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'The Devil's Bargain': Noted author Richard Rothstein lectures on racial divide in American housing

Richard RothsteinA “devil’s bargain” struck on the floor of the United States Senate 70 years ago has paved the way to patently unfair, racist practices in housing and other government programs and brought about the need for another major civil rights movement in the U.S.

With the nation facing a massive housing shortage as hundreds of thousands of veterans returned from World War II, the Federal Housing Act promised to deliver housing in equal measure until it was derailed by an amendment introduced by opponents of the bill. Cynically drafted by politicians with no interest in racial reconciliation, the amendment called for desegregation of such housing, with the intended aim of sinking the entire bill under the weight of bigoted senators who might otherwise support public housing.

The amendment created strange bed-fellowship among Northern liberals and Southern Democrats who, in the interest of doing something about the housing crisis, defeated the amendment and passed the bill. Sen. Paul Douglas of Illinois, a noted civil rights proponent and a man Martin Luther King Jr. once lauded, stood on the floor of the Senate and urged rejection of the integration amendment.

The story was recounted Monday evening at Creighton University as Richard Rothstein, historian and author of the groundbreaking 2017 study on racist practices in housing policy, The Color of Law: A Forgotten History of How Our Government Segregated America, delivered a lecture sponsored by the Kenefick Chair in the Humanities, the Kingfisher Institute and the Office of the Vice Provost for Institutional Diversity and Inclusion.

“It was Douglas’ devil’s bargain,” said Rothstein, who spoke and answered questions for 90 minutes inside a packed Hixson-Lied Auditorium at the Harper Center. “He succeeded in that the full bill was passed but, with that vote, the federal government used it for segregating all public programs in the country, not just housing, for the next 15 years.”

A fellow at the Economic Policy Institute with a background in education policy, Rothstein first started investigating housing segregation as part of the educational achievement gap that was bemoaned in the 1990s and culminating in the No Child Left Behind legislation of the early 2000s that aimed at teacher motivation.

But a closer look revealed to Rothstein that for all the strides made in the civil rights movement of the mid-20th century, one glaring omission was at the center of it all.

“We’ve declared segregation is wrong, immoral, harmful to both white and black, incompatible with our self-conception as Americans,” he said. “How could we leave untouched the biggest segregation of all? Housing.”

Rothstein said Americans have left that work undone by telling themselves the lie that desegregation took place at the federal level, that we can’t be expected to curtail the abhorrent activities of a few entrenched bigots.

“We tell ourselves that residential segregation is something different,” he said. “It’s bigoted white homeowners who won’t sell. Banks that refuse loans. Even that black and white people self-segregate. It’s as if it happened by accident and it can only be undone accidentally. We call it de facto segregation because there’s no law behind it.”

But indeed, Rothstein said, and as his book has made clear, it’s not private citizens acting out their racism or rogue bureaucrats keeping a thumb on the scales. The racist housing policies of the American government are vast, entrenched and interrelated to a degree that legal segregation is still very much alive.

“There is government action taking place, without which private bigotry would not be allowed to express itself,” Rothstein said. “And we, if we take our American citizenship seriously, are obligated to remedy it.”

Investigating the origins of public housing as a 1930s New Deal initiative that was also segregated by federal law, Rothstein said, the underpinnings of the 1949 Federal Housing Act were already being put into place. The public housing of the 1930s was not for poor people, but for people with jobs. Moreover, in cities with thriving industries, many neighborhoods were integrated. Over time, however, as segregation became more pronounced with public housing measures and by direct federal policy, and especially as public housing became crucial to the industrial war effort and was segregated, the character of the program changed.

Eventually, suburban housing developments sprung up in the post-war climate and developers, following the 1949 act, asked for federal assistance to build the first suburbs, promising to keep them white. The result has been houses owned and lived in by white people who in turn have created generational wealth on the equity of those homes.

“Those houses were $7,000 to $9,000 when they were first built around New York or San Francisco,” Rothstein said. “The government subsidized a white family’s ability to buy one of those homes. Put that in today’s dollars and it’s around $100,000. Those homes are worth $300,000 to $400,000 today. It’s how white families have been allowed to amass wealth. African Americans were prohibited from participating in this program.”

Since writing the book, Rothstein has teamed with a national group aimed at recreating a civil rights movement around unfair housing policy and practice. The group is looking at a number of possible remedies at the legislative and judicial level, but he emphasized that the most crucial element would be people just like the ones sitting in the Hixson-Lied Auditorium.

“The devil’s bargain had a long-term price that was far, far greater than the short-term benefit,” Rothstein said. “It threatens our democratic society. It was not worth it for some affordable housing. A challenge is before us to develop a means to redress the major stain that is residential racial segregation.”

Asked if there was a way to right all these innumerable wrongs in the courts, Rothstein smiled.

“Litigation is no substitute for an aroused citizenry,” he said. “That’s what I’m counting on you to do.”

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