Housing has profound implications for how we think about race and public policy today. Racial segregation in housing is exhibit number one that there was a Jim Crow North. Racial segregation is also used as prima facie evidence of structural racism, which means, in this context, that racial control was a primary motivation for housing markets and policies above and beyond its service in the extraction of profits. No other topic, besides slavery, has been so often used to document anti-black racism, discredit federal government policy, and justify a race-first approach to social reforms. That race-reductionist narrative regarding housing inequality is furthermore a cornerstone — along with a similar argument regarding the Social Security program, which has also been contested — of the “New Deal so racist” line that undergirds contemporary anti-racist dismissals of universal social policy.1 However, contrasting the current discussion of racial segregation with the treatment and approach of policy intellectuals in the early post–World War II era, closer to the origins of modern housing policy, suggests a strikingly different perspective on the nature and sources of housing inequality and the interventions necessary to redress it. The current approach to reform, dominated by race-first remedies, stands in stark contrast to that earlier approach. In order to demonstrate those differences and their implications, this essay contrasts a very influential book by Economic Policy Institute fellow Richard Rothstein with some leading texts of the earlier years. The comparative result highlights how current race reductionism departs from earlier approaches, revealing “race first” as not the only, or even most effective, way to address racial justice.
In his popular book The Color of Law: A Forgotten History of How Our Government Segregated America, Richard Rothstein credits Robert Weaver’s classic The Negro Ghetto, published in 1948, for being singularly influential, and claims he is recovering and adding to an earlier critique of racial segregation for current readers.2 His point is that citizens should be reminded of their government’s role in institutionalizing racial segregation — after all, the problem persists and has been resistant to political reform.3 Given the time lapse, it is fair to wonder, why now? What is it about the ideological and political-economic context of the early twenty-first century that requires retelling the tale of the government’s role in creating racial segregation while remaining silent about the real estate industry’s hand in it? A comparison between The Negro Ghetto and The Color of Law reveals how we have abandoned a broad approach to housing reform that arguably addresses the affordable housing needs of the majority of African Americans in favor of a more targeted approach whose scope and methods are likely to most benefit propertied African Americans.
Especially interesting is that the very critics from whom Rothstein claims to draw — Robert Weaver, an African American economist and the first secretary of housing and urban development, and Charles Abrams, a white lawyer and housing activist — took a more comprehensive approach to analyzing racial segregation than he does, emphasizing the role of the real estate industry and its partnership with the federal government. Furthermore, their analysis suggests universal housing reform as a path toward racial equity. This approach is sidelined by Rothstein, who concentrates on how the federal government segregated African Americans and recommends reversing this racial harm largely by subsidizing black homeownership in affluent white neighborhoods. African American public intellectuals like Ta-Nehisi Coates, who aided Rothstein in the publication of The Color of Law, seem attracted to the book’s sole focus on government maltreatment of African Americans. After all, its wide dissemination to the public would bolster the case for reparations to correct anti-black disparities in wealth.4
What Rothstein conveniently forgets to include in his project of recovering Weaver’s contributions and studies of racial segregation is the real estate industry’s formative role, its capture of federal housing agencies, and the politics that joined concerns about racial equity to a program of universal access to adequate and affordable housing. Of course, if he had hewn closer to Weaver’s approach, the book would not have been useful for black-exceptionalist policies.
The works in question appeared at very different historical moments, and that explains some of the differences between them. Robert Weaver’s foundational work came in the midst of a surging economy, a severe housing shortage, the growth of white and black middle classes, the spread of anti-communism, and ambitious plans to renew cities. Rothstein’s book, in contrast, came at the end of two terms of the nation’s first African American president amid stagnant economic growth, rampant inequality, bipartisan neoliberalism, and a confident and substantial black professional class.
Weaver was part of a postwar cohort of scholars, activists, and policymakers, including Charles Abrams, Eunice and George Grier, and others associated with the Commission on Race and Housing, who witnessed up close the political power of the real estate industry, the gestation of federal housing policy, and a shift in racial ideology that replaced biological with cultural inferiority.5 They wrote about how the real estate industry, with the crucial aid of the federal government, constructed exclusionary housing markets along multiple dimensions, including income, race, and nationality. These postwar scholar-activists delivered a systemic critique of the housing industry’s fundamental exclusionary character, which featured racial segregation.
However, timing isn’t the only reason the earlier critics had a broader approach to housing inequality than current scholars like Rothstein. Weaver and his contemporaries recognized that without an active government pushing economic reforms, large sections of poorer minorities would be excluded from progressive housing policies. In their estimation, social housing coupled with aggressive antidiscrimination regulation would go a long way toward fixing the “Negro housing problem.” Rothstein likewise favors aggressive intervention. The difference between him and the earlier generation is more about how the government should intervene in housing markets rather than whether they should intervene at all.6 The critical attention the postwar critics gave to the role of the real estate industry in creating racial segregation, which is mostly absent in The Color of Law, helped them realize the kind of intervention that was necessary to address the housing needs of the vast majority of African Americans.7 Including the real estate industry is not just important for creating a more complete account of racial segregation; it is imperative for understanding the actions of a federal government disposed to do its bidding. By eliding the role of the real estate industry and its relationship with government, Rothstein foregrounds the wrong causal force in the creation of racial segregation. The federal government acted on the behalf of real estate capital. This lack of attention to the real estate industry leads Rothstein to incorrectly attribute institutional responsibility for the creation and sustainability of racialized housing markets.
A final, underrated factor in the generational shift in analysis and policy approach is the growth in the size and power of the black professional class since 1945.8 While currently there are no larger-than-life figures like Robert Weaver on today’s housing policy scene, the increase of black professionals in government, legal, and academic institutions constitutes a more substantial cohort than the impressive, but smaller and segregated, black professional class of the 1930s, ’40s, and ’50s. Quite simply, Rothstein’s race-first recommendations appeal to this black professional class that has sidelined the broad-based approach of the postwar generation.
This essay will reconsider Rothstein’s book in light of the earlier generation’s analysis of racial segregation in order to recover what has been forgotten in the retelling of this sordid history. To do so, I want to first contrast Rothstein’s work with the earlier generation’s, and thereby provide a more detailed reconsideration of Weaver and Abrams’s work. That will allow, in the next section, a closer look at the forgotten aspects of their argument, and finally a discussion of why that omission matters today and what a social democratic approach to housing policy might look like.
