Race and the Suburbs

— Dr. Fred McKinney
- Carlton Highsmith Chair for Innovation and Entrepreneurship and Director, People’s United Center for Innovation and Entrepreneurship at Quinnipiac University

The opinions expressed in this article is solely those of the author.

Message to my fellow white Americans - we are not coming for you in your suburbs. This simple statement is contrary to the rhetoric coming out of the White House and the Republican party. They are spinning a tale reminiscent of a time when black Americans were forced to drink from horse troughs instead of public fountains, sit in the back of buses, not be allowed to try on clothes in department stores (something nobody is supposed to do now because of the pandemic), date, kiss, offend, marry, talk with the wrong tone of voice to any white man or woman, or live in close proximity to white Americans regardless of the ability to afford the property.

As recently as the early 1960s, it was federal policy through the Federal Housing Administration (FHA) to restrict mortgages to black Americans. Less than 2 percent of FHA loans went to black Americans from the founding of the FHA in 1934 to 1962. A related federal Agency the Homeowners Loan Corporation came up with a scheme to color code housing markets based on the attractiveness of the neighborhood. Green neighborhoods were the most desirable with blue and then yellow neighborhoods were considered more risky. Black neighborhoods were exclusively considered red. It was this designation used by realtors, white buyers, white residents, banks and savings and loan organizations that created a system of housing in America that can only be described as systematic racism.

The effect of this systematic racism manifested itself in actual documentation in contracts and mortgage documents. Here is an example of a restrictive covenant from West Hartford in the 1940’s:
“No persons of any race except the white race shall use or occupy any building on any lot except that this covenant shall not prevent occupancy by domestic servants of a different race employed by an owner or tenant.”

Blacks were allowed to serve whites in these communities; but were never allowed to live next to them in their own properties. These agreements were not just in West Hartford. Darien was known as a “sundown” town which meant that blacks or Jews were not allowed to be in Darien after dark. The Gentlemen’s Agreement movie starring Gregory Peck directed by Eli Kazan was based on real events and real restrictive covenants that made it all but impossible for whites to sell homes to Jews.

This is an important history because it has repercussions even today. Federal Reserve data on wealth demonstrates that 74 percent of white household wealth is in the form or equity in their homes. White households have 10 times the wealth of black households. Much of this created wealth dates to the acquisition of these homes by white Americans and the direct result of FHA policy to create homeowners in desirable neighborhood. This same policy kept blacks as renters or owners in the least desirable neighborhoods. Furthermore, these policies restricted wealth creation in black communities and households. Imagine, what the impact on our communities would be today if black Americans had not been blocked from creating wealth three or four generations ago.

President Trump knows this history all too well. It was his father’s company that benefited from FHA and other federal policies that financed his company and created the Trump wealth. There is a certain irony that Trump’s wealth came from his father and his father’s wealth came from the very government that he and other Republicans so vociferously oppose. It is more than irony., It is blatant hypocrisy to use federal power to restrict help for the poor while simultaneously supporting welfare for the rich. In 1973, Trump’s business was sued for discriminating against black renters under the Fair Housing Act of 1968, an Act passed and signed into law just a week after the assassination of Martin Luther King. I am sure he did not think his actions were wrong then, so why would he feel differently today? Except today his is President of the United States and responsible for all of its laws, including the one he personally was found in violation of.

When President Trump and the Republicans at their convention tell white Americans that blacks are coming for their suburban oases, and he is telling them that he wants to make America great again, he may really be telling them he is going to keep blacks from interacting with them and keep blacks in their place. Now is the time for all Americans, particularly white Americans to understand that what Trump is selling is not only illegal, it is dangerous. Does he want suburban whites to take up arms to keep blacks out? Does he think that this is the right thing to do?

Societies make choices. We can choose to live together and try to work out our problems based on universal moral principles, or we can choose to circle the wagons and view the world as a zero sum game – my gain is your loss and my loss is your gain. This latter view is Trump’s view. I believe we have an opportunity to reject the path that leads to hatred and violence. But it is our choice and ours alone.