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Natalie Moore: Racial segregation is seldom a matter of choice

Former Republican presidential candidate Ben Carson delivers a speech on the second day of the Republican National Convention

Dr. Ben Carson has been nominated by President-elect Donald Trump to head the U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development. | Getty Images

Self-selection and segregation are often conflated.

I have heard white people say people want to live around like-minded individuals with similar values. I’ve also heard some of them say if black people took better care of their neighborhoods, said communities would improve. Or, they ask, why don’t blacks just move to a better neighborhood?

Where people choose to live isn’t that simple. Even for white people.


In the 20th century, a host of policies, practices and laws were enacted to keep blacks and whites residentially divided in Chicago. It was once illegal for whites to sell their homes to blacks. Banks deemed blacks unworthy of home loans through redlining. The city deliberately built the largest public housing developments in black communities. Real estate agents often steered blacks and whites to certain communities based on racial perceptions.

When we talk about white flight, we discuss in a vacuum. When white homeowners fled white South Side neighborhoods when black families started moving in, they had to have somewhere to go in the 1950s and 1960s. White families didn’t pitch tents in the open prairie. Their choice to leave was eased by the federal government, which rolled out the red carpet to new communities outside of the city by building highways. After World War II, housing policies favored suburbs with federal financing for single-family homes.

The 1968 Fair Housing Act was supposed to fix this and other forms of housing discrimination. It hasn’t. Housing segregation is still rampant in this country. The Chicago area’s segregation isn’t happenstance. It isn’t self-selection the way choosing a restaurant, bar, social networks or house of worship is. Although those choices could be influenced by where you live.

It’s worth remembering that in 1973, the federal government sued Donald Trump and his father under the Fair Housing Act for discriminating against potential black tenants in New York. The president-elect has nominated the neurosurgeon Ben Carson to run the U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development. Carson has no housing experience. He grew up poor in Detroit and cited that among his qualifications.

One of HUD’s missions is to help families find affordable housing and build communities free of discrimination. Last year, two significant decisions took place to help ensure fair housing. The U.S. Supreme Court ruled that municipalities can be responsible for housing discrimination even if it wasn’t intentional. Often, that’s how institutionalized racism works. Secondly, backed by President Barack Obama, HUD said that to receive federal funds, local governments have to show desegregation plans. The rule is known as “affirmatively furthering fair housing” under the 1968 Fair Housing Act.

Housing advocates applauded both measures. Carson didn’t at the time. He likened the efforts to social engineering. Now he’s poised to run the agency that’s been given a greater ability to enforce fair housing laws by giving cities and towns demographic data to help them achieve goals. Labeling efforts as social engineering can be seen as a misreading of the law, especially given that in the past, the federal government and private industry engaged in their own form of so-called social engineering by sanctioning housing segregation.

When HUD Secretary Julian Castro announced the new housing rule last July, he did so in Chicago. He stood on the former site of Stateway Gardens, a demolished public housing development that’s now a mixed-income community in Bronzeville. Before it was Stateway, this land was part of the South Side’s Black Belt. African Americans in Chicago were confined to this area that became overcrowded and overrun with slum housing. Why? Because it was illegal for them to live in white areas. Castro’s location choice for a press conference was more than symbolic.

Though the hideous 20th century policies that created segregation no longer exist, their effects still shape how our region looks. We’ve also seen a new set of policies that keep deep-seated segregation as the norm. Exclusionary zoning laws in the suburbs successfully keep out affordable housing. In the city, we see affordable housing clustered on the South and West Sides. Meanwhile, predatory lending is hardly a throwback.

Creating a housing market free of discrimination isn’t about mandates or social engineering. The fight for integrated housing in places with jobs, transportation and amenities is about choice. For a long time black and brown low-income renters and homeowners have had choice snatched away from them.

Sun-Times columnist Natalie Y. Moore is a reporter for WBEZ and author of “The South Side: A Portrait of Chicago and American Segregation.”

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