Rothstein and the Postwar Critics of Residential Segregation
Both Rothstein and the postwar generation of critics hold the federal government at least partially culpable for racial segregation in the United States. Both thought the federal government’s role in establishing residential segregation was a grievous mistake that would ensure it became a central part of American life for years to come. And they both point out the ways federal housing policy guaranteed that racial exclusion, segregation, and discrimination became standard practices in both public and publicly subsidized housing. The postwar critics, including Weaver, Abrams, the Griers, and others on the Commission on Race and Housing, gave equal attention to the roles of government and the housing industry in embedding racial segregation in housing markets. By contrast, the real estate industry is largely absent from The Color of Law, and readers could be forgiven for thinking the federal government was primarily or even solely responsible for racial segregation.9
The differences between Rothstein and the earlier generation of critics do not end there. While neither shied away from advocating for ways to arrest racial segregation, this is the point at which the postwar critics’ emphasis on the role of the real estate industry matters, particularly when compared to Rothstein’s scant treatment. When it came to responding to the housing needs of African Americans, Weaver and his contemporaries’ approach to reform targeted all aspects of inequity in the production and distribution of housing — not just its racial dimensions. They advocated embedding racial protections in their schemes for comprehensive reform rather than addressing racial equity as a starting point, which would threaten the ability to amass the political capital necessary for the success of their housing reform schemes. Through astute observation from their experience in government and in housing advocacy organizations like the National Committee Against Discrimination in Housing, they understood that universal housing policy was the most effective way of achieving more inclusive housing outcomes for African Americans. It is this approach that is missing in Rothstein’s recovery project.
The Smoking Gun of Race
Rothstein wrote The Color of Law to demonstrate the federal government’s broad responsibility for racial segregation in the twentieth century. He not only covers the well-trodden subjects of the Federal Housing Administration (FHA), public housing, redlining, blockbusting, and racial zoning, but also examines tax policy, federalism, and racial discrimination in employment and income as part of the federal government’s rap sheet. Rothstein admonishes the US government for ignoring the Thirteenth Amendment and the Civil Rights Act of 1866, which outlawed housing discrimination. He underscores the pivotal role the federal government played in institutionalizing racial segregation. As he writes, “without our government’s purposeful imposition of racial segregation, the other causes — private prejudice, white flight, real estate steering, bank redlining, income differences, and self-segregation — still would have existed but with far less opportunity for expression.”10 In short, Rothstein holds the federal government responsible for institutionalizing racial segregation and extending its reach nationally. He sees the real estate industry’s racial practices as decentralized, scattered, and lacking national impact, in contrast to the federal government that he takes as the main actor knitting together the whole segregative cloth. The federal government’s crucial role is due to its legal authority, national policymaking, and unique scale. Its actions were neither accidental nor incidental but intentional. Federal housing agencies ignored constitutional law and instituted de jure segregation in the northern and western United States through public policy.11
By no stretch did the postwar critics give government a pass. For them, the smoking gun of racial practices was amply displayed in the racially restrictive covenants, FHA Underwriting Manuals, and race-and-property-value ideology documented by postwar intellectuals and recovered and analyzed in Rothstein’s text. And in spite of the fact that Weaver, Abrams, and others knew that the origins of residential segregation emanated from the real estate industry, they nevertheless directed their greatest ire at the federal housing agencies and how they abetted and extended racial discrimination and segregation so that they became elemental in a new national housing market. While Abrams and Weaver agreed in their critique of the federal housing agencies, Abrams was a more forceful critic. Weaver, who was in and out of government agencies and advocacy organizations, was very critical of the agencies’ performance but nevertheless saw some encouraging signs in policy and practices by liberal administrators in 1948.12 By contrast, Abrams had stints in state and local governments but spent his career mainly as an advocate for housing reform in the nonprofit organizational sector and as a university lecturer. An established powerful critic of the housing system in the United States, Abrams focused his attack on segregation, starting with his critique of racially restrictive covenants in 1947 and continuing with his analysis of episodes of racial violence like the Cicero Riot in 1955 and, finally, the Watts Rebellion in 1965.13 Both scholars wrote popular pamphlets skewering the racial practices of the federal government. Weaver wrote Hemmed In, a critique of racial covenants, for the American Council on Race Relations in 1945, while Abrams wrote Race Bias in Housing, published two years later for the ACLU, NAACP, and American Council on Race Relations.14 Each cited and drew upon the other’s work in their own analyses of the US housing system. By the mid-1960s, Abrams’s Forbidden Neighbors was considered, along with Weaver’s The Negro Ghetto, a foundational text in explaining the origins and institutionalization of racial segregation.15
Both men saw the main culprit as the FHA, which was created by the Housing Act of 1934.16 Robert Weaver largely blamed the FHA for the federal government’s support for residential segregation before and during World War II. He and his colleagues criticized FHA for its Underwriting Manuals promoting class and racial exclusions, their promotion of racially restrictive covenants, and their general refusal to award mortgage insurance to any developer or lender that sought to build multiracial neighborhoods.17 Abrams examined these guides for federal housing agencies’ underwriting principles and quoted what has become an infamous phrase: “If a neighborhood is to retain stability, it is necessary that properties shall continue to be occupied by the same social and racial classes.” To Abrams, FHA’s requirement of social and racial homogeneity as the “price of insurance” represented “the vanguard of white supremacy and racial purity — in the North as well as the South.” It meant “racism was bluntly written into FHA’s official manual.”18 Abrams’s comments anticipate Rothstein’s argument that de jure segregation existed in the North.
Before the war, most African Americans did not qualify for FHA mortgage loans due to their low incomes. However, those African Americans who did qualify were restricted to the “Black Belt” if they wanted a chance of securing federally backed mortgage financing. Weaver explained that these underwriting decisions by lenders backed by the FHA should not be surprising, “since the financial institutions through which FHA operated and from which most of its key officials in Washington and the field were recruited were the very financial and real estate interests and institutions which led the campaign to spread racial covenants and residential segregation.” He was especially critical of the record of the FHA and National Housing Agency (NHA) with war housing, which portended troubling trends in the postwar period. He concluded that the consequence of the agencies not providing mortgage insurance for privately financed, nonsegregated war housing was to minimize black participation in the defense housing program and aid the institutionalization of residential segregation.19
Writing during the immediate postwar period, these public intellectuals developed an extensive and damning critique of the government’s role in racial segregation. Their analyses remain convincing, particularly with regard to the entangled relationship of public and private agencies and institutions. Weaver cites two examples in which the FHA refused mortgage insurance to private war housing developments for black defense workers in Los Angeles, California, and Chester, Pennsylvania. Eunice and George Grier wrote about how the FHA refused mortgage insurance to two interracial cooperatives backed by labor unions that were well planned, had racially mixed clients, and secured initial financing during World War II.20
However, both Weaver and the Griers also identified encouraging signs on housing policy coming out of Washington, including changes in the federal housing agencies led by administrator Raymond M. Foley after 1950.21 Weaver reported that, in the immediate postwar period, private builders and lenders used federal aid to deliver twenty thousand units for African Americans. However, he emphasized that thirteen thousand of those units were in the South, which meant they were segregated. Weaver added that, at the time, the FHA had not made its position known on “insuring biracial projects.” But there were signs of improvement. The Griers later reported that the FHA assisted developers that wanted to build mixed-race developments “in overcoming roadblocks to site acquisition and financing and have given advice on problems of sales policy, land planning, and other matters.” Davis McEntire, the research director of the Commission on Race and Housing and author of its final report, observed that minority access to FHA and Veteran Administration loans had improved in “recent years.” He noted that, in the period of 1950–56, 12 percent of non-white homebuyers received FHA insurance compared to 17 percent of white homebuyers. He attributed the discrepancy to African Americans’ lower incomes, credit unworthiness, and the slum locations of their properties at the time. Of course, these modest improvements were the result of incessant pressure from civil rights and housing activists.22
Despite these encouraging signs, the postwar critics remained skeptical. McEntire claimed that the changes to the Underwriting Manual language did not “change the substance of its older policy.” While the Griers, like Weaver, gave the federal housing agencies credit for their acceptance of “open occupancy,” or nondiscriminatory access to housing, after 1950, they were also clear that these changes were inadequate to reverse “the rigid patterns of segregation that existed in America’s residential communities.” They complained that these patterns would not be altered “with a few piecemeal and timid changes in federal policy or by local fiat alone” and emphasized that nondiscrimination of federal benefits would not arrest the “continuing expansion” of residential segregation “given the present structure and methods of federal intervention in the area of housing.”23 The Griers meant here that norms and practices of racial exclusion were too entrenched to be assuaged by proclamation and half-hearted efforts. The Commission on Race and Housing added that the FHA’s belated embrace of open occupancy did not do enough to regulate private builders’ or lenders’ racial discrimination. Overall, Weaver was encouraged by the changes made by Foley in FHA operations, but he was clear that “words don’t produce houses.”24 The skepticism of Weaver and the Griers was borne out, since the change in course by the FHA did not mitigate its segregative impact.
