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50 Years Ago: President Johnson Signed The Fair Housing Act


Today marks 50 years since President Lyndon Johnson signed the Fair Housing Act. The law was meant to ban racial discrimination in housing. So how well has it worked? Gene Demby from NPR's Code Switch podcast spoke with Rachel Martin.

RACHEL MARTIN, BYLINE: Gene, thanks for coming in.

GENE DEMBY, BYLINE: Hi, Rachel. Thanks for having me.

MARTIN: All right. The Fair Housing Act - how did it come to be?

DEMBY: So in the first half of the 20th century, millions of black people are leaving the South - fleeing racial violence in the South - and they're moving to the North for jobs in cities. But when they get to those Northern cities, they're basically pushed into slums and ghettos. And they were threatened with violence when they wanted to live near white people. As all of this is going on, as the Great Migration is happening, FDR is also passing these New Deal policies that create all these ideas that we take for granted now, things like 30-year mortgages and low fixed interest rates because he believed that you could bolster homeownership and you would help build wealth for people. But black people were shut out of all of this.

And so the government actually created these color-coded maps to mark places in cities where they felt it was too dangerous to insure these new government-backed home loans. So on these maps, some neighborhoods - these uninsurable neighborhoods - they were marked as red. And the biggest determinant of whether a neighborhood was redlined was a preponderance of, quote, "Negroes."


DEMBY: And so the government was essentially subsidizing this post-war economic boom for white people that black people were locked out of.

MARTIN: OK. So where does the Fair Housing Act come in?

DEMBY: So in the 1960s, civil rights leaders like Martin Luther King were pressing Lyndon Johnson on a bunch of antidiscrimination legislation. But particularly, they wanted him to pass a bill ending discrimination in housing. And Johnson tried to get this bill passed repeatedly. But it wasn't until Martin Luther King was killed and riots broke out all over the country that Johnson could summon the urgency of the political moment to cajole Congress into passing the Fair Housing Act. And that law explicitly prohibited discrimination in buying or renting a home to someone based on race or religion or their country of origin.

MARTIN: How has it worked?

DEMBY: It hasn't. It's only been selectively enforced. And there's never been a lot of political will to hold cities and communities that discriminate on the basis of race accountable when it comes to housing. Nikole Hannah-Jones, who's a staff writer for The New York Times, she's covered this for years. She told us on the podcast this week that over the last 50 years, all of these efforts have been derailed in part because people felt it was politically radioactive. What we see today is a lot of the same neighborhoods in big cities that were red lined in the 1930s and 1940s have been locked out of the economy. They don't benefit during boom times, and they're devastated during downturns.

MARTIN: Has there been any effort to fix it?

DEMBY: There have been attempts to fix some of the stuff. The Clinton administration in the '90s tried to take this up. They dropped it really quickly. In the last year of the Obama administration, they introduced this policy called Affirmatively Furthering Fair Housing, which was to try to enforce this stuff. There's been no action on that. Ben Carson said he's basically not going to enforce it.

MARTIN: So what are the long-term effects of this kind of segregation?

DEMBY: It's almost impossible to talk about systemic racism in America and not talk about housing because it sits at the nexus of all of it, right? Discrimination and segregation in housing creates all these drags on black communities. It affects education. Since almost every place in the country pays for schools via property taxes, lower home values in black communities means that black children go to more poorly-funded schools. It affects health outcomes in communities with few grocery stores, little access to open spaces or neighborhoods that are built near factories.

We did a story on a study from February that found that the more segregated a state is, the greater the ratio that unarmed black people will be killed by police relative to white people. It affects how we draw political districts, how we get around. We could go on and on. I mean, there's no part of structural racism in America that does not have some expression in housing discrimination or segregation. On Code Switch, our beat is race in America. And that often means our beat is really about housing because housing segregation is in everything.

MARTIN: All right. Gene Demby from NPR's Code Switch. Gene, thank you so much.

DEMBY: Thank you.


Gene Demby is the co-host and correspondent for NPR's Code Switch team.
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