How Public Policy Intentionally Segregated American Homeowners
Our homes are racially segregated, and not by accident. Jessica Trounstine finds that cities actively created segregation through zoning and urban renewal, worsening their public services. As soon as segregation was threatened, white homeowners fled to the suburbs. Chloe Thurston finds that the federal government decided to subsidize the private mortgage market, rather than focus on public housing. But advocacy groups for racial minorities, women, and the poor did make some progress addressing discrimination behind the scenes. Local and federal policy produced our unique American housing market, including pitfalls that are still with us today.
Grossmann: This week on Political Research Digest, how policy made Americans segregated homeowners. For the Niskanen Center, I’m Matt Grossmann. Our homes are economically and racially segregated and not by accident. Local and federal policy contributed to our unique housing market and who was excluded from the benefits.
The stories of white flight to suburbs understate the early role of local zoning and urban development, but those left out of the housing market also had real agency in changing policy helping to overcome discrimination in the mortgage market.
Today I talk to Jessica Trounstine of the University of California Merced about her New Cambridge book, Segregation By Design. She finds that cities actively created segregation worsening their public services only to lose white homeowners to the suburbs as soon as their internal segregation was threatened. And those boundaries still matter for our voting today.
I also talked to Chloe Thurston of Northwestern University about her New Cambridge book, At The Boundaries of Homeownership. She finds that the federal government set us on a track towards subsidizing the private mortgage market rather than the providing public housing.
But advocacy groups for racial minorities, women and the poor did make some progress expanding the market even though the discriminatory policies were hidden from public view. Both say politics and policy are too often left out of the conventional stories. For Trounstine, those policies created segregation, which made us unequal.
Trounstine: The main take away from the book is that local governments through their control over land use and their policies of zoning, land use regulation, and redevelopment have created segregation along race and class lines in the United States and this segregation then produces inequality in access to government benefits, like well paved roads, good schools, clean and useful parks as well as clean water. All of the things that governments provide becomes segregated as well as residences when we have race and class segregation.
Grossmann: For Thurston, the politics are so hidden Americans don’t even realize how odd our housing market is.
Thurston: The most important take away of the book to non-academic audiences is really just the fact that mortgages have anything to do with politics at all. When I tell people that I’m studying the politics of mortgages and have written a book about it, if they’re still awake long enough to ask a follow up question, they’re pretty skeptical that their mortgage has anything to do with politics and one of the things is, if you think about it, is actually kind of absurd how mortgages work in the U.S.
So I want to buy something, a house, it costs multiple times my income and I go to a stranger and I tell them that I want to put a tiny amount of money down. I want to repay them in 30 years, you know a lot can change in 30 years, I could lose my job, could change my job. And I also want to pay the same interest rate over that entire 30 years unless interest rates go down, in which case I want to repay my loan immediately and refinance it.
This is a pretty absurd amount of risk for any lender to agree to. Interest rates could change, I could lose my job, lots of things could happen in 30 years, and yet it’s really American right? This is just the norm. We take for granted that this would be available, and it’s not the case in any other country.
You’re usually expected to pay a higher down payment, pay a penalty if you wanted to refinance, and usually your interest rate fluctuates with the market which makes a lot of sense. So we largely take this for granted and the system exists largely because the federal government decided in the 1930s to enable it to exist.
Grossmann: The conventional wisdom about segregation is mostly driven by a debate between economics and sociology says Trounstine.
Trounstine: And most of the work on segregation has been conducted by economists and sociologists and their work is incredibly powerful and deep and meaningful and we know an enormous amount about segregation, particularly the economic and sociological aspects of segregation from these scholars but we know relatively little about the politics of segregation and that’s where my book comes in.
So political science has been essentially silent for a lot of this debate and at the local politics level there has been not very much written about the local political contributors to segregation. We know some about the federal politics and policies that have contributed to segregation but my book really comes in and says “What is happening on the ground at the local level?”
So the economic story is that people from different racial and ethnic backgrounds have different socioeconomic statuses right? So whites are wealthier in the United States relative to blacks and Latinos over the history of the United States, and this allows whites to live in wealthier neighborhoods, and prevents blacks and Latinos from living in wealthier neighborhoods.
