward minorities have changed from one of inferiority, to one of fear and misunderstanding. These attitudes take the form of what is now know as housing discrimination. Housing discrimination refers to the illegal methods used by those in the real estate business to segregate minorities into certain living areas. Housing discrimination is increasingly being seen as a problem and a major hindrance to the advancement of minorities in our country. Recently, many groups have been organized and are currently taking action to prevent housing discrimination with the ultimate goal of creating an integrated society.
On the surface, housing discrimination simply segregates minorities into specific living areas, however its implications reach far beyond the location of an individual’s house. Where a family lives determines what schools their children will attend as well as the quality of their education. Since minority areas are necessarily those with low income and sometimes terrible poverty, the education systems in these areas are well below par. In addition, access to the job market is astoundingly limited and almost non-existent. As a result, parents who are forced to live in these areas are clearly at an economic disadvantage. Not only are parents limited in the jobs they can find to support their children, but if their children are lucky enough to make it though the education system, their access to the job market it even further limited. In addition, minority families who are segregated into these neighborhoods are forced to raise their children in an environment of crime and violence. When we realize all this, the devastating impact of housing discrimination becomes clear.
A major tactic used to segregate minorities in know a “steering.” Steering involves the real estate agent showing a minority customer only those houses located in areas inhabited by minorities. Steering also occurs when real estate agents deter white individuals from living in area that are inhabited by many or a majority of minorities. Another tactic to keep minorities out of white living areas involves real estate agency boycotting. Essentially, rich, white suburb communities boycott real estate agencies that sell houses to minorities in their area. Since the real estates agents are trying to make money they cannot afford to lose the business of wealthy suburb residents, so they make an effort to steer minorities away from houses for sale in that area. Clearly the latter is a more overt and direct example of racism and deliberate segregation, but the concept of steering is a little more sneaky and difficult to pinpoint. Certainly, there exist real estate agents who are not racist, but simply show houses in minority areas to minority customers because they genuinely feel as if the customer would “rather” or would “feel more comfortable” in those areas. On the other hand, there are also real estate agents who will discourage white customers from living in minority areas by suggesting that they take a drive through the area or call the local police and inquire about the area. From the outside, however, each of these agents appears the same, and as a result, minority customers are unaware that they are being discriminated against.
Although many individual minorities are unaware of their own circumstances, the intense segregation of minorities in general has become a major issue. When the racial diversity of certain cities were analyzed, and it became clear exactly how intense the segregation actually was, some decided that the presence of housing discrimination should be investigated. They decided to use a process called “testing.” When an organization “tests” a real estate agency, they will send in a member of a minority group, protected under the Fair Housing Act, and a white control tester. These individuals present themselves to the agency at separate times but with the same credentials. The idea behind testing being that if each individual has the same credentials, than he/she should receive the same information about housing opportunities. This is not what happened. In most instances, minority customers were only shown those houses in minority area, and white customers were shown houses in white areas.
The emergence of testing awoke many to the problems and dangers of housing discrimination. As a result, agencies were set up to investigate and create awareness regarding housing discrimination. The Fair Housing Council of Greater Washington is one of these such agencies and is a tremendous resource to those who truly wish to eliminate housing discrimination. The Council will investigate complaints of housing discrimination in the form of testing and will assist individuals in filing housing discrimination suits. In addition, the council provides services to real estate agencies that wish to incorporate fair housing into their daily business as well as providing education and outreach services to spread awareness. The Council was founded on the belief that “housing discrimination in the most formidable barrier to the achievement of our national goal of an integrated society,” and they have helped to eliminate the problem with “legal precedents that have expanded and clarified fair housing protections, injunctive relief, landmark judgments and record-setting settlements, all of which have inflated the cost of discrimination for its perpetrators.” These quotes from the Council’s mission statement clearly illustrate how determined they are.
A specific example of the Council’s testing took place in Montgomery County Maryland (between 1992 and 1995 the Council received almost 150 complaints regarding housing discrimination.) Montgomery County Maryland is the largest jurisdiction in Maryland with a population of 795,600 of which minorities account for 206,060. African Americans make up 13.4 percent of the total population. Under funding from HUD, the council performed a fair housing test in the Suburban Maryland area. When the test was complete, the Council indeed found evidence of housing discrimination, in spite of a 1974 law passed in the county that requires rental developments with 25 or more units to report on the racial demographics or their residents.
