Bannister: The U.S. must combat housing discrimination against minorities

Edmund Bannister, Columnist

For most of the 20th century and continuing on to the present day, minority citizens have been systematically denied equal access to housing by banks, landlords and insurance agencies whose policies have blocked qualified black and Hispanic homebuyers from securing mortgages and moving to better neighborhoods. Moreover, almost 50 years after the passage of the Fair Housing Act of 1968, which required the federal government to make a concerted effort to combat segregation in American cities, communities in most urban centers remain starkly divided along racial lines.

The radical nature of the division between different ethnicities in American cities is not incidental or natural. Segregation is the product of decades of housing discrimination from both the private sector and the government. For many years, home-insurers and banks engaged in redlining, a practice where residents of minority communities are intentionally barred from receiving home loans. Redlining is disastrous, especially for middle-class blacks and Hispanics, who were and are denied the social and financial benefits of homeownership because of their race. In the aftermath of the financial crisis, redlining has re-emerged as a covert practice among banks. The New York Times released an article last week detailing the lending practices of several banks, including one that gave out 1,886 mortgages of which only 25 were to blacks. In addition, studies by the Department of Housing and Urban Development indicate that real estate agencies consistently show fewer and lower quality homes to black homebuyers in comparison to similarly qualified whites.       

Discriminatory lending practices have a chilling effect on social mobility, as they prevent qualified buyers from moving to higher-income neighborhoods, which usually have better schools, lower crime rates and higher quality public services. In fact, these banking schemes help explain why so many upper-middle class blacks live in communities where the median income is half of their own. This type of segregation means that black children have significantly worse prospects for education and social advancement than their white counterparts, regardless of their parent’s income level.       

Unfortunately, banks and insurance companies are not the only groups complicit in the de-facto segregation of American cities. The U.S. government has also contributed to the problem by neglecting to build affordable housing in a way that promotes integration rather than isolation. Although the Fair Housing Act of 1968 encouraged a concerted effort to integrate communities, more often than not, public housing projects were built in isolated areas, far away from high income, white neighborhoods. According to Mayor Rahm Emanuel, these poorly planned housing developments were key in compounding the problems of poverty and racial inequality in Chicago. Studies from Harvard University indicate that when low-income families are provided affordable housing in wealthier communities, they enjoy significantly better financial and social outcomes than counterparts in communities without mixed incomes.

The Obama administration has taken firm steps in recent months to combat de facto segregation by ordering federal, state and local agencies to make greater efforts to provide housing opportunities for minority residents. However, reversing the effects of decades of discrimination is a task that is beyond any single president.

Our next-door neighbor, the City of Chicago, is considered to be among the most racially segregated municipalities in America. White, black and Hispanic neighborhoods are isolated from one another by geography, income and opportunity to a degree that is thoroughly unacceptable in a 21st century city. Five decades after the passage of the Civil Rights Act, Chicago and the United States have yet to address the dramatic social and economic divisions between racial groups. If we as a community are truly serious about improving race relations in America, our approach must be holistic. Law enforcement reform must be complemented by a sustained effort to create greater educational, social and economic opportunities for minorities. It is only by tackling the root of inequality that we can hope to create a more equitable and just society for all.

Edmund Bannister is a Weinberg freshman. He can be contacted at [email protected]. If you would like to respond publicly to this column, send a Letter to the Editor to [email protected].

The views expressed in this piece do not necessarily reflect the views of all staff members of The Daily Northwestern.