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"Clean, Safe and High-Value" Neighborhoods Are Nice Ways of Saying "White" Without Bringing Race into It

The law does not forbid segregated or discriminating neighborhoods. It simply forbids intentional discrimination.

The following is an excerpt from Searching for Whitopiaby Rich Benjamin (Hyperion, 2009).

In twenty-first-century America, how do so many Whitopias hatch and flourish?

A few white readers may protest that their neighborhood’s appeal has nothing to do with its racial composition. The homogeneity of where they live is “irrelevant” or “coincidental,” they say. But divorcing a Whitopia’s appeal from its predominantly white composition is like extracting the marshmallow from the s’more. Impossible. Each is fundamental to the other.

Whites may not move to a place simply because it teems with other white people. Rather, to many Americans, a place’s whiteness implies other qualities that are desirable. Americans associate a homogenous white neighborhood with higher property values, friendliness, orderliness, hospitability, cleanliness, safety, and comfort. These seemingly race-neutral qualities are subconsciously inseparable from race and class in many whites’ minds. Race is often used as a proxy for those neighborhood traits.

Through most of the twentieth century, racial discrimination was deliberate and intentional. Today, racial segregation and division often result from habits, policies, and institutions that are not explicitly designed to discriminate. Contrary to popular belief, discrimination or segregation do not require animus. They thrive even in the absence of prejudice or ill will.

It’s common to have racism without “racists.”

The law does not forbid segregated or discriminating neighborhoods. It simply forbids intentional discrimination. Successful plaintiffs in a discrimination lawsuit must prove that someone intended racial bias.

And the legal standard to establish proof of that intent is very high: The plaintiff must present a “smoking gun” and this particular gun is often impossible to furnish. The 1973 Supreme Court decision San Antonio v. Rodriguez held that a school funding system based on local property taxes that perpetuated egregious disparities in per-pupil spending between mostly white districts and mostly minority districts does not violate the Constitution, because the plaintiffs could not prove that the funding differences emerged from intentional racial discrimination. Another landmark Supreme Court decision, Arlington Heights v. Metropolitan Housing Development Corp (1977), reinforced this “intent doctrine”: The court ruled that a suburban village did not discriminate, because it did not intend to discriminate when it set-up zoning that disproportionately harmed racial minorities.

There is a terrible disconnect between our everyday experiences and the law: In day-to-day life, racial inequity continues without intent, yet courts require evidence of intent before the law can acknowledge or effectively confront discrimination. Regrettably, the absence of explicit intent has become a common crutch that justifies private decisions that wreak racial havoc upon minorities.

Not to know what has been transacted in the past is to be always a child
, said Cicero.

The history of the U.S. housing market shows the corrosive influence of discriminatory public policy on private decision-making: For many decades, private lenders, neighborhoods, and citizens adopted intolerant public policies. Discriminatory government behavior was aped by the public, and blended seamlessly into the “free market.” Covert and overt, these segregating and unjust public and private practices made it difficult, if not impossible, for blacks to own homes in broad swaths of America’s suburbs.

From 1934 to 1962, the Federal Housing Administration (FHA) underwrote $120 billion in new housing. Less than 2 percent of that went to nonwhites. From 1938 to 1962, the FHA insured the mortgages on nearly one third of all new housing in the United States. Its Underwriting Manuals, however, considered blacks an “adverse influence” on property values and instructed personnel not to insure mortgages on homes unless they were in “racially homogenous” white neighborhoods. Under its eligibility ranking system, the FHA often refused to lend money to or underwrite loans for whites if they moved to areas where people of color lived. Some scholars now call the government’s handiwork a “$120 billion head start” on white home ownership, on white equity, and on whites’ ability to pass along wealth from one generation to the next.

The private sector then played its part. Banks regularly “redlined,” denying credit to qualified black borrowers. Individuals and neighborhoods, taking the Federal Housing Administration’s cue, maintained “restrictive covenants” to ban blacks from purchasing homes.

Home ownership through a thirty-year mortgage has long been the primary mechanism by which most American families created wealth. So deferred home ownership opportunities have compounded economic disadvantages for racial minorities.

Segregation is no longer codified by law; it is propped up by the “innocuous” and “nonracial” choices local governments and average citizens eagerly make. One warm afternoon, Brian Dill, the vice president for economic development in Forsyth County, Georgia, a lily-white upscale exurb north of Atlanta, tells me that his county has resisted zoning for apartments and condos in fear of future “blight.” A dissenting voice in his county, Dill wishes Forsyth would allow for more varieties of housing in order “to recruit and retain a diverse workforce.” Nationwide, municipal governments enact suburban land-use and zoning policies to promote larger lot development, to sustain private property values, to restrict suburban rental housing, all of which limit the influx of black and Latino households.

Such public and private behavior continues residential segregation, inflicting a double whammy: The residential segregation furthers unacceptable disparities in wealth between the races, and it creates a geography of opportunity, determining who has access to the valuable resources that improve one’s life.

Thirty years after the civil rights era, the United States remains a residentially segregated society in which non-Hispanic whites, Latinos, and blacks inhabit different neighborhoods with a vastly different quality of services and opportunities.

In spite of decades-long income gains among Latinos and blacks, non-Hispanic white households enjoyed a median net worth of $79,400 — eight times the net worth of Latino households and ten times the net worth of black households. Even at similar income levels, significant wealth gaps between the races remain. In terms of wealth, America is now the most unequal country in the industrialized world.

Most Whitopians I encounter don’t purposefully practice racial discrimination and don’t give segregation much thought. Rather, they engage in a form of “opportunity mapping.” Like geocachers on a treasure hunt, they chase communities according to “opportunity indicators”: housing, education, medical facilities, crime rates, perceived sense of safety, outdoor amenities, and social comfort (simpatico values). James, who is over the moon in Whitopia, says he literally created a spreadsheet charting his “wish list” and “won’t list,” then identified five communities congenial to those lists, crunched some numbers, checked the results against his wife’s common-sense sniff test, and settled on Utah’s Dixie.

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