And the story goes that this is essentially how we get race and class segregation. There’s another story, the sort of sociological story suggests that many whites in the United States are racist and have preferences to live only among white neighbors. Now both of those stories are accurate.
We do have socioeconomic differences across racial and ethnic groups in the United States and we do have a great deal of inequality in income and wealth levels in the United States. We also have a history of racism and preferences to live among white neighbors for some white residents.
Where my book comes in is to say although those accounts are correct, they’re insufficient for explaining the patterns of segregation that we have and they’re insufficient for explaining change over time. And the missing piece here is that its local governments that create the opportunity for groups to segregate along these lines by building housing in certain places and not in others.
By placing public benefits in some places and not in others, and public nuisances in some places and not in others. Local governments have the power to determine which neighborhoods are accessible to white and wealthy residents and protected for white and wealthy residents, and which are not.
Grossmann: And the public also seems to define the debate about the role of economic decisions versus racism.
Trounstine: My sense is that we have moved to a place, particularly in the white public where people believe that these choices, that the choices that they make about housing are really about what they can afford.
So they live in a nicer place because they can afford it, not because they’re participating in racist behavior. So I would say my general sense, and I don’t have a lot of data on this but my general sense is that particularly in the white public, the economic story is most compelling.
I think people of color are much more easily persuaded to believe that racism plays a big role in the sorting process, but I think that neither of these perspectives really takes into account the local politics and local policies that create these outcomes.
Although there are lots of people who understand that zoning and land use regulation and redevelopment have played a role in segregation. It’s just that the conventional wisdom doesn’t talk about those things first.
Grossmann: In the mortgage market, Thurston says that conventional wisdom is that it’s a technical field where only the economic actors influence policy.
Thurston: Sort of a submerged state and so it’s exactly the kind of area where we would expect the main architects and influencers to come from the industry and we would assume that a lot of people don’t, sort of ordinary citizens don’t really mobilize in these areas. They don’t even recognize the role of the government.
So that’s why my research intervenes both in the scholarly literature and then also in some conventional understandings. It challenges that view first by showing that the mortgage industry itself, at least the dominant players were very loudly opposed to the very idea of a 30 year fixed rate mortgage, which again we take for granted now. They thought this was absurdly risky.
This was something that was proposed during the great depression, right after risky lending created the worst at the time, financial crisis in the United States. So they were very concerned about this, they lost this battle and they were also very concerned about later policies to alter lending rules including outlawing redlining and sex discrimination.
So in some sense the players that you would think that would have been the most active were against these changes, which is surprising and challenges some of the conventional wisdom. And then the other area, the other thing that my research finds is that while it turns out that mortgages do have these hidden and submerged qualities for a lot of folks who benefit pretty seamlessly from the government’s role here.
For those who don’t, those who have difficulty getting access to credit on these standard, mainstream terms, it’s actually a very politicized area. So in many activities of the American State might be hidden in some way but they’re not hidden from all and they’re not de-politicized just because they’re hidden from public view.
Grossmann: Both Trounstine and Thurston bring politics back to the story and both authors set the stage going quite far back in history. Trounstine tracks how cities became major providers of public services to address real problems, but in the process, became dependent on white property owners.
Trounstine: In the early part of the 1800s, cities were just developing. At that time most of the United States population lived in small villages and on farms. We were an agricultural nation for most of the 1800s. But cities started to grow in the middle of the 1800s and that really took off in the latter part of the 1800s and the early part of the 1900s.
And as cities became bigger and gathered population from the countryside and immigrants from around the world, they became really gross places to live. And in some of the early writings you can really feel, they were stinky, they were overwhelmed with garbage and people were dying. People were dying because they were drinking polluted water, they didn’t have access to clean milk from the countryside and there were no sewer systems.
Also, many cities had enormous problems with massive fires conflagrations which would burn blocks to the ground within seconds. So cities at that time had to decide, are we going to collectively try to do something about our state of affairs or not? And a lot of the early history at this time makes it clear that the decision to provide collective goods was not an obvious decision. We were a country that was very heavily reliant on private provision of fire forces and night watchman and wells.