The main thrust of Rothstein’s analysis stands on ground thoroughly covered by the postwar critics. In making his case against the federal government, Rothstein wants to drive home that, ironically enough, its racial policy was authorized by “its most liberal leaders.” He argues that even though African Americans received more than their fair share of public housing units, liberal secretary of the interior Harold Ickes did not integrate Public Works Administration (PWA) developments. Rothstein charges Ickes and the New Dealers with violating their own neighborhood composition policy by introducing segregation in already racially mixed neighborhoods. However, he acknowledges that, concerning public housing, “federal agencies cannot be charged with sole responsibility for segregation. But they reinforced it.”25
The postwar intellectuals’ treatment was more nuanced. As Weaver explained, there was “a long tradition of Negro participation in public housing.” Moreover, public housing had “a positive racial policy” since its inception in PWA.26 Of course, as a young administrator, Weaver worked in the Harold Ickes–run agency that was largely responsible for that racial policy.27 Due to his influence, African Americans were included in the construction of public housing developments at all levels, including as skilled trade workers and architects. Equal employment opportunities continued to be a feature of the local housing authorities that offered clerical and professional positions to African Americans, which were otherwise in scarce supply.28 He reported that Federal Public Housing Authority contracts and project leases incorporated the nondiscrimination clauses that FEPC Executive Order 9346 required in federal construction contracts. Citing Ickes’s rule of adopting the preexisting racial pattern in siting public housing and selecting its residents, Weaver argued that the earlier United States Housing Authority “attempted to facilitate the establishment of no less progressive racial residential patterns than had existed before the advent of public housing.” Abrams concurred with regard to New Deal public housing projects; although federally owned, they deferred to local patterns of racial segregation in determining which racial groups were tenanted.29
However, Weaver did not think the public housing program was blameless. He criticized the federal agency for “spreading segregation in public housing on the West Coast.” In addition, the housing needs of black defense workers were often not met even when vacant housing was available in white-only areas. Weaver also chastised “public housers” for shying away from racial inclusion due to their fear that public housing was controversial enough without adding race. Nonetheless, it is clear Weaver felt the public housing agencies were the most progressive of all the federal housing agencies. He found evidence that public housing policymakers wanted the construction of interracial public housing developments. Nonetheless, he reports, “most local housing authorities in the North do not have as impressive records of achievement in racial democracy.” Despite clear gains for low-income African Americans, Weaver worried about the tendency to concentrate public housing on slum sites and thereby “strengthen residential segregation in the North.” He believed that this tendency would become a problem and eventually undermine the whole program. Still, he tentatively concluded at the time that “the problem of residential segregation had generally been avoided in the low-rent program.” While Weaver’s assessment was not borne out historically, it does offer evidence that the New Deal public housing program, before it was gutted by subsequent federal disinvestment and the collapse of inner-city labor markets, at least tried to address low-income African Americans’ housing needs.30
Invisible Real Estate Capital
Scholars have commented previously on how the real estate industry’s role in creating racial segregation is missing from Rothstein’s historical account.31 The industry shows up briefly in The Color of Law’s chapter on racial zoning, when Rothstein discusses the National Real Estate Board and the emergent city planning profession’s collaboration with Herbert Hoover, then secretary of commerce in Republican Warren Harding’s administration, to promote homeownership and a racially exclusive housing market.32 But the role of real estate capital in creating racial segregation — which disappears in Rothstein’s work — occupied a prominent place in the work of Weaver, Abrams, and others. According to Weaver, for example, the real estate industry’s role extended beyond its creation and intentional spread of restrictive racial covenants. In addition, Weaver attributed the concentration of all African Americans in inner-city slums at least in part to realtors’ professional ethics and practices, builders and lenders’ neglect of the “Negro market,” and the industry’s development of “exclusive one-class neighborhoods.”33 In his determination, while realtors, lenders, and builders often betrayed racist beliefs, racialized outcomes resulted less from racial animus than from the more practical problem of making real estate a profitable investment.
Weaver identified the chief obstacles to African Americans gaining adequate housing as the lack of available space and financing, and he argued that the two obstacles could be intertwined. He believed that the real estate industry — which includes realtors, builders, and mortgage lenders — was implicated in both. When land was available, real estate developers did not build for black homeseekers in mixed-race housing developments but instead mainly in segregated subdivisions. Realtors were forbidden by their code of professional ethics to introduce black homeowners into “white neighborhoods.” When it came to financing, the lenders had a direct impact on whether black consumers got approval on terms that did not become a financial burden, if they were approved at all. The negative lending decisions were determined both by their race and by where they were restricted to live, which failed the test of mortgage lending risk. In other words, the creation of segregation was a partnership, not a government edict. Both realtor ethics and lender underwriting principles were governed by their collective interest in making real estate a safe and productive investment over time, which required racial and social homogeneity.
