They used that wealth to send their children to college

More Richard Rothstein. NPR, Morning Edition, May 6.


Scenes of West Baltimore’s troubled neighborhoods do raise natural questions. One is why they seem heavily segregated generations after legal segregation ended.


Richard Rothstein studied that question. He’s with the Economic Policy Institute, and he says Baltimore neighborhoods reflect a national legacy of segregation. Generations ago, during President Franklin Roosevelt’s New Deal, the federal government started subsidizing a lot of housing. But they did it a certain way.

RICHARD ROTHSTEIN: The New Deal was a coalition of Northern Democrats and Southern Democrats. The Southern Democrats were segregationist, and in many cases, the Northern Democrats compromised with them in order to get housing programs enacted.

Result: housing programs for white people.

INSKEEP: From the 1930s onward, white people moved into new houses. Many were in new suburbs like Levittown, N.Y. Black people got public housing apartments in the same center cities where they already lived. Decades later, there’s an enormous gap between the grandchildren of one group and the grandchildren of the other.

ROTHSTEIN: In 1947, when Levittown was first opened, homes were sold to white, working-class families for about $8,000 apiece. That is about $125,000 today. African-Americans were prohibited from buying into those developments, even though they had the economic means to do so.

Well, a half-century later, those homes are now selling for $500,000. They are no longer accessible for working-class families. We passed a law in 1968 saying that African-Americans now have the right to buy into Levittown. But giving them a right to buy into a place that’s no longer affordable when they could have bought into it when it was affordable had they been permitted to do so is not a very meaningful right. In that half-century, the white families, working-class families who moved into Levittown gained equity appreciation of perhaps 350-400,000 dollars. They used that wealth to send their children to college. They bequeathed it to their children and grandchildren.

African-Americans living in crowded central city areas were able to accumulate none of that wealth. As a result, today, nationwide, African-American wealth is 5 percent of white family wealth. That enormous difference is entirely attributable to federal housing policy, to suburbanize the white population and keep African-Americans in central cities.

Gruesome, isn’t it.The famous prosperity of the 50s and 60s was systematically confined to white people. I knew that, up to a point, but I didn’t know housing developments were racially exclusive. That’s all the more pathetic coming right after WW2.

INSKEEP: Now, help me connect this history to the news because we’ve been focused on Baltimore because of a police force that is accused of – well, a number of police officers are accused of killing a man, and we have reports of a pattern of this kind of abuse. What is the connection between historic housing segregation and historic wealth gaps and this kind of police behavior in a community?

ROTHSTEIN: Well, the police behavior is something that should be remedied. It’s a terrible criminal operation on the part of the police departments. But it doesn’t start with police departments. When you have a low-income population concentrated in the area, little hope, unemployment rates in places like inner city of Baltimore are two and three times the rate for whites, well, you get behavior in those kind of communities that reinforces police hostility. It becomes a cycle of misbehavior and police aggression, and it’s attributable to the concentration of disadvantaged families in very crowded inner-city communities.

And to the creation of the disadvantage itself. I didn’t know Levittown and Daly City were white-only, but I bet that’s not a secret to the people who were shut  out. Talk about white privilege…

ROTHSTEIN: Well, I do think that Americans have forgotten this history of a purposeful, racial segregation. You know, in 1970, during Richard Nixon’s first term, he had a secretary of housing and urban development, George Romney, the father of the recent presidential candidate. Romney said that the federal government has created a white noose around African-American communities in urban areas, and it was the federal government’s obligation to untie that noose. And he implemented a series of programs designed to force metropolitan areas to desegregate. He denied federal funds for sewers and for water projects to communities that didn’t take action to desegregate, and he actually denied federal funds to Baltimore County because it refused to desegregate its area.

Eventually, the Nixon administration reined him in. The program he was following was terminated. He was forced out [as] the secretary of housing and urban development, and we haven’t had anything that aggressive since. But we once knew, the American public knew, even moderate Republicans like George Romney knew that the federal government had established the segregation, and they understood it was a federal government obligation to undo it. But since that time, we’ve forgotten this history, and we think somehow these ghettos arose by accident and there’s nothing we can do about them to reverse the segregation.