But the business community that was sort of part of the industrial revolution in the United States really pushed to encourage cities to develop these public goods and homeowners, property owners played a big role in this. From the beginning we have been a country, had a lot of property speculation, a lot of valuation of property has been part of the development of growth and of wealth in the United States.
So these joint processes of property valuation as well as a desperate need to determine whether or not we were gonna provide collective goods led the charge to have city governments become providers of public goods, and they start building water systems and sewer systems and picking up garbage and providing schooling for elementary school children. Lighting streets, paving streets, a lot of these different things that we sort of take for granted that cities do now started in the middle part of the 1800s and really ramped up in the early part of the 1900s.
At the same time, property owners were gaining wealth from having increased value for their properties, cities were also gaining more property taxes as property values increased. So there was a joint effort that led to these developments and from the beginning, white property owners were very powerful players in this process and drivers of this process.
Grossmann: Thurston tracks how the federal government created the American mortgage market but kept it privately subsidized.
Thurston: The most important federal policy in the housing market, at least as it relates to mortgages and mortgages as we know them, is the Federal Housing Administration, which is part of the National Housing Act of 1934 and Fannie Mae which was created in 1938.
And these two policies, the policy that created the FHA and Fannie Mae, respectively created government loan insurance. Insuring private lenders against default and a secondary market in which private lenders could resell their loans to further reduce the risk. So this provided a big incentive for lenders to adopt a 30 year fixed rate mortgage which was otherwise unimaginable to them, and to adopt it on a very large scale.
So initially though the National Housing Act actually had very little to do with housing despite it’s name and it had everything to do with unemployment. So if you rewind to this point in time, this is still during the great depression, employment in a lot of sectors has begun to rebound but one area where it hasn’t is construction.
There was still some two million unemployed construction workers in 1934 and the Roosevelt administration was concerned about how to revitalize construction employment and so they came to view the housing market as one possible route forward.
There were years of deferred maintenance due to the great depression, so there was some demand, latent demand for housing repairs, and for new housing, but the problem was that banks were not able to lend. They actually had money at this point that they could have lended but for a variety of reasons they were unable to actually lend it to borrowers.
At the same time the government didn’t necessarily want to loan directly to people either. One of the sets of conversations that I unearthed while I was doing this project was that it might create a moral hazard where people become less likely to repay if they thought that their loan was something that was coming from the government instead of a private lender.
So that’s sort of how they ended up with this system. The other reality was that it was just a lot easier to accommodate existing businesses and industries than for the government to try to actually replicate that task itself. So they created instead of direct loan program, an alternative where they provide insurance to lenders to extend lends to citizens.
So the idea of the housing act and the FHA was to insure lenders against default risk as a way to spur construction demand and to solve the unemployment crisis in that sector. And one of the reasons that its been so stable is for the same reason it was created in the first place which is that it keeps construction jobs flowing. It keeps the real estate market booming and there are a lot of concerns politically about any sort of policy that would slow down the activity in the sector.
Grossmann: Other countries prioritize public housing rather than long term fixed rate mortgages.
Thurston: So one thing that we ended up doing more than at least our European counterparts is locating housing for middle class citizens in this government backed housing market. Around the same time, 1930s and in the decades preceding that, other countries thought that maybe if they could also support middle class rental markets more including subsidized housing for middle class citizens.
So in Germany for example, it wasn’t really that unusual for even a professional to be living in what could be called public housing this is also true in the Netherlands. The term public housing means something a little bit different, it doesn’t necessarily have the same pejorative meaning as it does in the U.S. but that’s also because it was seen as an option that was viable. Not just for the lowest income of citizens but also middle class and professionals.
So that was one route, was to do more to support public housing and to make it a non means tested program the way that the U.S. did. This in a way, I mean the other was just to sort of focus more on private rental markets too. The idea of supporting home ownership to the extent that the U.S. does just doesn’t travel to many other national contexts or to the extent that it does, the institutions for enabling it.