Writing on the cusp of the Shelley v. Kraemer decision in 1948, Weaver devoted an entire chapter to the impact of racial covenants. He commented that it was real estate and finance capital that “led the campaign to spread racial covenants and residential segregation.”34 It was real estate developers, supported by lending institutions, that were the most effective in instituting restrictive covenants in new subdivisions.35 Abrams, for his part, recounted the origins of racial segregation in the failed effort of the real estate industry and local government to establish racial zoning in Buchanan v. Warley in 1917. He writes that restrictive covenants were created to exclude racial minorities when racial zoning was ruled unconstitutional and could not do the job. Abrams also points out that restrictive covenants were widely adopted by the real estate industry.36 In fact, Weaver’s greatest criticism of the FHA was of its subordinate stance toward the real estate industry’s imposition of race-restrictive covenants, which “was probably inevitable once the government had turned the agency’s operations over to the real estate and home finance boys.” More than anything, when Weaver refers to realtors in The Negro Ghetto, it is his tone that gives away his disdain for their clannishness and parochial interests. He punctuates the text with references to “boys” and a “fraternity” whose rules and norms exalt the exclusionary principles that stratified the housing system and, of course, made them money.37
Weaver found that whether cities had widespread racial covenants or not, it was the “practices of real estate operators” that prevented African Americans from buying into neighborhoods where all the residents were white. Real estate operators used multiple tools of racial exclusion, which protected their investors’ stake in those neighborhoods. Their collusion with the financial industry added another layer of protection to ensure a profitable investment. Realtors discouraged financial institutions from lending to black homebuyers who wanted to buy into those neighborhoods or to finance multifamily housing for African Americans in white areas. According to Weaver, real estate dealers often pressured the FHA to reject any building for blacks in or near white neighborhoods. He pointed out two prominent instances during the war when the FHA was committed to building war housing for black war workers in Cleveland and Los Angeles, and the respective real estate boards opposed the construction. Weaver explained that the real estate boards’ “ethics” were the basis for their practice of opposing racially mixed housing.38 Financial institutions did not lend to builders willing to construct housing for African Americans in developments designed for them in the North, and they also erected significant obstacles to constructing racially mixed neighborhoods. Weaver observed that, with or without the federal housing agencies, private industry had not built housing where blacks in the North could live.
In its explanations, the Commission on Race and Housing clearly distinguished between a generalized racism and the promotion of racial exclusion by the real estate industry. The commission blamed “white attitudes” for supporting racial segregation but maintained that “the actual controls and sanctions are administered largely by the housing industry.” It was the housing industry that “translate[d] prejudice into discriminatory action.” And it was its members who “often lead rather than follow the public in matters of housing discrimination.” The commission reported that it was realtors as “an organized business group” that “assumed some responsibility to guard the racial homogeneity of white neighborhoods.”39 Moreover, realtors defended racial segregation in public policy. The commission reported that the power and control of builders was largely responsible for racial segregation, explaining that the builders rationalized racial exclusion on “good business” grounds. The final report pointed out that long before the federal government stepped in, “racial discrimination [had] the sanction, moreover, of long-established custom in the housing industry.” This is not surprising since real estate boards reinforced racial segregation through professional ethics and public policy since their founding in the early twentieth century.40 Rather than accepting the evocation of “good business” as a simple excuse for racial exclusion, the commission’s report helps us to see that even when white people did not consider racial segregation in their interest, the real estate industry’s insistence that racial homogeneity was essential for the success of their business model and homeowners’ investments carried the day.
Abrams likewise looked beyond government. He embedded his criticism of real estate’s racial practices in a comprehensive critique of the private housing industry’s inability to produce enough housing at accessible prices for the vast majority of the American people. Then and now, much of the real estate industry’s pernicious influence operates underground, and it is historically disguised by the fact that the postwar housing industry was disorganized, shortsighted, decentralized, and inefficient in how it produced and distributed housing. Abrams succinctly outlines the industry’s shortcomings: “The industry’s product has never met the need where it existed. Too much is built in some places, too little elsewhere; too much for the high-priced market, too few or none at all for the low-income families; too many for sale and too few for rent.” He also explains how housing costs exceeded the ability of low-income and later middle-income groups to rent or buy. It is no accident that “new housing was procurable only by the well-to-do.” Abrams emphasizes that the upscale bias in the housing industry especially victimizes low-income households. He contends, “No amount of private building would create a surplus big enough to provide good housing for the lower-income families.” He was disappointed that a weak federal intervention did not correct these distributional maladies. He argued that federal policy was not comprehensive or well-coordinated, so each problem in the industry often received a “separate remedy during the New Deal’s experimental period.” Without forethought or planning, Abrams lamented, “federal housing policies evidenced little more than an unabashed struggle to impress Federal credits into private service.”41
While Abrams longed for the federal government to engage in national planning to better coordinate all the moving parts of housing production and distribution, the government refused to take up this task in deference to its industry partners that insisted on private control. This meant that, rather than the national government correcting the inefficiencies of a housing industry bent on private direction, the same characteristics of disorganization, inefficiency, and incremental practices would infect federal housing policy. The asymmetrical power of real estate capital dictated the government’s role, which was to take its cues from the industry and try to clean up the inevitable mess of inadequate and unaffordable housing. Abrams asserted that the government should provide loans and credits to builders and lenders in “the unprofitable areas of the housing economy” as long as private production “was not to be disturbed” and private actors “not to be displaced.”42 According to him, the FHA obliged by creating “a new entrepreneurial formula under which the government assumes the risk without taking any of the profit, while the entrepreneurs and the lenders take the profit without assuming any of the risk.”43 Without planning, government was at the beck and call of private industry, its role reduced to socializing private risk. In other words, public subsidy without public control.
Abrams criticized government for accepting this unequal arrangement. He thought federal policymakers, especially those who worked for the FHA, had their own reasons for embracing these market principles in policymaking.44 As he put it, their “main interest, like that of private operators, is financial success. If in the process prejudice becomes part of public policy, it is only the price of profit.”45 Abrams was not a socialist, and he did not expect substantive public control of housing provision. However, he did expect “essential safeguards” to be included in the package of subsidies and authority that the federal government delivered to the private building industry.
Abrams’s depiction of the real estate industry also disclosed its political power. Rather than analyze the industry’s powerful lobbying arm, he explained the appeal of real estate to the average American. While the housing industry is dominated by large builders and lenders underwritten by public subsidy and authority, many real estate investors are engaged in “small enterprise.” As he wrote at the time, “the real estate business is America’s most proletarian form of capitalist enterprise. It is also the great investment of its middle class.”46 For “the petty capitalist real estate is an investment which generally offers him a higher profit per dollar invested.”47 He pointed out the “emotional appeal of real estate” and the role of “sentimentality” embedded in the buying and selling of homes. Abrams reminds us that, for many people, owning real estate represented “security against bad times, a bulwark in old age, a heritage for the children.”48 He explained that white homeowners fear a loss in property values when any “undesirable element” moves into the neighborhood. “The equity in the home to these folks is their life’s savings, all that stands between them and destitution.”49 This was true of working-class white Americans, but it was also true of African Americans who, as victims of employment discrimination, could not only find income security by owning real estate but, in a few cases, even achieve lucrative profits in real estate as a foundation for black enterprise in the ghetto.50 Abrams pointed out that “the ownership of Negro-occupied real estate is a specialty. Owners demand and get higher returns on smaller investments.”51 It helps to explain why working- and middle-class whites fought so fiercely to protect their investments against any intrusion, especially by racial or class others. This dynamic even caused African American homeowners and small property owners to resist the siting of public housing in close proximity to their hard-won homes and rental businesses.52
Then as now, the real estate industry not only had a chokehold on federal housing policy and practices but had domesticated local government as well. Abrams lamented the lack of planning that could give national and local government controls to better match supply with demand, provide working-class households with good housing, and promote race- and income-mixed housing and neighborhoods. Instead, real estate developers that planned individual subdivisions created a patchwork of different housing sizes and architectural styles that only appealed to middle-class tastes and dominated a locality’s land-use patterns. Abrams decried:
It is the developer who decides where he will operate; and the cities meekly conform, providing schools, streets, sewers, and recreational facilities. The city often has little to do with determining its own future patterns. Rarely does any one private individual hold as much unrestricted power over the living patterns of the generations to succeed him as the developer.
