Segregation in the United States was legal when I was born.
I am a 53-year-old, African American woman born in December 1967. I was born four months before the April 1968 passage of the Fair Housing Act. I was born to a mother who was raised in New Orleans – a mother who made sure I understood what it had been like to be forced to live in segregated communities, riding the back of the bus and attending segregated schools. It is important to remember this context whenever engaging in discussions of racial equity. It is important to note how recent that past is. That past is within my lifetime.
Prior to the passage of the Fair Housing Act, it was legal to deny housing opportunity based upon the color of one’s skin. The federal government authorized and demanded discrimination in the development of public housing, in mortgage lending, in suburban development, in school districting and more. Redlining, suburban development, FHA lending, VA loans and other policies developed homeownership opportunities for white families and relegated Black and other families of color to rental housing opportunities. These policies built wealth through property ownership for white families in suburbs and led to neglect and underinvestment in urban communities populated by families of color.
For people my age and older, this is the world into which we were born… because segregation was legal when I was born.
The passage of the Fair Housing Act in 1968 sought to remedy this. Fair Housing was designed to eliminate the illegal discrimination that had existed in this country for 300 years. Civil rights era reform ended these state-sanctioned injustices but did little to answer other related deeply challenging questions. Questions like: How do you make amends to generations and generations of Black families and other families of color who were denied generational access to wealth? How do you close the racial wealth gap that ties back to denied access to land and home ownership? How do you reverse the deeply entrenched segregation patterns that keep our urban centers underinvested and replete with rental housing? How do you reverse school segregation when school districting follows the same neighborhood segregation patterns? In sum, how do you correct a 300-year-old wrong?
And in the failure to wrestle with these questions, we find the work of the civil rights era remains incomplete. Changing the federal law was a piece of the solution but here we sit 53 years after the passage of the Federal Fair Housing Law and find that our communities are even more segregated than they have ever been. Rather than a shrinking racial wealth gap, we see a growing disparity. Rather than finding our children now growing up in integrated schools, we continue to see deeply entrenched school segregation. We see that in the absence of explicit racially discriminating law and policy, creative uses of zoning and land use have been the tools used to maintain the status quo—to maintain segregation in Connecticut.
My parents, like so many others, celebrated the civil rights legislation of the 1960s as a signal of a new day in the United States. They had great hopes for what this meant for the next generation. I believe they would be saddened by the slow pace of change.
But the last few years has brought a new era of activism geared toward moving this country closer to its promise as the Black Lives Matter movement heightened awareness of the racial inequities that persist. Driving through communities across our state, I see #BlackLivesMatter signs pepper the lawns of varied communities from urban to suburban, in rural countryside fields and adjacent to downtown high rise buildings. And while this signals some new awareness to age-old inequities, it sadly has not yet permeated in all the right places, to all the right people to power forward this movement to address the very issues that the Fair Housing Act of 1968 was meant to change.
For Black families and other families of color denied access to wealth creation and homeownership, equitable remedies are well overdue. It is past time to correct these disparities and to pay on this debt. Creating opportunities starts with opening the doors to communities that have effectively shut families out by welcoming progressive zoning reform and supporting efforts to build affordable housing. It means investing in affordable housing opportunities for families in every community. It means making substantial investments in our urban centers. It means ending school segregation in meaningful ways. It means making the same investments in Black families and other families of color that our U.S. government has made in white families and white communities for hundreds of years.
This is our time to complete the unfinished work of the Fair Housing Act and other related civil rights legislation. Failing to do these things effectively allows segregation to remain sanctioned throughout Connecticut. Taking action now can change these patterns. Taking action today can make the necessary changes so that finally there will no longer be generations of Connecticut residents who say that segregation was legal in their lifetime.
Karen DuBois-Walton, Ph.D. is the President of Elm City Communities/Housing Authority of the City of New Haven. She is a panelist in a series, “The Two Connecticuts: Conversations about Race and Place,” that began on September 22 and continues on October 20. This four-part special series, co-sponsored by the Connecticut Mirror, examines how segregation affects people of color — depriving them of personal dignity, economic opportunity, and access to healthcare and safety — yet also disadvantages the state as a whole. Register and find additional information here. Attendance is free and the program can be accessed virtually.