Grossmann: That policy background set the stage for big battles and cities. Trounstine tracks two major policies that built segregation. Zoning and urban renewal.
Trounstine: The focus on zoning and urban renewal really came out of reading early histories of how cities went about planning for their futures and it became clear to me that basically immediately city planners, people who were interested in charting the geographic development of the city were big fans of zoning.
And by zoning I mean drawing the city up into places where separate uses can occur. So we have some parts of the city for residential location, we have some parts of the city for business location. Sometimes we have intermingled uses but zoning is what determines what goes where in a city and what can be built in a particular location.
So zoning, the first zoning laws were actually not about keeping stinky factories away from residential areas. They were in fact about regulating racial and ethnic groups and some of the earliest zoning laws come out of San Francisco where we have the city of San Francisco regulating where Chinese residents can live and where they cannot live.
We have other examples in the south where cities are determining where black residents can live and where they cannot live. And these early zoning rules sort of ran the gamut from economic distinctions, where we can put apartment buildings and where we can’t to these racial distinctions.
In the early 1900s the Supreme Court rules racial zoning unconstitutional and so all of the zoning that follows that early Supreme Court decision basically relies on economic zoning in order to produce all of the different goals that the zoners wanted to produce.
Be they racial segregation or economic segregation or just business residential segregation. Urban renewal comes in because it is the next bit moment and new kinds of policy that’s happening at the local level, starting in the 1930s, cities under great strain from the depression are trying to figure out how to reinvigorate their economies as well as take care of many, many residents who are in poverty.
And they embark on these programs of urban renewal to both invigorate the economy and house unhoused people. And the process of urban renewal takes the same patterns as the earlier patterns of the zoning did which is that they reinforce and then generate new forms of segregation within cities.
Grossmann: She says most of today’s focus is about how we got segregated suburbs but it all started within central cities.
Trounstine: When the highways get built and people who want to move out of the central city are able to move to the suburbs and suburbs become service providers on their own as home ownership becomes increasingly available in the suburbs, we see this process of segregation move from within cities to across cities and then fairly rapidly adopt the exact same policies that the cities had adopted previously to segregate not just neighborhoods but their whole city.
So I don’t see my explanation as being independent of these other explanations at all. In fact, they’re very closely related, its just that these other patterns of home ownership, highways, increasing inequality have not taken into consideration the mechanisms by which this segregation actually plays out on the ground.
Grossmann: Then federal politics and local politics linked to create suburban segregation.
Trounstine: I think that none of this was inevitable. There are two factors that are occurring at the same time that are reinforcing. One is that the federal government is underwriting a massive exodus to the suburbs and they’re doing this in an effort to sure up the construction market and the housing mortgage market as well as building this massive highway system.
This allows people to move out to the suburbs but they’re only allowing certain people to move out to the suburbs because of a lot of different mechanisms that were built into these processes, they were racist and people of color could not get the same kinds of housing loans that whites could to move out to the suburbs.
So we create this massive suburbanization process that’s underwritten for white residents and it does not allow people of color the same access to that opportunity. People of color are at the same time, there’s the growing civil rights movement and there is increasing victory for people of color within central cities and I show that there’s this period of time where there’s lots of people of color running for office but actually losing at the beginning of the civil rights movement.
And then eventually people of color begin to win election to office. So I don’t see that this is an either or sort of story but it’s a both sort of story. We have whites being pulled to the suburbs, being underwritten by these federal policies, at the same time we have the rising civil rights movement and people of color finally gaining more political power within central cities.
And ultimately what I find, what I argue is that it’s easier to control politics in the suburbs. So if you want to create a homogeneous neighborhood, you have to fight for control of the city government to do that. If you lose control of the city government there is no more ability to create that homogeneous neighborhood.
But if you move to the suburbs and you take control of the whole city government you don’t have to worry about creating homogenous neighborhoods, you could make a homogenous city. And you can do that by implementing zoning and land use regulations that prevent people of color, or at least make it very difficult for people of color to move into your city.
Grossmann: And Trounstine finds that segregation has real negative consequences for the whole area.