The zeal for maximum profit is the driving force. Community interest means little to the developer, who must be socially ruthless to attain his goal.53
While Abrams was critical of real estate developers, he also recognized the influence of the market system that impels a developer to hunt for profits in order to stay ahead of the competition by relentlessly expanding its operations.
Exclusion, Segregation, and Profit
A key aspect of the postwar critics’ scholarship was their ability to show how the logic of exclusion both encompassed and went beyond race — and, more to the point, how exclusion required intentional cooperation between government and private industry.54 The work of Weaver and Abrams provides a glimpse into the exclusionary logic, created by the real estate industry and adopted by federal housing agencies, that constitutes the very idea of housing markets. This exclusion is primarily expressed in the price point, justified by the buying and selling of housing as a commodity, that generates profits for the real estate investor. When prices have not been high enough to exclude some buyers, then zoning, deed restrictions, and underwriting rules have been invented to ensure the stratification of housing markets. This logic explains the industry’s bias toward building for the affluent, a consistent feature of the modern housing system and the fundamental source of housing’s durable unaffordability.
The same logic also explains that if good housing was marketed and sold as “exclusive” on the basis of income and wealth, then exclusionary dynamics would necessarily produce racialized outcomes by segregating the majority of racial minorities that cannot afford such housing. Of course, the postwar critics recognized that race was fundamental to that exclusion at the time, but race did not exhaust the exclusionary principle constituting and stratifying the housing markets that produced segregation. Even without racial animus, the economic imperative produces and reinforces racial exclusion. Soon blackness is associated with poverty, decline, and a threat to property values, which in turn reinforces racial segregation. Only public control through planning and land ownership by government could disrupt the inexorable logic of capital accumulation that set into motion housing markets’ natural inclination to segregate. This underlying process is difficult to see; race has been the most visible form of exclusion since the creation of modern housing markets in the early twentieth century. The same nonracial feature of the commodified housing system that set the broad parameters of unequal access to housing produces racial inequality.
A severe housing shortage gripped the United States in the years after World War II, and this offered a clear window into the above dynamics for Weaver, Abrams, and other scholars. They could witness the tendencies within the public-private housing system as never before, submerged during normal operations but visible during such periods of heightened crisis. Above all, Weaver and Abrams feared that the homogeneity of housing would smother democratic impulses in the country, which they rightly argued would have a profound impact on all Americans, but particularly on those without access to power. At different points in The Negro Ghetto, Weaver expresses concern about the preference of the housing industry for building “single-class neighborhoods,” which emerged in the immediate years after World War II. He saw a “close relationship between single-class neighborhoods and the rise and spread of residential segregation.”55 Weaver does not unpack this “close relationship,” but it appears this “single-class” character set a standard that produced income and race segregation. Despite the elimination of racial language in the Underwriting Manual, Weaver found it troubling that it “still stresses the advantages of homogeneous development of properties in a given area.”56 Abrams agreed, opposing “an arbitrary division of neighborhoods into homogeneous groupings deliberately set up to respect class or racial lines.”57
Both housing reformers feared the consequences of exclusion on the basis of income and racial segregation; single-class neighborhoods provided the structural template for all exclusions, including race. As Weaver put it: “Evolution and perpetuation of racial residential segregation cannot be separated from the growth of ‘exclusive’ one-class neighborhoods in American cities. Both are part and parcel of a recent development in urban land use — a tendency of the economically secure and favored to move away from the problems of large cities, establish homogeneous colonies, and exclude ‘undesirable’ elements.” This trend had been “promoted with great zeal” by “land speculators and subdivision developers.”58 Here he was not just thinking about how many African Americans were excluded because of low incomes but how the principle of exclusion in the housing system is structured and informs multiple social dimensions, including race. Quite simply, the nonracial features of the system generated unequal racial outcomes and threatened broad democratic living.
A good example of that working can be seen in Weaver’s comments on the reluctance of financial institutions to invest in new housing “for any but the more prosperous and secure groups in our society.” He saw the same principle informing the popularity of racial covenants. Weaver contended that racial covenants symbolized to middle- and working-class whites not only the respectability of racial exclusion but also the terms of acceptance by the upper class. The old New Dealer found these covenants to be a product of “the rise of single-income, exclusive settlements in American cities.” He adds, “The threat of these communities to American democracy, however, is much more fundamental and lasting than the major contribution they make to residential segregation.” Weaver correctly saw racial segregation as an epicycle within the larger engine of social exclusion, though, at times and places, race represented the exclusionary logic in its most prominent, recognizable, and most offensive form to liberal sensibilities. In sum, Weaver recognized the fundamental threat that “single-class” neighborhoods posed to citizens’ equal access not only to adequate housing but also to other public goods like schools, health care, recreation, transportation, and gainful employment. This reflected his understanding that a larger exclusionary principle was being established that would not only set standards and reverberate throughout housing markets but also establish the basis of social citizenship in the United States.59
Abrams, for his part, focused on how FHA mortgage insurance reflected market principles and increased the profitability of housing production and distribution. He reported that a former FHA high official characterized the mortgage insurance as a “sales tool” for realtors. Abrams observed that the FHA was “apt to subordinate the welfare of the citizenry to the welfare of the balance sheet.”60 Put another way, Abrams believed that business principles superseded government responsibility for justice. This, in fact, helps to explain the government’s embrace of racial discrimination, to say nothing of its increasing coziness with neoliberalism. For instance, in the words of Abrams, “since FHA must get enough insurance business to make its actuarial formulas work, it hesitated to condition its aid to builders upon nondiscrimination.”61 Both Weaver and Abrams understood the fundamental exclusionary logic of housing markets in the service of capital accumulation, a logic that took the grotesque form of racial segregation. Within Richard Rothstein’s account of “forgotten history,” this vision could probably use some recovery too.
For realtors, builders, and lenders, exclusivity along social and racial lines was a sales tool for the industry, as it established real estate as a safe investment for upper-class whites. Racially restrictive covenants and exclusionary zoning are simply tools in a vast housing-market tool kit. It was the selling of racial and social homogeneity that appealed not only to homebuyers but to investors and financiers of the housing system. Weaver, Abrams, and others in the postwar era emphasized the private real estate industry because it maintained the segregationist engine in a way that made it profitable within a capitalistic economy while allowing it to hum along beneath the radar, difficult to detect by an observer only fixated on the government’s role in reproducing its most visible and offensive form in racial exclusion. The tendency to segregate due to prices became normalized so that segregation dissolved into racial segregation, as something anomalous to be corrected without disturbing the fundamental basis of capitalist housing markets.
