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The Fair Housing Act — A Complete Failure

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Nikole Hannah-Jones. Credit: Lars Klove.

When President Lyndon B. Johnson saw his 1966 bill to ban housing discrimination die in Congress, he considered it one of his most devastating political defeats. The relentless negotiator had managed to force through the most sweeping civil rights legislation since Reconstruction – banning discrimination in schools, at the polls, in employment, on buses and trains, and in public accommodations. But the area of housing was too noxious. Johnson could not twist enough arms to get it passed — Northern congressman opposed it as viscerally as Southern ones.

Johnson understood that as long as black Americans were largely confined away from white residents in areas with high-poverty, high-crime and poor schools, they would remain isolated from the opportunities the civil rights movement sought to open up. But it took the assassination of Martin Luther King Jr. just five years after the March on Washington — and the more than 125 riots that followed — to finally force through the landmark 1968 Fair Housing Act.

Still, the only way to get what was known as the first Northern civil rights bill passed was to strip it of all its enforcement powers. And just a few months later, the nation elected Richard Nixon, a man who’d risen to the White House on a Southern Strategy that promised to halt all progress on integration in schools and housing.

The nation’s historical antipathy to open housing is critical because it explains why the federal government – under administrations both Republican and Democrat — has largely refused to enforce the Fair Housing Act in the 45 years since the law was passed. As a result, while the nation prepares to mark the 50th anniversary of the March on Washington, the demands for open housing and the obliteration of the ghetto have gone largely unmet.

Of course, housing lines are not so rigidly drawn in 2013. Many black Americans now enjoy integrated and prosperous neighborhoods – but they are in the minority. Far too many black Americans continue to live neighborhoods of concentrated poverty with failing schools and few jobs. Despite common belief, income alone does not account for this. Due to past policies that prevented many black Americans from growing wealth through homeownership, and because of rampant housing discrimination that continues unabated today, middle class black Americans are still heavily concentrated in segregated, poor neighborhoods. In fact, Census figures show that affluent black Americans live in poorer neighborhoods than working-class white Americans.

The least progress has been made in the North, which is home to the most starkly segregated black communities in the country. In cities like New York, Chicago, Milwaukee and Newark, black Americans live in almost complete isolation where nearly 90 percent of them would have to move in order to live in neighborhoods evenly integrated with white residents.

That’s why some scholars have said that of all civil rights laws passed after the historic March on Washington, the Fair Housing Act is the one that has been a complete failure.

Nikole Hannah-Jones is a reporter for ProPublica covering civil rights with a focus on segregation and discrimination in housing and schools. Her 2012 coverage of federal failures to enforce the landmark 1968 Fair Housing Act won several awards, including Columbia University’s Tobenkin Award for distinguished coverage of racial or religious discrimination.

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