Trounstine: So we have segregation that’s between neighborhoods within a city and what I find is that, that kind of segregation reduces the overall level of public goods provision in a city. So if you have a more segregated community, what you have is a place where neighborhoods are less likely to essentially cooperate.
And we see a lack of investment in all sorts of public goods. We have roads and policing and parks and sewers and water are all depressed in these kinds of segregated place, and one of the pieces of evidence I show is that segregated cities have much higher rates of sewer overflows.
And this is a nice piece of evidence because everybody hates sewer overflows, so you don’t … we would never want to argue that some places are okay with having sewer overflows and that’s why they under provide for their sewer systems, no. That’s an unbelievable stance to take.
So assuming that everybody wants to have as few sewer overflows as possible, we can say that segregated cities are doing less well at providing public goods. We can also say that segregated metropolitan areas where we have more segregation happening across city lines, we see increased inequality in who has access to public services.
And this is a story that I think is pretty well known. We have some cities that are all white and some cities that are basically all people of color and those cities have very different levels of service provision. And that links it back to my original interest in writing this book.
Grossmann: And it creates a vicious cycle that’s very hard to reverse because segregation creates property owners intent on protecting it, but the extent may be dependent on geography.
Trounstine: Segregation is self reinforcing and its self reinforcing at a whole bunch of different levels. Once you give people access to a neighborhood that has high property values and you assert that you’re going to do something that’s gonna threaten those high property values the political backlash is absolutely enormous.
It’s much easier to maintain segregation than it is to undo it and we have seen a layering of land use regulations across the United States that have only increased and exacerbated segregation overall, on average. Now the question of is there any way out of this cycle or are there some cities that are doing better? The answer to that is a contingent yes.
Grossmann: Trounstine’s book begins with a graphic novel about a couple deciding where to live. She says individual decisions matter but it’s hard to go up against institutionalized segregation.
Trounstine: The institutional racism that is created by these land use policies is basically not un-doable by individuals. Its only un-doable by an institutional structure and that is government. So if we think that these beliefs about test scores and who makes a good neighbor and which neighborhoods are gonna have a lot of crime, are actually rooted in the process of institutional racism.
The only way to get out of that is to undo the institutional racism. So, I agree with you that the graphic novel sort of allows the couple to sort of feel okay about themselves but ultimately the answer is not for more people to make individual level decisions. Although we should make individual level decisions that decrease segregation, the root of the problem will not be solved until we fix the institutional racism.
Grossmann: Minority city politics helped reinforce suburbanization Trounstine says. But it wasn’t the primary driver.
Trounstine: The desire to fight racist policies within the city is an important driver of the political decisions that get made in the cities and that contributes in part to white flight. Is one of the arguments that I make and that whites see black political power as threatening to their ability to maintain segregation and it makes suburbs all the more attractive.
But I don’t want to say that the politics of central cities is the predominant driver of suburbanization, it’s not, the data that I have wouldn’t support that.
The bigger driver of suburbanization are the federal policies like the mortgage policies and the building of the federal highways.But the local politics in the central cities contributes to the sense that the suburbs are a more welcoming place for people who want to maintain homogeneity.
Grossmann: Home ownership policies at the federal level were also critical. Chloe Thurston tracked them from the beginning, finding very early engagement from the NAACP and the urban league to influence them both publicly and privately.
Thurston: I’m really exploring the pre history here. This is before the Fair Housing Act and the community reinvestment movements. It is really in the 30s and 40s and 50s and the way I characterize what the NAACP did was sort of a process of discovery and also a letter writing campaign.
So in the 1930s, right after the FHA was established and actually became operational, lenders in the FHA were pretty cagey about divulging what their underwriting criteria were and particularly when it came to issues of race. They flat out denied that they used any racial criteria in these decisions.
Now in retrospect we know that they did. At-Nehisi Coates has publicized a lot of the research into this and so has Richard Rothstein. So it’s really, it’s part of the public discourse now but it wasn’t then. And so this made it very difficult for the NAACP to really wrap its head around what was happening.
