George Romney served as secretary of Housing and Urban Development under Richard Nixon. He set out to dismantle segregation and what he described as a “high income white noose” formed by the suburbs that surrounded black inner cities. Under his Open Communities initiative, he instructed HUD officials to reject applications for sewer and highway projects from cities and states with segregationist policies. He believed that ending residential segregation was “essential if we are going to keep our nation from being torn apart.”\
As Nikole Hannah-Jones reported in a 2012 investigation for ProPublica, Nixon got wind of Romney’s plan and ordered John Ehrlichman, his domestic policy chief, to shut it down.
In a memo to his aides, Nixon later wrote: “I am convinced that while legal segregation is totally wrong that forced integration of housing or education is just as wrong.”
He understood the consequences of his decision: “I realize that this position will lead us to a situation in which blacks will continue to live for the most part in black neighborhoods and where there will be predominately black schools and predominately white schools.” Nixon began to ostracize Romney and eventually drove him out of his administration. Over the next several decades, presidents from both parties followed the Nixon example and declined to use federal muscle in a way that meaningfully promoted housing desegregation.
Ronald Reagan was openly hostile to fair housing goals, as the sociologists Douglas Massey and Nancy Denton have shown in their book, “American Apartheid: Segregation and the Making of the Underclass.” The Justice Department under President Reagan challenged the ability of civil rights activists to sue for fair housing violations. The administration also conspired with the National Association of Realtors to undermine HUD’s already feeble enforcement authority.
Bill Clinton tried to bring pressure to bear on states and localities to further integration. But the bureaucracy at HUD resisted these efforts, and, as usual, the politics of the issue became treacherous.
Mr. Clinton’s second HUD secretary, Andrew Cuomo, tried in 1998 to retrace the path that George Romney had walked exactly 30 years earlier. He proposed rules that would have denied federal housing money to communities that flouted fair housing laws. This drew outrage and opposition from local governments that were accustomed to getting billions of dollars from HUD with no preconditions attached. Weakened by scandal and impeachment, Mr. Clinton lacked the political capital for a big fight over fair housing.
In the absence of strong federal leadership, the task of securing fair housing has largely fallen to housing and civil rights groups, which have routinely taken cities and counties and the federal government itself to court for failing to enforce anti-discrimination laws. Their lawsuits have changed the lives of many citizens who were once trapped in dismal neighborhoods.
And now, that last avenue of recourse is under fire. The Supreme Court is expected to decide next month whether the FHA can be used to show patterns and practices of segregation as well as individual examples. If the court decides that the FHA was never designed to cover large-scale examples of housing discrimination, then the law is effectively dead.
The Obama administration does have new proposals on the way, but will those even be enforceable if the Supreme Court wrecks the Fair Housing Act?
And yes, the NY Times does call it what it is: apartheid.