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Segregation in New Jersey, Neither Chance nor Accident

Message to governor, argues author and fair-housing advocate, lead the push to truly integrate the Garden State

richard Rothstein
Richard Rothstein, distinguished fellow of the Economic Policy Institute and author of “The Color of Law”

New Jersey’s segregated housing pattern is the result of decades of government-sponsored policies, and it will take a new civil rights movement to begin to integrate the state. Even better: Gov. Phil Murphy should lead the effort.

That’s the opinion of Richard Rothstein, distinguished fellow of the Economic Policy Institute and author of “The Color of Law.” He was speaking to about 300 civil rights and fair-housing advocates at Seton Hall Law School on Wednesday.

“I would tell him (Murphy) to acknowledge on behalf of the state of New Jersey that we have an unconstitutional segregation of housing and ask him to begin to educate the constituents to take action,” Rothstein said. “I’d ask him to be a moral leader and explain to the people of New Jersey how this happened, take responsibility for it, and ask the people of New Jersey for help changing it,” he added.

Rothstein was responding to the question of how he would counsel Murphy to act on the problem of housing segregation in New Jersey, considered among the most segregated states in the nation. He headlined a public policy forum titled The Color of Law and Ending Segregation and Advancing Fair Housing in New Jersey, discussing the history of segregation and government’s role in it and steps to take to try to integrate the state and the nation. And, he argued, integration is something that must be done.

“It is essential for the health of our country and our self-respect as a constitutional democracy,” Rothstein said.

The forum was sponsored by the law school, Monarch Housing Associates, the Anti-Poverty Network of New Jersey and the New Jersey Institute for Social Justice.

Going by the book

Rothstein shared with the audience the findings in his book, “The Color of Law: A Forgotten History of How Government Segregated America,” saying that few Americans know why every metropolitan area in the country is segregated. People can’t correct this injustice until they understand what it is and how it happened, he commented.

“All of us accept this as part of the natural environment,” he said. “We knew segregation was wrong, we knew it was harmful to blacks and whites. We knew it was immoral … It’s not that we tried to abolish it and never succeeded. We never tried.”

Rothstein said most people believe that residential segregation was different from the segregation of schools or lunch counters in that they think it “happened by accident” for any number of reasons, some economic, some social, some institutional. But that’s not the case.

In the early-to-mid-1900s, metropolitan areas were at least broadly integrated because all the jobs were in urban areas; workers, both white and African-American, all walked or took a street car to get to work. Then government took two major actions that led to segregation.

Segregation by design

The first began with the construction of large-scale public housing developments in the 1930s. These were not, as many see them today, built for those with low incomes. Instead, they were meant for middle-class workers who could afford a home, but none were being built by the private sector due to the Depression. So as part of the New Deal, the government built projects across the country. These were explicitly segregated, according to Rothstein. For instance, the former Baxter Terrace development built in Newark in 1941 and torn down six years ago, contained buildings for whites only at its front and blacks only toward the back.

The second was after World War II, when the Federal Housing Administration guaranteed mortgages for hundreds of developments with thousands of single-family homes in the suburbs. Rothstein described this program as a “racially explicit program designed to suburbanize the population into white communities.” To get FHA approval, a builder had to make an “explicit commitment never to sell a home to an African-American or rent to an African-American,” Rothstein said. Homes were also deed-restricted.

“This was the official, written policy of the Federal Housing Administration,” he said.

The FHA’s underwriting manual prohibited the awarding of loans in neighborhoods that were in or near black neighborhoods or those with “incompatible racial elements.” This was in conjunction with the process known as “redlining,” which began in the 1930s when federal underwriters drew lines around neighborhoods in cities across the country and colored in red those areas that were deemed “hazardous” for bank lending because of the presence of African-Americans or European immigrants, especially Jews. A recent investigation by Reveal from The Center for Investigative Reporting found that redlining continues today. “Indeed, there was systematic, coordinated policy to create the racial segregation we see all around us,” Rothstein said. “Public housing and the Federal Housing Administration are primarily responsible for the segregation we see today.”

Not-so-fair housing

The topic is especially timely in New Jersey, where more than 200 municipalities have court-approved housing plans that provide for the construction of thousands of low- and moderate-income homes to satisfy their obligations under the state Supreme Court’s Mount Laurel Doctrine. Originating from a court case involving that South Jersey township, the doctrine states that every municipality must provide its fair share of housing needed by those of limited means.

Eliminating exclusionary zoning laws, such as those the court overturned in Mount Laurel, is an important first step in desegregation, Rothstein said, but “desegregation is not the same as building affordable housing.” Municipalities can and should go further, he argued, saying that government could subsidize African-Americans’ movement into affordable housing built in the suburbs, for instance.

He offered a number of suggestions to promote integration. Taking the amount saved from the mortgage-interest tax deductions of those living in segregated communities and holding them in escrow until those municipalities desegregate is one. Increasing the value of federal Section 8 housing vouchers so they could be used in more expensive communities, as President Barack Obama did in a program the Trump administration has been refusing to implement, is another.

Rothstein said that first and foremost, people need to understand how this all happened. He said the most popular American history textbooks simply say that African-Americans found themselves forced into living in segregated neighborhoods, giving no explanation of how that happened.

“So long as we believe this happened by accident, there is no way government will enact policies to uncreate it, to integrate the country,” he said. “We need to begin to have conversations leading to aggressive policy steps to begin desegregating the country.”

And there needs to be a new civil rights movement mobilized around residential segregation, to build support for change. Currently, Rothstein said, “There is no political will to do this.”

Others who participated in a panel discussion offered different solutions to the problem, including lobbying elected officials, going out to vote, and telling those in office that voting for or against them depends on where they stand on the issue.

“Show up at your town council meetings and zoning-board meetings where not in my backyard is alive and well,” said Paula Franzese, a Seton Hall law professor. “Listen to the angry cacophony of voices saying Mount Laurel will not come here and say, ‘Yes, it will; yes, it must.’”

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