In addition to the Council, other programs have been set up to assist in integrating our society. The Housing and Urban Development (HUD) department has implemented two programs, one is called Moving To Opportunity (MTO) and the other involves Vouchered-Out Assisted Properties. The goal of each of these programs is to move minority residents out of deteriorating project-style housing and into tenant-based residencies. The methods with which each program accomplishes this are similar. The residents are given vouchers, backed by HUD, which allows them to attain residency on the private market, hopefully in a new area. Although these programs are only being done on a small scale, they are extremely successful. Most families were able to move to a larger house or apartment, and into areas of less crime, better educational systems, and greater ethnic and racial diversity. Most of the recipients of these vouchers said their living conditions as well as their quality of life improved because of their relocation. In spite of its apparent success however, because it can only be done on a small scale, vouchering-out minorities is not a feasible way to successfully integrate our society.
Although we have focused mainly on the societal implications of housing discrimination and its detrimental effect on minority families, we have insofar overlooked the prevailing force behind the elimination of housing discrimination and deliberate segregation; It is illegal. As a result, the justice system and its enforcement of the Fair Housing Act becomes an important factor in eliminating housing discrimination. This aspect of the problem is addressed in Bill Lann Lee’s article, An Issue of Public Importance: The Justice Department’s Enforcement of the Fair Housing Act. Bill Lee is a civil rights lawyer with the U.S Department of Justice, and his article focuses on the “Department of Justices role in enforcing the Act and ensuring that fair housing is not only a dream but a reality for all Americans.” (Lee p.36) Although passed in 1968, it was not until its amendment in1988 that the Fair Housing Act that it became effective. In fact, Congress acknowledged that the “Federal enforcement role had been severely limited.” (Lee p.37) The 1988 amendments expanded the Act to include persons with disabilities and families with children. In addition both HUD and the Department of Justice were given authority to address housing discrimination complaints from individuals, as well as the right to seek punitive and compensatory damages for those individuals. These amendments were clearly a landmark for minorities struggling for fair housing. In addition, they gave these minorities much more to fight with, in an effort to eliminate those covert acts of racism. The major problem before the Fair Housing Act was that minorities were not protected from racism, and until 1988 were not protected enough. However, with these new changes, those who practice racism will be punished and a real estate market of fair housing for all will hopefully emerge.
Although housing discrimination is a major obstacle for integrating our society, the presence of lending discrimination also provides additional problems for minorities who are looking for housing. Buying a house is an expensive process, and few individuals have the financial capability to simply purchase a house. As a result, most homebuyers go to a bank and get a loan, and the conditions of the loan can determine what house a customer can buy and where he/she can live. Extensive testing has been performed on the lending practices of banks, and indeed evidence of lending discrimination is present almost everywhere. Upon first glace, the loan refusal rate for minorities is strikingly higher than for whites, but in fact minorities with better credit history than whites are being turned down. Even those minorities that are approved, receive smaller loans are required to pay a higher interest rate. These practices can be devastating to minorities in the market for a house. Because the banks are giving them less money, the housing options become smaller and smaller and limited to poorer areas. Turning down loan applicant because of their race is illegal, but because banks have absolute discretion regarding who they give their money to, it is almost impossible to take legal action against. Indirectly, this loan discrimination further fosters housing discrimination and segregation, and this problem will persist until we can punish those who do in fact practice loan discrimination.
It has become clear through this policy analysis how damaging housing discrimination can be to minorities. The economic and social disadvantages that this phenomenon incurs upon minorities are even more disruptive to their progress in this capitalistic society. However, the efforts to eliminate housing discrimination and to integrate our society have been increasing significantly. Many wonder if complete integration is what we should be shooting for. Asserting individual and cultural identity is important, but when that carries with it these economic consequences, integration seems to be the only way that we can level the playing fields. Most efforts to eliminate these problems discussed herein are successful in their individual goals, but their most successful aspect is to raise public awareness. The fundamental problem behind segregation is lack of education. By making this a public issue, we can eliminate the negative attitudes that are fostered by the isolation that segregation creates. We live in a country that was founded on the belief that everyone should be able to assert their individuality, so many are hesitant to integrate. However, many forget that we are all indeed Americans and by segregating minorities, we are segregating our fellow countrymen.
1) The Fair Housing Council of Greater Washington, February 20, 1999
2) Moving to Opportunity Program, February 20,1999
3) Lending Discrimination, February 20, 1999
4) Vouchered-Out Assisted Properties, February 20,1999
5) The Justice Departments Enforcement of the Fair Housing Act, February 20, 1999
6) Denton, Nancy A. and Massey, Douglas S. 1993. American Apartheid. Cambridge, London; Harvard University Press.