Segregation as a normal outcome of the exclusionary logic of housing markets can be overshadowed by its racial form. At the time when the real estate industry organized itself and created modern housing markets in the early twentieth century, the prominence of scientific racism, which ordered human beings on the basis of ascriptive characteristics, made sure the exclusionary logic would take on a racial form. While it is important to recognize the scale of destruction that this historical conjunction wrought on African Americans, Mexican Americans, Puerto Ricans, and Asian Americans, and the concomitant level of restrictions placed on whites’ behaviors and choices in order to bolster an inherently unstable market, the exclusionary logic of capitalist housing markets would have settled on some other social dimension to stratify housing distribution if race had not been available.
Racial Integration Redux
Not surprisingly, because Rothstein and the postwar intellectuals differ in their respective analyses of racial segregation, they also differ in their proposed solutions — some of which can be attributed to the seventy years separating the periods of their scholarship. The obvious difference between then and now is the shift in public confidence in government’s ability to address social concerns such as housing provision, understandable given fifty years of anti-government ideology. The country has gone from riding high after the government’s successful efforts to defeat global fascism to the present time, when Americans increasingly vote for politicians who run against government and then, once they are in office, do everything in their power to reduce government’s credibility in the eyes of the public. The lack of faith in government action is a result of a steady drumbeat about government ineffectiveness from conservative and, surprisingly, some liberal circles.
The difference in proposed solutions can also be traced to the matter of who in our country loses from current housing policy. The postwar critics spoke about residential segregation hurting all racial minorities, while Rothstein’s treatment and remedies focus exclusively on African Americans. In Forbidden Neighbors, Abrams devotes a separate chapter to each of the following groups: rural whites, African Americans, Chinese and Japanese Americans, Mexican Americans, and Puerto Ricans. Rothstein, on the other hand, aligning with his times, focuses only on African Americans.62 He starts with the premise that “only African Americans have been systematically and unconstitutionally segregated for such a long period, and with such thorough repression, that their condition requires an aggressive constitutional remedy.”63
As for approaches to the problem, Rothstein’s proposed solutions are more suggestions than fully worked out policies. His solutions are an amalgam of old and new programs that would allow low- and middle-income African Americans to gain access to affluent suburbs through the following reforms: combating exclusionary zoning, fully funding housing mobility programs, and delivering substantial subsidies to the original black victims of FHA discrimination. Given Rothstein’s focus on government-backed segregation, it should come as no surprise that he favors racially targeted remedies to reverse the legacy of discriminatory actions. He is aware of the impact of economic inequality, especially housing prices and rents, on all working- and middle-class Americans, especially its disproportionate impact on low-income African Americans.64 Rothstein obviously sees the need for economic reforms, but he chooses not to explore those reforms in his book. He does point out that “economic stress and insecurity” are not compatible with desegregation.65 However, he suggests that the two issues are distinct, and implies that the issues should be addressed separately, if not serially, with a focus on racial equity as the priority. This approach differs from that of the earlier critics who insisted and showed how the two dimensions of housing inequality are intertwined and must be addressed together in a single policy scheme.
The Color of Law advocates for “aggressive policies to desegregate” at all levels of government. Rothstein thinks a number of short-term reforms can be pursued to change middle school and high school curricula to more accurately reflect the damage done to African Americans through the government’s racial segregation policy. This reform represents a first step, in Rothstein’s approach, to building long-term public and political support by showing whites and other non-blacks that their government was responsible for the unique oppression suffered by African Americans in housing in the United States.66
Rothstein demurs when faced with the question of reparations. His proposals, which are directed at compensating for past discrimination, represent a version of reparations lite.67 For instance, he proposes that the federal government purchase 15 percent of houses in Levittown, Pennsylvania, the original prototype of the white suburb, priced at $350,000 each, and resell them at the $75,000 (the original price in today’s dollars) that an excluded black homebuyer would have paid. Furthermore, he advocates for a program like this in “every suburban development whose construction complied with FHA’s discriminatory requirements.”68 Rothstein would penalize suburbs whose populations are less than 5 percent black, coupling this with incentives for African Americans in areas more than 25 percent black to move to “integrated towns” or to attract “nonblack families” to reduce these areas’ black portion.69 One of the penalties for not adopting Rothstein’s plan of desegregation is for suburban residents to lose a portion of their mortgage interest and property tax deductions. In a moment of practicality, Rothstein concedes that “no presently constituted Congress would adopt such a policy and no presently constituted court would uphold it. Taxpayers would rebel at the cost, as well as the perceived undeserved gift to African Americans.”70 Rothstein has no plan to overcome such obstacles except for making the moral case against the federal government, which he thinks will underline race-targeted reform.
Rothstein would also eliminate “exclusionary zoning” because it locks out low-income African Americans from affluent white suburbs. He would take steps to ensure that low-income African Americans would have access to affluent suburbs through court-ordered housing mobility programs, which would feature housing vouchers and counseling. While he lauds policies of economic inclusion, he is quick to add that policies making it possible for all low-income people to live in multifamily housing in affluent suburbs “do not take the additional step of helping to integrate middle-income African American families into white middle-class suburbs.”71 Rothstein emphasizes that this “integration” is necessary since, growing up in segregated neighborhoods, African Americans “will gain no experience mastering a predominantly white professional culture in which they, as adults, will want to succeed.”72 It is clear who Rothstein has in mind to be the main recipient of his throwback reforms — the present and future black middle class.
But the deeper, more troubling issue remains: Even if the obstacles to accrue necessary political capital could be overcome, would Rothstein’s approach to recover “lost opportunities” adequately address the affordable-housing needs of low- and moderate-income African Americans? If the answer is no, or even not likely, then would not the enormous effort it would take to accrue such power for housing reform be better directed toward an approach that more directly serves those needs? What of a plan to build and distribute, according to need, decent and affordable rental and owner-occupied housing?
Toward a Program for Social Housing
Since Rothstein is writing about a forgotten history, it is fair to ask how, or even if, those proposals recall or extend the approaches of the postwar critics. Many of their policy solutions no doubt seem outmoded and ineffective in hindsight. At the time, however, their ideas had great appeal and considerable momentum. Weaver, Abrams, and others rightly celebrated the passing of fair housing laws at the state and local levels and extolled the efforts of voluntary fair housing groups that pushed for desegregation in their various municipalities.73 Today, however, we know how the game ends: after more than fifty years of experience, fair housing legislative and voluntary efforts have helped many victims of discrimination, but they have failed to substantially reduce racial segregation.
