The murder of George Floyd, a black man, by a white police officer kneeling on his neck for nine minutes (while three other officers aided and abetted the act) has brought the racism of U.S. society to the forefront. The discussion it has spurred is going beyond this specific episode and has embraced the broader themes of racism in police personnel, training, and practices. In addition, the overall racism of U.S. society is being confronted, including the underlying, long-term racism of policies, funding, and practices of federal, state, and local governments.

For several years, the U.S. has been experiencing a simmering discussion about the racist practices and results of our criminal justice system. They typically start with police, or sometimes school disciplinary practices, and extend through prosecutors, courts, and prisons. (I’ve posted about the need for criminal justice reform, in large part because of embedded racism, here and here.)

Some of the racism in criminal justice is the result of public policies – laws defining crimes and penalties for them. Drug laws with much stiffer penalties for crack cocaine (typically used by blacks) than powdered cocaine (typically used by whites) are one clear example. Mandatory sentencing laws and three strikes laws are others. The racism of laws is exacerbated by their implementation, i.e., the practices of police, prosecutors, and courts. For example, blacks have been much more likely to be arrested and prosecuted for marijuana possession than whites, although good research has found no significant difference in use of marijuana (or other illegal drugs) between blacks and whites. Criminal justice system outcomes are different by race in part because whites can afford and have access to better legal representation.

I’ve previously posted on other topics related to racism that are embedded in laws, policies, and practices of governments at all levels, including:

  • The need for a political revolution to restore democracy and overcome economic inequality and other effects of hardcore capitalism as described in Ben Fountain’s book, Beautiful Country Burn Again: Democracy, rebellion, and revolution. [1] The book is based on his reporting on the 2016 presidential campaign. It now looks prescient in its analysis and title. Although this argument didn’t focus on racism, race was certainly an underlying theme. (link)
  • The racism of the Supreme Court in overturning the Voting Rights Act in 2013 (as analyzed in Fountain’s book). (link)
  • The largely racially motivated voter suppression and gerrymandering that has exploded since the Supreme Court decision overturning the Voting Rights Act in 2013.
  • The disparate impact of the coronavirus pandemic on people of color. (here and here)

Underlying all of this, and a powerful element of racism throughout U.S. society, is racism in housing and the segregation that it has produced. Housing segregation has been widely acknowledged for decades as the driver of racially unequal access to education in K-12 schools, which are largely funded by local property taxes. It is also a major driver of economic inequality, the unequal impact of the coronavirus, and many disparities in health and mental health conditions and in access to health care services. Housing segregation is, of course, also linked to the racial biases in law enforcement.

The conventional wisdom in the U.S., including in legal circles and the courts, is that housing segregation is de facto, i.e., the result of private practices and personal preferences, but not the result of government policies and laws. This belief has led courts to declare that because racial housing segregation is de facto, governments have no responsibility to address it and its negative effects, other than perhaps in our public K-12 schools.

The truth is that housing segregation is clearly the result of government actions of the whole 20th century, including policies and practices that persist to this day. The legal term for effects that are intentional results of explicit policies and laws is de jure. Therefore, racial housing desegregation in the U.S. is de jure segregation. If housing segregation is legally acknowledged to be de jure, it is a violation of our Constitution, specifically the Fifth, Thirteenth, and Fifteenth Amendments, and of the Bill of Rights. This acknowledgement would mean that our governments have an obligation to respond to the harms caused by housing segregation. The definitive case for this is made by Richard Rothstein in his book The Color of Law: A forgotten history of how our government segregated America. [2] I will summarize the book in my next post.

An important but less direct way that housing segregation has been created and maintained is by keeping the incomes and wealth of black households low so that they cannot afford to buy homes in white areas. Long after the end of the sharecropping system, which was indentured servitude that was barely distinguishable from slavery, many public policies have kept blacks poor.

In the 1930s, President Franklin Roosevelt needed the votes of southern Democrats to pass New Deal legislation. To get their votes, the Fair Labor Standards Act (FLSA) of 1938 and other legislation that benefited workers excluded industries in which blacks were the predominant workers, such as agriculture and domestic services. Therefore, these occupations and many blacks didn’t receive the benefits of the minimum wage, participation in labor unions, or coverage from Social Security. Furthermore, many of the New Deal’s employment programs rarely employed blacks or restricted them to lower paying jobs. The minimum wage and some, but not all, of the other protections and benefits of the FLSA were finally given to most farm and domestic workers in the 1960s and 1970s.

From the 1930s to the 1960s, blacks who worked in unionized jobs were often in segregated unions, which typically had lower pay and represented less skilled jobs. Federal agencies continued to recognize segregated unions until President Kennedy ended the practice in 1962. In 1964, the National Labor Relations Board finally refused to certify whites-only unions and it was another decade before blacks were admitted to construction trade unions. Even then, their lack of seniority in the union meant that it would be many years before their incomes were comparable to white union members’ earnings.

Although many of the racist policies and practices that were once allowed and facilitated by governments are no longer in place, their effects have never been remedied and their discriminatory results endure. Economic inequality is one of their enduring legacies. In 2017, the median income for white households was about $60,000, while it was roughly $37,000 for black households – only 60% as much. Median white household wealth (assets minus liabilities) was about $134,000 versus $11,000 for black households – only 8% as much. Given that equity in a home is the primary source of wealth for middle-class households in the U.S., housing discrimination and segregation have been big contributors to racial economic inequality.

It is long past time to address the racial discrimination that has persisted in the U.S. over the last 140 years since Reconstruction of the South was abandoned and indeed over the last 400 years since black slaves were first brought to America. We need to reform our police and criminal justice system, our housing policies and practices, and so much more.

We need to have a serious discussion about reparations – remedies for the enduring harm that past and current policies and practices have caused to blacks in the U.S. I encourage each and every one of us to think long and hard about how we can contribute to the effort to end racism in our society and to erase its enduring scars.

[1]      Fountain, B., 2018, Beautiful Country Burn Again: Democracy, rebellion, and revolution, HarperCollins Publishers, NY, NY.

[2]      Rothstein, R., 2017, The Color of Law: A forgotten history of how our government segregated America, W. W. Norton & Co., Inc., NY, NY.

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