The murder of George Floyd, a black man, by a white police officer kneeling on his neck for nine minutes (while three other officers facilitated the killing) has brought the racism of U.S. society to the forefront. The attention to racism has gone beyond this specific episode and has included the underlying, long-term racism of policies, practices, and funding of federal, state, and local governments. (See my previous post for more background.)

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

The truth is that housing segregation is clearly the result of government policies and practices throughout the last 140 years, including ones that persist to this day. The legal term for effects that are direct or intentional results of actions is de jure. Therefore, racial housing desegregation in the U.S. is de jure. If legally acknowledged as such, it is a violation of our Constitution, specifically the Fifth, Thirteenth, and Fifteenth Amendments, and of the Bill of Rights. Acknowledgement of this would mean that our governments have an obligation to respond to housing segregation and the harm that it has caused. 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. [1]

The Color of Law describes in detail the government policies and practices at the local, state, and federal levels that promoted and enforced racial segregation in housing, and even forced the segregation of communities that had been integrated. Some of this dates from the late 1800s and some still exists today. Furthermore, many discriminatory private policies and practices have been supported by the action (or inaction) of government entities, such as the police, the courts, and various government agencies and regulators.

I apologize for the length of this post, but I felt it was important to give a good sense of the breadth and depth of the government policies and practices behind the racism in housing. Skim by reading the bolded portions if your time is limited. Policies and practices that contributed to housing segregation include:

  • In the late 1800s, Jim Crow laws and explicit, enforced segregation became the way of life in the South after the 1878 removal of federal troops that had been protecting blacks and implementing Reconstruction. The discrimination and segregation of the South proceeded to spread throughout the country. For example, in the early 1900s, blacks were systematically expelled from Montana, where they had previously thrived. In 1890, there were blacks in all 56 counties in Montana. By 1930, there were none in eleven counties and few left in the others. In the state capital of Helena, there were 420 blacks in 1910, but only 131 in 1930 and 45 in 1970.
  • Beginning in 1910 and continuing to today, zoning restrictions have been widely and intentionally used to segregate housing, sometimes explicitly and sometimes by banning multiple family housing or requiring large lot sizes (which make property very expensive). These latter types of zoning laws exist quite widely today. In 1910, Baltimore was the first city to adopt an explicitly segregationist zoning law. It prohibited blacks from buying homes on blocks where whites were the majority and vice versa. Implementing the zoning ordinance proved difficult because many areas of the city were quite integrated at the time. West Palm Beach adopted a racial zoning ordinance in 1929 and maintained it until 1960. Kansas City and Norfolk, VA, maintained racist zoning practices until at least 1987. Racist zoning ordinances effectively prevented blacks from moving to the suburbs and, in many cases, effectively prevented them from buying homes, forcing them to rent their homes.
  • In the 1920s, restrictions written into in home ownership deeds prohibiting the selling of a home to a black person spread throughout the country and in some cases persisted into the 1970s. Governments at the local, state, and federal levels promoted and enforced these restrictive covenants. State courts upheld them. In 1948, the U.S. Supreme Court ruled that these covenants were private agreements and therefore not unconstitutional. However, it ruled that they represented discrimination that was illegal for the government to be a party to. Therefore, the power and resources of the government, including law enforcement and the courts, should not be used to enforce them. Shockingly, the FHA and other federal agencies, in complicity with state and local governments, effectively ignored this Supreme Court ruling for at least another decade. It wasn’t until 1972 that a federal court ruled that these covenants were illegal as a violation of the Fair Housing Act of 1968.
  • In the 1930s, the Federal Housing Authority (FHA) was created to promote home ownership, including by insuring home mortgage loans. Mortgage loans were newly available to middle class borrowers and insurance against default by the borrower made banks much more willing to make these loans. This insurance was, for all practical purposes, required by banks for mortgage loans. However, the FHA generally refused to insure mortgage loans for blacks, and definitely would not do so if the home being purchased was in a white neighborhood. Furthermore, the FHA would not insure a mortgage for a white person if the home was in a neighborhood where blacks were present. The FHA explicitly stated in its Underwriting Manual that segregated neighborhoods were preferable because segregated schools made neighborhoods more stable and desirable. (See pages 65 – 66 in The Color of Law.)
  • Up until 1962, the FHA also supported financing for developers building whites-only subdivisions in suburbia. It wasn’t until 1962, when President Kennedy issued an executive order banning the use of federal funds to support racial discrimination in housing, that the FHA stopped supporting subdivisions by developers who refused to sell homes to blacks.
  • As mortgage loans proliferated in the 1930s, federal bank regulators allowed banks to deny mortgages to blacks, as well as to whites buying in an integrated neighborhood. State regulated insurance companies that issued mortgages had similar policies. Federal bank regulators also allowed banks to “redline” areas and refuse to make mortgage loans for the purchase of any home within those areas, which were typically neighborhoods where blacks lived. This practice continued at least into the 1980s.
  • Starting in the 1940s, public housing was built. Initially, it was primarily for working- and lower-middle-class white families and was not heavily subsidized. In the late 1940s, as whites increasingly purchased homes in the suburbs and public housing became more available to blacks, most public housing was explicitly segregated until the 1970s and developments for whites were typically better built and built in nicer areas. By the 1960s, urban public housing had mostly poor, black residents and, by government policy, was built almost exclusively in black neighborhoods.
  • In the late 1940s, black World War II veterans were denied the government-guaranteed mortgages for purchasing homes that white veterans used in great numbers to buy suburban homes.
  • Beginning in the late 1940s, violence against blacks trying to move into white neighborhoods was not uncommon. However, law enforcement at the local, state, and federal levels rarely responded to these incidents until the 1980s. The proportion of these incidents where charges were filed against perpetrators grew from only 25% in 1985-6 to 75% in 1990, when roughly 100 such incidents occurred.
  • Numerous studies in the 1960s and 1970s found that blacks paid higher effective property tax rates on their homes than whites. This was typically accomplished by assessing black-owned properties at a high value compared to market value, while white-owned properties were assessed at a low comparative value. A 1973 study of ten cities by the U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development found systematic under-assessment in white middle-class neighborhoods and over-assessment in black neighborhoods. In Baltimore, it found an effective property tax rate 9 times higher for blacks than for whites; in Philadelphia it was 6 times higher and in Chicago it was twice as high. A 1979 analysis of Chicago property taxes found the effective rate for blacks to be 6 times that for whites.
  • In the early 2000s, federal bank regulators failed to stop banks from providing subprime mortgages disproportionately to black customers – at two to three times the rate of white customers. Subprime mortgages were mortgage loans with onerous provisions or deceptive presentation that made it likely that the borrower would be unable to meet the terms the loan. Defaults on these subprime mortgages were a key factor in the 2008 financial collapse and the resultant foreclosures represented a huge loss of wealth for blacks in the U.S. Moreover, many of the blacks who received these predatory, subprime mortgages qualified for regular mortgages but were steered to these subprime mortgages typically because the mortgage broker made more money on them.