They knew that local real estate markets were already pretty discriminatory but it seemed like something else was happening too after the FHA was established. So the book documents this one moment in 1938 where a white acquaintance of the assistant secretary of the NAACP, Roy Wilkins tips off the organization. He had this acquaintance.
He’s not named in the letters that I looked at but was sort of listed as having some knowledge of the FHA and being linked to it. Tipped off the NAACP about the existence of a policy that FHA had to restrict access to blacks. So they said this existed, you might want to look into it but also don’t attack them outright. Avoid a full frontal attack or direct inquiry.
So the NAACP investigates this, they gather what they think is irrefutable evidence of racial discrimination before they confront the FHA and later FDR in writing and while there’s a little bit of publicity around this in the black press, it’s not a mass campaign. It mostly happens below the radar.
These letters between the NAACP leadership and the FHA leadership and the president about these specific ways that FHA policy is restricting access to mortgage credit for blacks. They also, the NAACP, has a decade long crusade against restrictive covenants and this goes through the courts, this is a bit more public but that campaign is followed by another behind the scenes campaign after the Supreme Court rules against the legality of restrictive covenants with Shelly vs. Kramer in 1948.
And that behind the scenes campaign gets the FHA to actually honor the court’s ruling which it had refused to do. And then one final way, at least in this particular case these advocates mobilized and this pertains more to the urban league. Well the urban league exploited its own connections to different businesses and business associations to try to get lenders and builders and realtors but they weren’t successful there to become more entrusted in minority housing issues.
They set up minority housing committees and they pointed out to these organizations the opportunities that were in this housing market that they had been overlooking. So the bottom line here is a lot of the activities were behind the scenes, that might be one reason that we don’t know a lot about them. And they tried very deliberately and explicitly not to elevate these things into electoral politics.
And they tried not to have a frontal attack either when they could avoid it. They had some policy wins, the FHA changed its underwriting criteria, it eventually honored the Shelly ruling about restrictive covenants and it even created a new mortgage program specifically for black applicants who had been unable to get funds.
But it wasn’t really enough and, like I mentioned this is sort of the pre-history. There were still these problems that persisted of racial steering and blockbusting. And a lot of this has to do with the fact that white home owners and real estate professionals, both black and white all became invested in this color line in a way that made these changes while real, probably insufficient.
Grossmann:She says a lot of today’s segregation history acts like it was a recent discovery but minorities recognized it from the beginning.
Thurston: There’s been a lot of discussion recently about the idea of red lining and the role of the federal government in explaining durable material, racial inequality in the U.S., wealth and equality in particular and there’s a risk in those discussions of viewing these as recent discoveries.
Like there was this mystery about wealth and equality between black and white households and now we finally solved it. And one of the things that the book does is by looking at the pre history, it shows that we didn’t actually just discover this right now.
Advocates discovered this in real time as it was happening. It certainly raises questions about why we think we discovered it now and I think part of this is related to the stealthy political responses that advocates took to these problems. Other parts are related to the fact that these are still durable problems.
Grossmann: But her story is not just about racial discrimination. She also tracked the 1970s movement of women’s organizations to transform mortgage law.
Thurston: The real big challenge here with the women’s movement was that they actually just needed to convince women, and by they I mean advocates like the National Organization for Women that credit discrimination against women was actually a thing.
Most people just didn’t realize that this was a problem or an issue. If they couldn’t get a loan, or they found their access constrained, for example, it’s pretty normal to be asked to provide a letter from your gynecologist saying that you were on birth control, they just thought that was kind of normal.
That there was maybe some actuarial basis for that treatment and that there was really nothing political that could be done with it. So here the real challenge was actually convincing women that they were being discriminated against and that there was something that could be done about it in the political system.
So NOW in particular, launched this national campaign in women’s magazines to educate readers about these issues. They placed all of these articles in magazines like Ms and Ladies Home Journal and McCall’s explaining what gender discrimination looked like in lending and asking women to write in.
Actually one of the letters that I came across was from a young Ruth Bader Ginsburg who wrote in to discuss her challenges getting access to a credit card in her own name. But they generated a lot of publicity around the idea of sex discrimination and were able to frame it as being something that was irrational and not economically sound.
