The Fight for the Suburbs

Originally published in the January/February 2018 issue of The New Republic.
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Due in no small part to his praise for white supremacists, his calls to deport immigrants, and his push to ban Muslims, Donald Trump has spurred Americans to protect racial minorities and work toward a more just society. That fight is playing out not just in sanctuary cities like New Haven and Los Angeles, or in the streets of Charlottesville. It is also being waged in Washington, at the Department of Housing and Urban Development.

One of HUD’s central responsibilities is to implement the Fair Housing Act, the landmark anti-discrimination law that turns 50 years old in 2018. While efforts to desegregate inner cities continue at a frustratingly slow pace, fair housing advocates did win significant victories during the Obama years. In 2015, HUD issued a rule that provided local governments with new data tools to identify segregated living patterns and meet their legal obligations to promote integration. “These actions won’t make every community perfect,” Barack Obama said at the time. “But they will help make our communities stronger and more vibrant.” A year later, the administration issued another regulation to help families move out of poor, segregated neighborhoods—in part by increasing the purchasing power of their housing vouchers.

But Trump’s administration threatens to undercut these gains. HUD Secretary Ben Carson has criticized the Obama-era rules as “mandated social engineering” and promised his agency would “reinterpret” them. Over the summer, the department announced it would be suspending the rule to help poor families relocate to more affluent neighborhoods, prompting the NAACP Legal Defense Fund and other civil rights groups to file a lawsuit in response.

But the struggle for fair housing is not simply a series of legal fights over regulations and subsidy formulas. It involves much larger battles—ones that take aim at Americans’ basic living patterns and the country’s history of government-sponsored segregation. And as the racial makeup of our cities and suburbs continues to shift, this conflict could profoundly impact U.S. electoral politics. Indeed, civil rights advocates maintain, a successful push for fair housing could transform not only the demographics of our country but even its political future.

The Fair Housing Act was born out of racial violence. Following the urban riots that exploded across the country in 1967, President Lyndon Johnson established the Kerner Commission to investigate the unrest. In February 1968, the commission pointed to insidious racial segregation as the cause, having created “two societies, one white, one black.” That month, Democratic Senator Walter Mondale and Republican Senator Edward Brooke—the only African American in the Senate—introduced the Fair Housing Act. The law would help create “truly integrated and balanced living patterns,” Mondale said.

Critics argued that making it easier for black families to move into white neighborhoods would trample their property rights and constitute “discrimination in reverse.” Still, as racial strife grew more pronounced, and as Martin Luther King Jr. traveled the country calling for an elimination of the nation’s slums, pressure to address segregated housing continued to mount.

King’s assassination on April 4, 1968 finally pushed fair housing through an otherwise recalcitrant Congress. The day after King’s death, Mondale took to the Senate floor and implored his colleagues to uphold King’s legacy by immediately passing the bill. Johnson signed the legislation into law six days later.

The Fair Housing Act has grown stronger over the years. Its protections now cover seven classes: race, color, religion, sex, national origin, disability, and families with children. In 1988, Congress also beefed up the law’s enforcement mechanisms and increased the penalties associated with violating it.

Yet even with these gains, many urban areas still exhibit apartheid levels of segregation. In 2015, Mondale called integration the “unfinished business” of his fair housing law. “When high-income black families cannot qualify for a prime loan and are steered away from white suburbs, the goals of the Fair Housing Act are not fulfilled,” he said. “When the federal and state governments will pay to build new suburban highways, streets, sewers, schools, and parks, but then allow these communities to exclude affordable housing and nonwhite citizens, the goals of the Fair Housing Act are not fulfilled.” In many ways, the country remains divided into two societies—one white, one black.

Exploiting the country’s racial divisions has been a feature of modern American politics since at least Richard Nixon’s adoption of the Southern Strategy. Over the past half-century, Democrats have consolidated support in cities, while Republicans have increasingly targeted rural areas. Since Trump’s victory, these trends have fueled the argument that Democrats must win more white, working-class voters if they are to reclaim political power.

But this tidy framing of cities versus rural America overlooks today’s true electoral battleground: the suburbs. Following World War II, as affluent whites fled the inner cities, suburbs became a central pillar of support for the Republican Party. In 1980, 78 percent of suburban census tracts were predominantly white. That fell to 42 percent by 2009, and diverse suburbs jumped from 16 percent to 37 percent over the same period. Suburban areas, in other words, no longer resemble the Leave It to Beaver landscape of yesteryear. Today, more than 60 percent of suburbanites live in integrated or predominantly nonwhite areas.

These shifts present problems for the Republican Party—which has historically relied on the suburbs as bulwarks against blue cities—and opportunities for Democrats, as evidenced most recently by the gubernatorial election in Virginia. In 2016, though Trump won more suburban votes than Hillary Clinton, he was still the third Republican presidential candidate in a row to fail to win 50 percent of the suburban vote. Trump lost not only inner-ring suburbs around Chicago, New York, and Philadelphia, but also places like Cobb County, Georgia—which The New York Times once referred to as the “suburban Eden where the right rules.”

Fair housing has always been partly political in its aim. “The existence of segregated residential patterns helps politicians draw safe districts for white voters,” says Elizabeth Julian, a former HUD official and founder of the Inclusive Communities Project, a Dallas-based fair housing group. She argues that breaking down the racial, ethnic, and economic barriers that prevent people from living where they’d like to is not only good policy, but could also defuse some of the explosive dynamics that gave rise to Trump, and bolster the Democratic coalition in the process. “The political potential of integration is an overlooked benefit of integration,” Julian says.

Policies that promote desegregation could, of course, invite backlash. White suburban voters could retreat further into the fast-growing, right-leaning exurbs. And those who stay put could grow even more conservative if they feel a greater sense that their neighborhoods are being threatened by newcomers who don’t look like them. Still, those who worry about what Trump represents would do well to explore the possibilities of integrated, inclusive communities as a way to deny racial demagogues easy political footing. The Fair Housing Act was passed to spare America from what seemed to be a looming collapse. Now, at 50, it may yet do so.

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