These policies, and others, both reinforced racially segregated housing where it existed and imposed segregation in places where it hadn’t previously existed. “In 1973, the U.S. Civil Rights Commission concluded that the ‘housing industry, aided and abetted by the Government, must bear the primary responsibility for the legacy of segregated housing. … Government and private industry came together to create a system of residential segregation.’” (page 75)

My next post will summarize effects on black people of housing and other discrimination that are evident today. I’ll also ask you to share your thoughts on how we should address racism in the U.S.

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


  1. Mike Whaley · · Reply

    The response I hear with these shootings it that the victim resisted arrest. As if resisting arrest is a death penalty offense. If there is a segment of the population with that kind of ultimate power over life and death, be it the president or police, that is an incredibly corruptive to a person’s character. Any kind of prejudice, peer pressure, or even just having a bad day can lead to incredible tragedy. People who are attracted to that kind of power are also probably not the kind of people we want having anywhere near that kind of power.

    1. I think you hit the nail on the head: there are some people who want to become cops for all the wrong reasons. As a black mom who worries about her black sons every day said to me, “There are good cops and bad cops of every color.” What we need is accountability so we weed out the bad cops as quickly as possible and don’t let them ruin the reputations or, thru peer pressure, the actions of the good cops.

  2. Thanks, Rich. We haven’t figured out our plans for the weekend yet. Hope to see you soon. John

  3. Richard Fleiss · · Reply

    John, Many thanks for your very comprehensive review of a broadly based effort to control the residential opportunities for African-Americans. While police abuse is a major problem in our country, as you point out the systematic racial constraints in our country are far broader. Look forward to your next blog. We probably will be going up to Sebago this weekend. Maybe we will see you then. Rich

    Sent from my iPad


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