And they were able to find these great examples too that pointed to the absurdity of lenders beliefs and attitudes towards women at the time. So this is very different from the NAACP in that this is out in the open, its highly publicized at the time and its pretty successful too.
They secure legislation outlying sex discrimination pretty quickly in a matter of one to two years depending on how you count. And the other thing they do too is they mobilize at the agency level like the NAACP does to respond to drafts of regulations. And this move actually floors the bank.
I think they were surprised and caught off guard that these advocacy organizations would have so much ability to operate at the regulatory level in these very and mundane areas. And again they were pretty successful in even making sure that the regulators acted in the way that they thought they needed to in order to implement these new laws.
Grossmann: And even though the policies were often hidden from public view that may have actually helped the advocates.
It’s not necessarily a bad thing for these things to happen quietly and its possible for political contestation to happen quietly in areas that are not well recognized as being political in the first place.
So both the African American civil rights advocates and the low income housing advocates who were in this, they didn’t want to draw too much attention to what they were doing initially because they were worried that, that could generate some sort of public backlash that could end up hurting their cause. So in a weird way, the relative invisibility of these different areas actually provided them … it was actually kind of an ideal circumstance. So one that’ll …
Grossmann: She finds surprising influence but says discrimination still often moved elsewhere despite policy success.
Thurston: I think these were more effective at the time than we give them credit for. Maybe hinges on how you define and measure effectiveness but I think a very reasonable definition is, did these help to change laws and policies?
And they did and the links between these strategies and the decisions and attention that those who had the decision making power gave to these different changes suggests that they did have a role in changing policies.
So yeah, I think they were more effective than we gave them credit for. I think there’s a caveat, this is where I become the Debbie Downer again but they also, even when they were successful sometimes they pushed discrimination to new areas.
So they might have outlawed it or changed policies but they could also help to recreate discrimination in new ways or at least they couldn’t prevent it from happening. In new ways that were more difficult to detect and difficult to challenge.
Grossmann: Chloe Thurston’s story fits well with Jessica Trounstine’s because the national government tended to reinforce local policies.
Thurston: I think that pretty largely aligns with Trounstine’s arguments and findings at least as I understand them. So a lot of the land use policies that local governments used were adopted by federal underwriters or at least were approved of by federal underwriters as ways to signal that a property was in a good, insurable neighborhood that would be likely to promote high property values over time.
So FHA thought zoning was a good way to protect property values. They liked the sorts of shopping centers and parks and other amenities that Trounstine talks about. So FHA standards largely reflected a lot of those ideas that were developed at local levels and that local governments helped to put in place these ideas about what kept property values stable.
They didn’t emerge out of nowhere. They started off in these local contexts. At the same time I think that national policies and regulations might have helped to ossify some of these ideas about property values and their relationship to segregation and to make it more likely that they’d be adopted in more places, and maybe less likely that they would be able to change very quickly over time. So some of this had to do with timing.
Grossmann: But Trounstine says now the challenge is that local governments can’t reverse segregation without help from governments above.
Trounstine: We have seen massive changes in the patterns of segregation over time and one of the stories that was highlighted in the 1990 and 2000 census is that we saw a dramatic decrease in segregation within cities. But at the same time we have seen an increase in segregation across city lines and that is what has been stable.
So even though cities within themselves have become less segregated, we’ve seen this very powerful sticky stable suburban segregation existing and the only way to address that type of segregation is to go up to a higher level of government and to have states force suburbs to build more and different kinds of housing and to police their zoning processes in a different way.
Grossmann: Even though Thurston sees more effective influence by minority groups she agrees that they were not able to solve the problem, just tinker at the edges of the system.
Thurston: I think there is something a little bit limiting about the strategies that these groups were pursuing. They did essentially accommodate the market, they weren’t challenging it too much.
So I think it’s kind of fair to say that they were making it a little less racist and a little less sexist but they weren’t fundamentally transforming anything. And one implication was that because they wanted these incremental changes, they couldn’t really advocate for their constituents who actually would have been too risky for lenders to lend to.
