That time when the “FHA exhorted segregation and enshrined it as public policy.”

Class today. Here are some selections from chapter 11 of Kenneth T. Jackson’s Crabgrass Frontier: The Suburbanization of the United States

No agency of the United States Government has had a more pervasive and powerful impact on the American people over the past half-century than the Federal Housing Administration (FHA). […] it was intended to “encourage improvement in housing standards and conditions, to facilitate sound home financing on reasonable terms, and to exert a stabilizing influence on the mortgage market.”


Reflecting the racist tradition of he United States, the Federal Housing Administration was extraordinarily concerned with “inharmonious racial or nationality groups.” It feared that an entire area could lost its investment value if rigid white-black separation was not maintained. Bluntly warning, “If a neighborhood is to retain stability, it is necessary that properties shall continue to be occupied by the same social and racial classes,” the Underwriting Manual openly recommended[…]


Occasionally, FHA decisions were particularly bizarre and capricious. In the late 1930s, for example, as Detroit grew outward, white families began to settle near a black enclave adjacent to Eight Mile Road. By 1940 the blacks were surrounded, but neither they nor the whites could get FHA insurance because of the proximity of an “inharmonious” racial group. So in 1941 an enterprising white developer built a concrete wall between the white and black areas. The FHA appraiser then took another look and approved mortgages on the white properties.


But the FHA also helped to turn the building industry against the minority and inner-city housing market, and its policies supported the income and racial segregation of suburbia. For perhaps the first time, the federal government embraced the discriminatory attitudes of the marketplace. Previously, prejudices were personalized and individualized; FHA exhorted segregation and enshrined it as public policy.


The lasting damage done by the national government was this put its seal of approval on ethnic and racial discrimination and developed policies which had the result of the practical abandonment of large sections of older, industrial cities. More seriously, Washington actions were later picked up by private interests, so that banks and savings-and-loan institutions institutionalized the practice of denying mortgages “solely because of the geographical location of the property.” The financial community saw blighted neighborhoods as physical evidence of the melting-pot mistake. To them, cities were risky because of their heterogeneity, because of their attempt to bring various people together harmoniously. Such mixing, they believe, had but two consequences — the decline of both the human race and of property values.

The point is made later in this book, and elsewhere, that federal housing policy didn’t create suburbia or housing discrimination on the basis of race. Those trends already existed. But the consequences of a racist, segregated, housing market enshrined as state policy was incredibly deleterious as cities began to divest of industry and inner-city neighborhoods became ghettoized. This wasn’t simply an early to mid-20th century phenomenon, either, but something that persisted in some instances well into the 1970s.

As Ta-Nehisi Coates has written, it seems odd to resign these actions to the past, primarily because people who suffered under these private and public policies — as well as their children — are still living with the consequences. We should put things in the past when we’re ready to make a commitment to moving forward. A necessary part of that process is constructively engaging with the effects from past decisions, not pretending they don’t matter anymore. Yet we, as Coates notes, “believe the ghetto is manifestation of individual will and amorphous culture values because that is what we would prefer to think.” Or, to reiterate the sentiment I shared on W.J. Wilson; we seem too eager to deny the history of our grandparent’s generation in favor of cheap criticisms of culture to avoid any sense of responsibility for the present and future.


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