By Marc H. Morial
“Our nation is moving toward two societies, one Black, one white–separate and unequal. This deepening racial division is not inevitable. The movement apart can be reversed. Choice is still possible. Our principal task is to define that choice and to press for a national resolution … [It] will require a commitment to national action–compassionate, massive and sustained, backed by the resources of the most powerful and the richest nation on this earth. From every American it will require new attitudes, new understanding, and, above all, new will.”
Report of the National Advisory Commission on Civil Disorders
(The Kerner Report), 1967
In January of 1966, Martin Luther King, Jr., and the Southern Christian Leadership Conference brought the civil rights struggle to the north. ‘‘In the South,” he said, “we always had segregationists to help make issues clear … This ghetto Negro has been invisible so long and has become visible through violence.’’ Following months of protests and marches, Chicago Mayor Richard Daley agreed to build public housing with limited height requirements, and the Mortgage Bankers Association agreed to make mortgages available regardless of race. Although King called the agreement ‘‘the most signiﬁcant program ever conceived to make open housing a reality,’’ he recognized that it was only ‘‘the ﬁrst step in a 1,000-mile journey.”
Indeed, throughout 1966 and 1967, the United States Congress repeatedly tried and failed to pass fair housing legislation. Tragically, King’s assassination on April 4, 1968, was the catalyst for its passage. Monday is the 48th anniversary of the Fair Housing Act, which outlawed discrimination in home sales or rentals based on race, religion, sex or national origin.
Whitney M. Young, the legendary activist who led the National Urban League throughout the 1960s, was instrumental in the Act’s passage. “Open housing,” as non-discriminatory housing policies were known at the time, was a key element in his expansion of the National Urban League’s mission.
Outlawing discrimination, however, did not end discrimination, and nearly five decades later the nation still grapples with the issue. Just this week, the U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development announced that blanket bans against people with criminal records may violate the Fair Housing Act. While the Fair Housing Act does not specifically prohibit discrimination against ex-offenders, African-American and Latino people are disproportionately affected by such policies.
Last year, the U.S. Supreme Court ruled that any policy which results in discrimination against people of color – even if it is not intended to do so – is illegal.
Justice Anthony Kennedy wrote, “Recognition of disparate-impact liability under the FHA plays an important role in uncovering discriminatory intent: it permits plaintiffs to counteract unconscious prejudices and disguised animus that escape easy classification as disparate treatment.”
There is perhaps no more insidious and powerful method of enforcing racial inequality than housing discrimination. Housing determines access to education and transportation. It determines access to affordable, health food, and protection from crime. Yet housing discrimination remains pervasive. Minority homeseekers are told about and shown fewer homes and apartments than whites, according to a HUD study, which means in higher costs for housing searches and limited housing options.
It also means segregation remains high. According to a Brookings Institution analysis, using zero as a measure for perfect integration 100 for complete segregation, most American cities segregation levels of between 50 to 70. In his efforts to secure passage of the Fair Housing Act, Senator Edward Brooke, the first African-American popularly elected to the U.S. Senate, shared his struggle to find a home after he returned from service in World War II. Like Dr. King, Sen. Brooke knew that the road to equality would be long. “Fair housing does not promise an end to the ghetto,” Brooke cautioned. “It promises only to demonstrate that the ghetto is not an immutable institution in America.”
Marc H. Morial is the CEO of the National Urban League.