Segregation and Obama's second term



President Obama at McCormick Place on election night
  • Richard A. Chapman/Chicago Sun-Times
  • President Obama at McCormick Place on election night
Presidents have played a key role in our country's shameful racial segregation. The role they've played has been maintaining it.

"Stop this one," Richard Nixon wrote in 1968, on a memo authored by one of his aides. What Nixon wanted stopped was an effort aimed at desegregating metropolitan areas.

The aide was informing Nixon of a plan by George Romney, the secretary of Housing and Urban Development. As Nikole Hannah-Jones relates in her recent, Pulitzer-worthy ProPublica examination of the failure to enforce the 1968 Fair Housing Act, Romney wanted federal officials to do what the Act required of them: to not only prevent discrimination in housing rentals and sales, but to "affirmatively further" fair housing. Courts have repeatedly interpreted that phrase as meaning that government, having fostered segregation for decades before the Fair Housing Act, is obliged to try to undo the damage.

The former governor of Michigan knew that wealthy white suburbs relied on federal housing subsidies, water and sewer grants, and freeway construction to build their communities, while they simultaneously used zoning and other means to block the building of affordable housing, in order to ensure that their communities remained wealthy and white. Romney's plan was to cut off the funding to communities unwilling to build affordable housing. It was a simple idea, but its impact could have been monumental. Myron Orfield, a law professor at the University of Minnesota and a leading expert on segregation, told Hannah-Jones: "Segregation would have been cut by half and possibly eliminated. The country would have been very different."

What might have been good for the nation, however, was bad politically for Nixon. When Romney began implementing his plan, congressmen informed Nixon that many of their constituents were blaming Romney's efforts on Nixon, and warned the president that he'd suffer if he didn't rein in his HUD secretary. And so Nixon did, and by the end of 1972, Romney had resigned in frustration.

"The president understood the consequences" of blocking Romney's plan, Hannah-Jones writes. He noted in a memo to aides in 1972: "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."

Four decades later, it's clear Nixon was right about that. I've written often about Chicago's profound segregation. But Chicago isn't alone, of course. African-Americans are still intensely segregated in countless cities and metro areas, among them New York, Detroit, Milwaukee, Saint Louis, Baltimore, Philadelphia, Cleveland, and Cincinnati. And school segregation has been worsening.

"The costs have been steep," Hannah-Jones observes. "More than 20 years of research has implicated residential segregation in virtually every aspect of racial inequality, from higher unemployment rates for African Americans, to poorer health care, to elevated infant mortality rates and, most of all, to inferior schools."

And Nixon wasn't the only president at fault, Hannah-Jones makes clear: "Over the next four decades . . . a succession of presidents—Democrat and Republican alike—followed Nixon's lead, declining to use the leverage of HUD's billions to fight segregation."

"The lack of political courage around these issues is stunning," Elizabeth Julian, a senior HUD official under President Bill Clinton, told Hannah-Jones. "People say integration has failed. It hasn't failed because it's never been tried."

Add Obama to the list of presidents who haven't tried. Federal housing grants are still awarded without recipients offering any plan for furthering fair housing. In January 2010, a HUD official promised Congress that HUD would develop regulations by the end of 2010 requiring communities to "promote integration" if they want HUD money. The regulations still haven't been issued, and HUD "has declined to say when they might appear or give a reason for the delay," Hannah-Jones writes.

Our nation's pervasive racial segregation wasn't so much as mentioned by either side during the race for the White House, of course. Mitt Romney wasn't going to bring it up; there's no evidence that he harbors any of his father's belief in the importance of integration. Politically, it's not an issue Obama needs to talk about or address. We all may suffer because of segregation, but it's clear that African-Americans suffer most—and Obama already has their loyal support. As in Nixon's era, pushing for desegregation remains inexpedient. A president would press for it only to do the right thing.

Before Obama gave his victory speech at McCormick Place early yesterday morning, a thank-you e-mail from the president went out to his campaign army. "I will spend the rest of my presidency honoring your support, and doing what I can to finish what we started," Obama said.

There's nothing for Obama to finish on desegregation, because he hasn't started anything. But he does have four more years to at least begin.

Steve Bogira writes about segregation every Thursday.

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