A New Deal housing agency drew maps of metropolitan areas nationwide. Neighborhoods where African Americans resided were colored red to caution appraisers not to approve loans. This map is of Detroit.
WHEN CHIEF JUSTICE John Roberts wrote that if residential segregation “is a product not of state action but of private choices, it does not have constitutional implications,” he set forth a principle. But the principle supported his conclusion—that government remedies for segregation were impermissible—only because he assumed an inaccurate factual background: that residential segregation was mostly created by private choices.
We need not argue with the chief justice’s principle; his jurisprudence is flawed mainly because he and his colleagues got their facts wrong. Residential segregation was created by state action, making it necessary to invoke the inseparable complement of the Roberts principle: where segregation is the product of state action, it has constitutional implications and requires a remedy.
Just like Supreme Court justices, we as a nation have avoided contemplating remedies because we’ve indulged in the comfortable delusion that our segregation has not resulted primarily from state action and so, we conclude, there is not much we are required to do about it. Because once entrenched, segregation is difficult to reverse, the easiest course is to ignore it.
It’s not that private choices haven’t also been involved. Many Americans had discriminatory beliefs and engaged in activities that contributed to separating the races. Without the support of these private beliefs and actions, our democratically elected governments might not have discriminated either. But under our constitutional system, government has not merely the option but the responsibility to resist racially discriminatory views, even when—especially when—a majority holds them. In the twentieth century, federal, state, and local officials did not resist majority opinion with regard to race. Instead, they endorsed and reinforced it, actively and aggressively.
If government had declined to build racially separate public housing in cities where segregation hadn’t previously taken root, and instead had scattered integrated developments throughout the community, those cities might have developed in a less racially toxic fashion, with fewer desperate ghettos and more diverse suburbs.
If the federal government had not urged suburbs to adopt exclusionary zoning laws, white flight would have been minimized because there would have been fewer racially exclusive suburbs to which frightened homeowners could flee.
If the government had told developers that they could have FHA guarantees only if the homes they built were open to all, integrated working-class suburbs would likely have matured with both African Americans and whites sharing the benefits.
If state courts had not blessed private discrimination by ordering the eviction of African American homeowners in neighborhoods where association rules and restrictive covenants barred their residence, middle-class African Americans would have been able gradually to integrate previously white communities as they developed the financial means to do so.
If churches, universities, and hospitals had faced loss of tax-exempt status for their promotion of restrictive covenants, they most likely would have refrained from such activity.
If police had arrested, rather than encouraged, leaders of mob violence when African Americans moved into previously white neighborhoods, racial transitions would have been smoother.
If state real estate commissions had denied licenses to brokers who claimed an “ethical” obligation to impose segregation, those brokers might have guided the evolution of interracial neighborhoods.
If school boards had not placed schools and drawn attendance boundaries to ensure the separation of black and white pupils, families might not have had to relocate to have access to education for their children.
If federal and state highway planners had not used urban interstates to demolish African American neighborhoods and force their residents deeper into urban ghettos, black impoverishment would have lessened, and some displaced families might have accumulated the resources to improve their housing and its location.
If government had given African Americans the same labor-market rights that other citizens enjoyed, African American working-class families would not have been trapped in lower-income minority communities, from lack of funds to live elsewhere.
If the federal government had not exploited the racial boundaries it had created in metropolitan areas, by spending billions on tax breaks for single-family suburban homeowners, while failing to spend adequate funds on transportation networks that could bring African Americans to job opportunities, the inequality on which segregation feeds would have diminished.
If federal programs were not, even to this day, reinforcing racial isolation by disproportionately directing low-income African Americans who receive housing assistance into the segregated neighborhoods that government had previously established, we might see many more inclusive communities.
Undoing the effects of de jure segregation will be incomparably difficult. To make a start, we will first have to contemplate what we have collectively done and, on behalf of our government, accept responsibility.