Our glorious history.


  1. moarscienceplz says

    I listened to the same guy on Fresh Air on NPR last night and got more details. I had always thought that northern whites were at least ashamed to admit their racism openly. Boy, was I wrong! Starting in the 1910s, there were statewide laws explicitly banning blacks from buying in white neighborhoods. The SCOTUS struck those down, so they developed restriction covenants which required white buyers to agree to not resell their houses to blacks. Sometimes the home builders attached these to the purchase contracts, sometimes real estate agents provided them, and sometimes neighborhood associations did. An incredible case was the California agency in charge of air raid wardens during WWII handed copies of generic restriction covenants to the wardens, with instructions that while they were telling people to cover their lights for fear of Japanese air raids they should also try to talk everybody into attaching one of these covenants to their house deed!
    There’s lots more beside. Listen here.

  2. stevewatson says

    Way back from when I used to read Sojourners, I recall a headline “Racism: America’s Original Sin”. And you know, this is one of the rare cases where the religious language still feels right to me: a wrong choice made a long time ago, but which continues to pervasively poison every decision made since then.

  3. says

    Absolutely. We (as a country) got it wrong every damn step of the way. The history of Reconstruction is enough to make you want to blow something up.

  4. says

    I grew up in Baltimore; the housing segregation was built into the system very subtly – it would be hard for a person of color to get a loan to buy a house in the nice suburbs. That, just that, would generally be sufficient to enforce de facto segregation.

    And the light rail system was more or less designed to take poor people to poor people places; I remember there was a big kerfuffle about “inner city people coming and stealing” when there were proposals to put a bus route that would take low-paid hourly workers to one of the ritzier suburban malls.

    I just went back to Baltimore wednesday and visited my parents, in their very nice upscale neighborhood. The road and curbs are all being completely replaced and resurfaced and it’s very nice. Driving down to a gig on Eastern Avenue, it was riddled with potholes – in spite of the fact that it’s a much more important thoroughfare.

    Here’s the problem: the wealthier/nicer areas have a higher tax base. The people there expect better treatment and services (or they’ll move to the counties …) so the city spends its money on making sure the wealthier people are catered to. I heard it any number of times growing up, “this neighborhood pays the highest property taxes in the city…” or whatever. Baltimore got trapped in this cycle of trying to head off “white flight” after the riots when Martin Luther King was murdered, and has never stopped. The city renovates the areas where the tax base is, and lets the rest continue to be shitty. It’s literally like 2 different cities.

    Last night I turned down Roland Avenue, and rolled past azalea-drenched victorian homes with neat lawns, a new road being laid down, high end small stores catering to audiophiles, a bookstore, nice restaurants. I made a left heading East on Cold Spring Lane and drove a mile and a half to Alameda, and suddenly there were police cameras on the power poles, boarded up houses, armored liquor stores, and the roads got bad. As I headed south down Alameda to Eastern Avenue I hit entire blocks where the buildings were burned out or boarded up, empty lots and closed businesses. From a neighborhood of $700,000 mansions to a neighborhood where you can probably buy a house for $15,000, in 3 miles. Back in the 80s I remember they had an “urban homestead” program where you could buy a house and the city would pay most of it, as long as you guaranteed to spend a certain amount fixing the place up. It was a hand-out to people with capital, in other words: sweat equity doesn’t count. So a lot of the older brownstone neighborhoods gentrified, and immediately segregated again.

    It seems to me that the only way to break that kind of cycle is to tax the wealthy a lot more and redistribute. Making city services and care equal would have a huge effect. The wealthy would exercise their foot-veto, though. The obvious answer for that would be a heavy tax on the wealthy and inherited wealth at a federal level (with prevention of offshoring) so there was no meaningful “move to the suburbs to get away from the taxes” option, and a federal urban renovation program. Sounds suspiciously… socialist.

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