I would argue that, while the content of the postwar proposals might feel out of sync, the approach they took in combating racial segregation offers a viable alternative. In The Negro Ghetto, Weaver pointed out what he believed to be the most effective approach to combating racial inequality: “If there were a program to meet the general housing needs of the nation, minorities would not necessarily or automatically share equitably. But it is only in a national situation of adequate programming to meet the shelter requirements of all income groups that minorities can hope to improve appreciably their housing conditions.”74 This recognition by Weaver was, in part, a realization that many African Americans were low-income and would benefit from this broad-based approach as long as there were built-in protections against racial discrimination. A seasoned public administrator like Weaver had to also know that such a universal approach would be necessary in order to garner sufficient political support to enact such a program. Throughout his career, Weaver pushed for government to confront residential segregation and the problem of “equitable participation” for racial minorities.75 He also knew what it would take to be successful: the full weight of federal government to “undertake directly the planning and building of housing for a broader range of income groups.”76 That and nothing less.
Weaver, like Rothstein two generations later, centered his reform proposals on the actions of government. Unlike Rothstein, who largely ignores the real estate industry in his policy prescriptions, Weaver wanted to utilize the federal government to more effectively regulate the industry’s racial practices. Weaver blamed the industry for “the perpetuation of the Negro ghetto and opposition to racially democratic housing in the North.”77 He argued that the federal government should use its control over benefits like aid and insurance to require the private housing industry “to develop housing for all racial groups in society.”78 An intermittent housing official, Weaver was aware of how the industry waged a “constant campaign to defeat proposals for a rational housing program and long-range planning in shelter.”79 His animus toward the industry centered on its opposition to the public interest in broad access to affordable housing and in favor of “quick and exorbitant profits in the current housing market.” He believed in city planning and argued strenuously that “we should plan for democratic neighborhoods, not standardized for one kind of population, whether as to income, family type, . . . or race.” Weaver concluded, “The housing problem of minorities can never be solved or materially lessened until the nation has an effective program for meeting adequately the shelter requirements of all the people.”80 This sentiment is equally true today.
Abrams, for his part, outlined his policy proposals to fight racial segregation in the context of his plan to rid the housing system of its broad inefficiencies and injustices. While he and Weaver agreed on a broad approach to housing reform, Abrams was more detailed in his policy prescriptions. In The Future of Housing, written amid a severe housing shortage after World War II, Abrams advocates for the federal government to directly build housing that would be sold to private owners. The liberal Abrams valued private ownership, but he did not trust the real estate industry to build enough housing that was appropriately priced for the majority of the American people. He also knew that public control of planning and building would allow the federal housing agencies to give citizens broad access to housing regardless of income and race. In fact, like many of his cohort, Abrams believed that large housing developments were the ideal place to show how mixed-race occupancy could work. He rejected the idea that racial integration decreased property values, and he thought that mixed-race housing could only be successful if the federal government took over the building of housing nationwide. The federal government had the scale and resources to rationally distribute housing to those who needed it the most.
Abrams’s proposals outlawed the federal housing agency’s practice of discriminating on the basis of race or encouraging, directly or indirectly, discrimination or segregation. He thought the federal government should not allow private firms that received public aid with loan guarantees or authority to use eminent domain to discriminate against or segregate the races. Abrams asserted that “real property must be subjected to public control when its use results in the exclusion of vast masses of citizens from shelter.”81 He thought government should only intervene when there were market failures, such as when private enterprise did not produce decent housing at prices affordable to low- and moderate-income Americans. On this point, Abrams was aligned with “housers” who long believed the private market, with its upward pressure on prices, would be incapable of serving low-income people without subsidy.82 To Abrams, “public control” would allow government to correct the problem of not serving people of low and modest incomes and to stamp out racial discrimination and segregation in the housing industry. The two problems needed to be solved together; Abrams did not trust the private housing market to self-correct on either issue.
In the immediate aftermath of the war, Abrams proposed a temporary program of public construction on a national scale. He pointed out that government would have more control over land use if they controlled the land before its development. Abrams implied that public construction and land acquisition provided enough public control to oppose segregation by “income status” or by “color or creed.”83 He later abandoned his plan of public construction of housing in favor of supplementing private production for those excluded: racial minorities and low-income people.84 Abrams advocated serving low-income families through “a combination of direct building and rent supplements.”85 He also identified a middle-income group whose housing needs were served by neither FHA public insurance nor private industry.86 In fact, his consistent identification of a broad class of Americans who were not served by the housing market opened up the possibility of expanding the decommodified sector by pursuing a social housing program. In sum, Abrams tackled the housing needs of racial minorities as part of a universal housing plan. He reasoned that addressing minority housing needs required “an ample supply of housing of all types, in all places for all income groups, all colors and classes.”87 It is clear Abrams wanted aggressive action, but it is worth considering whether government intervention would have been effective without control over planning and land acquisition, not to mention without the direct building on a national scale that he had proposed earlier.
Weaver, on the other hand, but in the same vein, championed the idea of a universal housing program that would serve the needs of working- and middle-class Americans in order to successfully address the needs of African Americans. He would include protections to ensure racial equality within that scheme; nonetheless, it was clear to him that African American housing needs could not be addressed in isolation. As noted above, Abrams agreed with this stance, advocating at one point for government control of land and production to launch a postwar social housing program. Both advocated for a form of liberal planning to correct racial and economic inequality while preserving private housing prerogatives. Though their prescriptions for liberal planning were an advance over the chaotic and destructive housing system they criticized, their approach would not have been up to the task of democratizing housing on its own.88 Unless the federal government challenged the private control of land and of the production and distribution of housing by growing the decommodified sector in size and scale, neither African Americans’ nor general working-class Americans’ housing needs would be served.
Where do these seventy-year-old ideas stand today? Currently, there are two related ideological obstacles to establishing public control of housing through building the decommodified sector. The first is the pessimism that the federal government can accomplish comprehensive housing reform after the emergence and entrenchment of anti-government ideology in the postwar era. The Color of Law reflects and reinforces this ideology with its hyperfocus on the government’s role in producing racial inequality, letting the business sector off the hook. The second, which is both a cause for and product of pessimism in government’s capacity, is the narrow and targeted nature of a race-centered approach to housing reform. It is similar to means-tested programs in that it does not benefit enough of the public, whose wholesale investment would put it in a position to defend such reforms from the inevitable attacks from the real estate industry. This is the way that race-reductionist policy, ironically, greatly aids the neoliberal project of market-based rule.
The Perils of Race-First Housing Policy
At the present time, the virtual absence of the role of the real estate industry in Rothstein’s history serves neoliberal ideological and political purposes in that, whether Rothstein intended it or not, his study reinforces an anti-government outlook.89 Even liberals can be so inclined. Their stance stems from their contention that the government participates in and fails to prevent the discrimination and segregation experienced by African Americans. This lack of faith in government is enhanced by the fact that when liberals were in charge, they were not any better, according to this perspective, than their conservative counterparts, which supports their idea of a bipartisan white supremacy.90 However, this black and white liberal skepticism about the federal government hasn’t meant abandoning government as the solution to racial inequality but instead demanding that government endorse a narrow, targeted approach of racial repair.
