Rothstein Examines Social Justice Issues Around Public Housing

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Richard Rothstein, a fellow of the Legal Defense Fund of the NAACP, educated a packed forum about the glaring racism of local and national government when implementing subsidized housing into many communities in “Jim Crow” America on Monday afternoon.

Rothstein recently released a book titled The Color of Law, chronicling the purposeful and unjust segregation of African-Americans, which created racially singular communities that sometimes replaced previously integrated neighborhoods. Glossed over by history books and often unmentioned when discussing systemic racism in this country, policy makers used housing projects to further their biased agendas. The effects of such actions still affect African-Americans to this day, Rothstein said.

Rothstein’s main argument was that public housing was not made for poor people. Although the statement sounds counter-intuitive at first, one can understand if looking at the time period when many projects were made. In the 40s and 50s, there were thousands of soldiers coming home and many blue-collar laborers looking to resettle after the efforts of World War II. There was a housing shortage, so the government subsidized companies so they could build planned communities in order to compensate. It was clear that those needing a house would then find it easier to buy one. Policy makers regulating the construction of new housing had other ideas, however.

The Federal Housing Association (FHA) was made to take charge of this development, and kick-started the effort with the creation of Levittown, N.Y., in 1947. The problem was that lenders to the FHA required that no black families could move to the new neighborhoods.

This stipulation was not a complete surprise at the time, despite how shocking it would be today. This was a time when Jim Crow laws were still widely acknowledged, making the separation of whites and blacks “appropriate.” Rothstein stressed the point that many previously integrated neighborhoods were reorganized and made segregated.

For example, the Old Colony Housing Project in Cambridge, Mass., and other apartment complexes scattered across the U.S., had whites living in some buildings, and blacks in others according to government policy. Rothstein talked also about how when the Navy ordered San Francisco to make more housing for its dockworkers during WWII, that it be segregated, despite the city being against the separation.

“Segregated public housing built for workers frequently created segregation where it never previously existed,” Rothstein said.

And as worrisome as it was that government-subsidized housing was being overtly racist, the residual effects of the policies were an even greater boon for African-Americans. Rothstein lamented that the separation in the past enforced by those in power led to black neighborhoods having lesser-quality public services over time compared to white neighborhoods. In having less education, lower-quality food, and less valuable houses as a result of continued bias, black children are placed at an extreme disadvantage, he said. Over time, the result has been an income gap between white and black citizens, partly fueled by white children, who live in better quality environments overall, outperforming (on average) in school the black students dealing with tougher situations, according to Rothstein.

The effects of this wealth gap are still often seen today. Rothstein argued that crime perpetrated by young black men has a direct correlation to the underserved towns in which they were raised. This criminal activity exacerbates the problem of black children escaping the confines of their disadvantage, Rothstein said.

Rothstein emphasized that national and local governments made this mess, and that in the modern day, they are the only entities that can step in, own up to their disappointing history, and do their best to reverse the trends.

“It’s hard to figure out how to abolish segregation in neighborhoods, so as a result we’ve developed rationalizations for not dealing with it,” Rothstein said.

Featured Image by Julia Hopkins / Heights Editor