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    A House Divided: The Fair Housing Act and Kerner Commission Report 50 Years Later

    By Andrea Shorter

    1968. Just saying “1968” floods the mind, body, and spirit with memories of one of the most unforgettable periods in American history. If you were “there” in 1968, 50 years later your first-hand accounts of what was going down with the worsening of the Vietnam War, the earth shattering assassinations of Reverend Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr., and Robert Kennedy, the violent protests outside of the Democratic National Convention in Chicago, the eruption of urban African American communities uprisings, the Ronald Reagan governorship, President Lyndon B. Johnson’s the Black Panther movement, and at least 20 other upheaval events might now blur together as a not too distant, but distant enough, amass of factoids sadly reduced to a tidy Wikipedia snapshot. Even sadder, from the perspective of the post-baby boomer to Gen Z mindsets, the expansive and historical depth events of 1968 might carry little more relevance today than the events of 1776.

    No matter one’s personal, Googled, PBS, or CNN sourced accounts, it is undeniable that the confluence of seemingly endless insurgencies that occurred in 1968 shook America, and the world, to its very core. There was very little that was trivial then or in the aftermath of 1968. In a world turned upside down, righting the paths towards justice, fairness, and peace were ensconced in a series of acts cast as elemental and foundational hallmarks of LBJ’s Great Society.

    2018 marks the 50th anniversaries of the Civil Rights Act of 1968, commonly known as the Fair Housing Act, and the Kerner Commission Report. The Fair Housing Act (FHA) was signed into law by LBJ one week after the assassination of Dr. King.

    The FHA ideally sought to remedy gross and abject housing discrimination based on race and to enact policies and practices that would ensure the “de-ghettoization” of African Americans into racially integrative residential living along with historically resistant whites. Before the FHA was signed into law, it was commonplace—and practiced as common law since the 1800’s as perfectly legal, socially accepted and expected—for majority white property owners and brokers to deny rental or purchasable housing or land to people of color, particularly African Americans.

    The severe consequences of blatant segregationist policies and practices—the development of homeowner associations, neighborhood watches, real estate, mortgage, and insurance schemes to primarily keep blacks out of white neighborhoods—were in sum too numerous, onerous, and untenable to maintain against the turning tide toward racial desegregation.

    Relatedly, the LBJ appointed Kerner Commission’s Report sought to identify, define, and posit supportive recommendations to address the causes of African American urban unrest, turmoil, and riots. A Smithsonian showcase of the reports resides in the collections of the newly opened National Museum of African American History. The following from it pointedly sums up the horrendous variables the report identified and sought to address:

    “Bad policing practices, a flawed justice system, unscrupulous consumer credit practices, poor or inadequate housing, high unemployment, voter suppression, and other culturally embedded forms of racial discrimination all converged to propel violent upheaval on the streets of African American neighborhoods in American cities, north and south, east and west. And as black unrest arose, inadequately trained police officers and National Guard troops entered affected neighborhoods, often worsening violence.”

    Through 2018 eyes, the collision of any two or three of these variables would obviously culminate into understandable social upset and urgent demands for redress. Perhaps what was most startling and controversial, however, about the report was its clear and definitive identification of white racism as a direct cause of the problems at hand:

    “White society is deeply implicated in the ghetto. White institutions created it, white institutions maintained it, and white society condones it.” It was further posited that the nation would become so divided, it was “poised to fracture into two radically unequal societies—one black, one white.”

    50 years later, the summary of the report’s intended impacts and the FHA remain broadly lacking in definitive results. The dynamics between race and poverty may have changed only slightly for African Americans and other racial minorities, but they still persist against a lack of organized political will and practical investments in substantial job creation, increased minimum wages, pay equity for women, and tax credits that are proven to lift families and communities out of poverty. This current administration’s posture to undermine, if not totally reverse or erase, declarative actions charged to federal agencies, such as the Department of Housing and Urban Development, provides little to no hope that any further advances are to be made to rectify with urgency these social ills.
    The affordable housing crisis in the state of California is not immune to the implications and consequences of development rooted in bygone regressive, segregationist policies and practices. As debates ensue regarding various legislative proposals to address the need to build more affordable housing, aside from the usual political bomb throws against proponents’ speculated alignment with or representation of developer interests over the public’s trust, what gets easily and conveniently lost is the fact that much of the mess in which we currently find ourselves still lies within widely applied practices that can result in segregated residential patterns. Affordable housing has sadly become code for inviting the undesirable, and undeserving, into an exclusive sanctity.

    Perhaps foremost among those practices are neighborhood organizations that exist to protect property values, preservation of neighborhood character, transit impacts, etc. Gated community NIMBY-ism too often still serves to keep the right people in, and the wrong people out. While race may appear to play a lesser role than socioeconomic status (apparent affordability) of preferred residents and neighbors, the social, political, and economic effects of their actual influences and culpability as silent vestiges of institutional racism should be further examined in relation to compromising fair housing and urban development towards promoting desegregated communities over the past half century.

    The political will is as necessary today as it was in 1968 to prevent another 50 years of “good neighborly” resistance in traditionally declared untouchable zip code areas toward realizing the greater social benefits of racially and socioeconomically diverse communities. After all, a house divided cannot stand—especially if the social foundation upon which it is built is faulty.

    Andrea Shorter is President of the historic San Francisco Commission on the Status of Women. She is a longtime advocate for criminal and juvenile justice reform, voter rights, and marriage equality. A Co-founder of the Bayard Rustin LGBT Coalition, she was a 2009 David Bohnett LGBT Leadership Fellow at the Harvard Kennedy School of Government.