Since the days of Robert Weaver, the African American professional class, which has grown in size and stature, has shifted its point of view about the most effective way to address racial inequality. The postwar intellectuals commented on the emergence of a viable black middle class after the war.91 Its growing size and consumer power was not only evident to these scholars; this class’s efforts to buy housing in white neighborhoods made racial segregation more visible and proved that low incomes were not the sole reason black people had difficulty in securing housing. African Americans, experiencing significant class differentiation for the first time in US history, were able to mount the civil rights movement and leverage their votes in Midwestern and Northeastern cities for some influence within the Democratic Party. This influence netted them gains such as the Federal Employment Practices Committee and nondiscrimination housing laws at the state level. At the time, one could practically count on one hand the number of black congresspeople and state legislators, but they represented notable signs of growing political influence. That calculus has changed in the intervening seventy years. Now there are substantial numbers of black elected officials at all levels of government. Moreover, distinguished black scholars were restricted to historically black colleges and universities then; today African American scholars are substantively represented in most elite universities, where they often run important research centers.92 Rothstein’s historical account comes at a time when African American professionals are in strategic positions in political, legal, and academic institutions to pursue a race-first public policy. His indictment of government segregation serves as the perfect justification for racially targeted policies like reparations, where remedies for propertied African Americans are given priority over anyone else. This approach, as I mentioned above, stands in stark contrast to the universal approach to housing, coupled with effective regulation against discrimination, embraced by postwar intellectual activists like Robert Weaver and Charles Abrams.
Even though Rothstein refrains from endorsing reparations, his policy wish list focuses on the government subsidizing African American homebuyers who were historically discriminated against by the FHA and suburban builders. More important, his approach aligns very well with current African American intellectuals who favor a race-first approach to public policy. These public intellectuals find support for their position in accounts like Rothstein’s that single out African Americans as the worst victims of racial exclusion in housing policy. After he learned about Rothstein’s research, Ta-Nehisi Coates attempted to persuade him through intermediaries to “produce a book for the general public.”93 Coates, who wrote popular articles endorsing reparations based on the inability of African American homebuyers to get mortgages to buy into white neighborhoods,94 recognized how Rothstein’s research on government segregation could bolster the case for reparations. Impressed, Coates lent Rothstein his agent and provided an introduction to his eventual publisher.95 This is a notable instance of African American professionals using a kind of political influence in literary institutions that was virtually nonexistent in the postwar era.
More evidence of the black professional class’s influence is the support for the extensive research conducted for The Color of Law by a number of African American–directed legal and academic think tanks, such as the Chief Justice Earl Warren Institute on Law and Social Policy, the Haas Institute for a Fair and Inclusive Society, and the Thurgood Marshall Institute at the NAACP Legal Defense Fund.96 The prestige and resources that the African American professional class can marshal to support its ideology overshadows the inability of the postwar generation to push a more practical approach. The legal and academic infrastructure to support a race-first policy would not have been possible at an earlier time. Credit the growth of the black professional class and the influence it has accrued in legal, academic, and political institutions for pushing an interest-group approach that, unsurprisingly, prioritizes African American elite interests over everyone else’s, including those of working-class blacks who would benefit more from a broad-based policy approach. Recent accounts of reparations speak to piecemeal reforms based on narrow eligibility, technical claims, and laborious legal or legislative processes that only aid the fortunate eligible black recipients of liberal largesse in cities like Evanston, Amherst, and San Francisco. It is an approach that seeks to use housing policy as a means of maximizing racial wealth that accrues to the top 10 percent of the income structure of each racial group rather than extending affordable housing to the widest group of people, including low- and moderate-income African Americans.97
Rothstein’s attentiveness to the black professional class’s interests, both in the impact of racial segregation and in the policy prescription to combat it, is especially attractive to those who hold a race-first ideology.98 It is as if the black professional class fears that a working-class solution will insufficiently attend to its interests in its intraclass competition with its white and, increasingly, Asian and Latino counterparts. In other words, the focus on race is necessarily a focus on the segment of African Americans who will not be helped by class-based solutions. A majority of African Americans, working- and middle-class, would benefit from broad housing reform, just not those blacks who are a part of, or serve, the rentier class. African American professionals who work in the FIRE (finance, insurance, and real estate) sector, or serve this sector in municipal, state, or federal government, would actively oppose such reform, saying it would not address “systemic racism,” by which they mean not address their intraclass disparities with non-blacks. Their viewpoint recalls other interest groups that couch their claims in appeals to the public interest. In truth, however, the black professional class cannot lead with their narrow class concerns. They argue, and no doubt believe, that policies that aid their class will also benefit the black popular classes, evidence notwithstanding. They can show how working-class blacks have been discriminated against; however, the policy proposals they put forward, like reparations, don’t really address the discrimination and segregation of working- and middle-class blacks as much as give attention to correcting racial disparities in wealth that concentrate among racial elites.
Others have pointed out that the problem of the race-first agenda, whose claims are supported by Rothstein’s one-sided account, is its inability to marshal the political support to convert that agenda into public policy. Rothstein acknowledges that his proto-reparations proposals do not have the necessary public and political support at the present time. He argues that his account of government-led segregation could lead reluctant non-blacks to see the need for an African American–first approach to housing policy. After reading his account, he hopes, whites will see the maltreatment of African Americans by the government as unique and agree to use their tax dollars to correct this particular racial injustice. These are indeed high hopes. Likewise, other people of color will recognize how African Americans suffered more than their groups through anti-black exclusion and will also be willing to support black exceptionalism in public policy. But at this time of extreme and broad inequality, it is unlikely that non-blacks will support an agenda that benefits only African Americans, no matter how persuasive the moral case.
Only an idealist conception of politics would hold that effective political organizations can be built through superior claims to morality rather than through a materialist approach to building a popular majority, such as in support of a housing agenda that would relieve it of the rentier class’s drain on its precarious incomes.99 The danger of Rothstein’s approach of isolating racial injury from systemic class injuries in housing is that it undermines collective support, which in turn feeds widespread pessimism about the effectiveness of public action. This is where Rothstein’s incomplete account really matters. The postwar critics watched how the real estate industry created the race-and-property-values ideology, captured federal housing policy to socialize their risks but not their profits, and formed a legendary lobby to make sure federal policy did not disturb the priority of private enterprise in the housing system, even to this day. While they endorsed education and knew “white attitudes” would need to change regarding mixed-race housing, they did not naively think that this was enough or that this even constituted an effective starting point. They knew that only a well-organized and sustained political campaign to oppose the real estate industry on its social and racial positions was capable of building the kind of popular majority that could win and sustain social housing policies. If progressives are to have a chance at accumulating the necessary political capital for meaningful housing reform, it will only be through adopting a broad-based political approach that addresses the affordable housing needs of all working-class people. It is unfortunate that when Richard Rothstein recovered Robert Weaver’s The Negro Ghetto, he forgot to retrieve his approach to housing reform. It is this approach, more than anything, that we need to recover and promote today.