Discussions of race are fraught with emotion. Witness the zoning reforms being discussed in our legislature. I will attempt to advance a dispassionate argument that is based on government-sponsored racism that occurred during my lifetime and led to the structural problems that persist today.
The following history is not discussed in our schools, which leads to many misconceptions among the public. Two recent books helped me fill in the blanks: The New Jim Crow, by Michelle Alexander, and The Color of Law, by Richard Rothstein. I will briefly summarize a few examples specific to Black Americans. Other communities of color experience their peculiar variations of this theme.
Federal and local governments created the modern middle class after World War II. Returning veterans received financial help to obtain housing and education, except the law explicitly excluded Black Americans. For decades afterwards, banks would not offer mortgages to Black Americans, because the government refused to insure the loans. Further, Realtor associations forbade showing Blacks houses in white neighborhoods.
Even when empty houses existed in new housing developments, Blacks with means were confined to segregated, overcrowded developments of lower quality. Instead of mortgages, Blacks could obtain expensive “lease-to-buy” financing, but if they stopped paying rent before the end date, they lost all of their investment. Racial prejudice prevented them from obtaining high paying jobs, or training for those jobs. To help defray costs, Black homeowners invited other families to live with them. Even then, there was often not enough income to perform routine maintenance.
As all of this was happening, zoning laws across Connecticut were made more exclusionary, with increases to minimum lot sizes and prohibitions on accessory dwelling units and duplexes. That these changes were made in a race-neutral way does not exclude their disproportionately race-specific effects. Alexander and Rothstein document many more types of structural racism.
Even though some laws were changed, discrimination persisted outside of the law. Illegal exclusionary covenants and illegal, sometimes violent, harassment dissuaded many Black Americans from moving into white neighborhoods. Police often stood by and refused to protect Black homeowners. Race-neutral language was distorted to perpetuate the structural racism established in our lifetime.
Many claim we are not responsible for the past policies of governments that acted on our behalf. This sentiment fails to acknowledge how white Americans benefit from structural racism. We could accumulate wealth in ways denied to Black Americans. Consequently, the economic divide between us has grown and solidified. Accordingly, poor communities become trapped without the wherewithal to break into increasingly expensive neighborhoods.
The failure of our schools to teach this history makes it difficult for people of good will to appreciate the remnants of racism that still resides within us. Consequently, it is hard to develop the moral sensibility that would motivate us to collaborate with people of color to remove structural barriers.
The structural barriers to mobility and opportunity lead to a vicious cycle. Confining low-income people to poorly maintained, overcrowded housing leads to disproportionate health burdens. For example, polluted air and infestation by vermin and roaches helps explain why asthma is found at higher rates in poor communities. Lacking adequate healthcare, children with uncontrolled asthma cannot get the good night’s sleep needed to focus in school. Add the stressful environment created by a counter-productive war on drugs. The war’s unjustified focus on communities of color resulted and results in high numbers of felony convictions for minor violations. Few jobs are available to previously incarcerated people, and they are excluded from public housing and government services. Accordingly, they cannot support themselves, let alone their families, and thus many fall into the same behaviors that continue a vicious cycle.
The zoning law reforms before our legislators, and particularly those proposed by the Desegregate Connecticut coalition, are one of several methods needed to counter the overwhelming impediments to upward mobility. These impediments affect all poor Americans regardless of skin color or ethnicity. These reforms would help all of our communities start reversing trends that lock people out of opportunity.
The Desegregate Connecticut legislation would allow individual communities flexibility in how they will provide diverse housing, including accessory dwelling units and two-to-four family dwellings. Widely dispersed, low density, affordable housing provides a way for the impoverished to bootstrap their way out of poverty and into integrated neighborhoods. Unless we start supporting sensible reforms that can strengthen our whole state, we remain part of the problem.
Lawrence Rizzolo PhD lives in Guilford.