So this meant poor women and low income African Americans kind of fell out of the advocacy efforts in those two chapters that I looked at the racial discrimination one and the sex discrimination one.
And even in the case of the low income home ownership project, you know, eventually the National Council of Negro Women had to come to the conclusion that theoretically poverty shouldn’t disqualify someone from being safe to extend home ownership.
That in reality there weren’t very many people who were poor and still fit the profile of being able to participate in this program successfully. You still had to have a stable income and it still needed to be high enough to be able to weather any sort of uncertainties. So they did hit that reality that theoretically this might work but in reality there just weren’t enough people that met those theoretical conditions.
Grossmann: So where do we go from here? Trounstine says despite Democrat’s new found success in the suburbs, conservative white enclaves built by segregation and determined to maintain it are still here to stay.
Trounstine: That white precincts, white neighborhoods that were very white in the 1970s are very conservative today and I think that, that’s still true. But our suburbs are diversifying and we have several fairly recent, excellent political science works showing the diversification of particularly inner ring suburbs has been happening now for the last 20 years and as the diversification of these suburbs occurs we can expect changing patterns of politics.
Whether there are people, these white, these extremely homogenous white conservative enclaves, neighborhoods that have become more Democratic in this last election, I suppose it’s possible but I don’t have the data yet to know whether or not that’s true. I know that in California a lot of the blue wave explanation, particularly in conservative places, say in southern California has to do more with demographics rather than people changing their minds.
Grossmann: Thurston hopes that disadvantaged groups can learn from the influence from their predecessors helping to make the consequences of policy visible.
Thurston: The groups and organizations that I look at here, they played a very important role in making the state’s role in the market something that was otherwise viewed as not being at all related to government legible. And they did that because that’s what they needed to do in order to have some sort of rationale for contesting it.
For pushing for new policy changes. And it took a while, there were some setbacks but in certain ways that strategy of drawing attention to the role of the state in order to contest it was reasonably effective. And this is something that it seems like activists have learned from and have used that strategy over time. You see it in the Black Lives Matter movement for example.
These are very different movements but the way the all in activists used video cameras to draw attention to African Americans very different interactions with police, is something that helps to cast doubt on earlier explanations for disparities in police violence and in incarceration as well. And that’s a way that they have worked to generate support for policy change.
Grossmann: And there’s always more research to do. Trounstine is working to find out whether people with conservative views are selecting into their white enclaves or if they are influenced by their surroundings once they get there.
Trounstine: One thing I cannot disentangle in the book is whether or not living in a particular place causes people to have different viewpoints or whether the type of people who move to that neighborhood would have had those different viewpoints anyway.
And I classify this as trying to disentangle selection versus treatment. And I have a couple of new papers planned where I’m trying to get at this question. Do neighborhoods create attitudes or do people select into neighborhoods that coincide with their attitudes.
Grossmann: And Thurston’s next step is to help explain racial wealth disparities which of course often originated in segregated housing markets.
Thurston: So the next book project kind of starts off where this ended and broadens the scope a little bit too. So this is a lot, this project is about underwriting criteria and the mortgage market. But one of the reasons that people care a lot about housing and particularly as it relates to discrimination has to do with the asset and wealth dimension.
So housing wealth it turns out played a big role in durable patterns of racial and equality and there are also what we know now is there are pretty wide disparities in housing values in white communities versus minority ones and that suggests that perhaps getting access to home ownership which is sort of where I stop my study doesn’t necessarily mean you get the same returns on that access.
So that’s what I’m looking at now. Not just in housing but in a host of other areas that have to do with asset building through public policy. What sorts of … After previously excluded groups are incorporated into these areas, what happens to them?
Grossmann: There’s a lot more to learn. Political Research Digest is available bi-weekly from the Niskanen Center and on iTunes. I’m your host, Matt Grossmann. Thanks to Jessica Trounstine and Chloe Thurston for joining me. Please check out their books, Segregation By Design and At The Boundaries of Homeownership and join us next time.