PRRAC Poverty & Race Research Action Council
Home About PRRAC Current Projects Publications Newsletters Resources Contact Us Support PRRAC Join Our Email List

"Housing Segregation/School Segregation"

May/June 2004 issue of Poverty & Race

Several years ago, PRRAC received a multi-year research grant from the Ford Foundation to support a series of historical studies of the history of federal government involvement in the development and perpetuation of housing segregation in America. The project, “Housing And School Segregation: Government Culpability, Government Remedies,” takes a closer look at the development of federal housing and transportation policies that have been broadly described in works like Massey & Denton’s American Apartheid.

The first of these studies, by Professor Arnold Hirsch of the University of New Orleans History Dept., addresses the evolution of federal housing policy directly after the Brown decision, and includes new evidence of collaboration between the Federal Housing Administration and officials in certain southern cities seeking to evade compliance with the Brown ruling by manipulating federal housing location. Hirsch’s work also chronicles the heroic efforts of Frank Horne, an official of the race relations service of the federal housing agency, to reform the system from within.

The second study, by Professor Raymond Mohl of the University of Alabama History Dept., deals with federal transportation policies and programs, particularly highways, and how housing and transportation together helped to create and maintain racially segregated housing patterns in our metropolitan areas.

The newly-arrived final installment in this series, by David Freund, who teaches history at Princeton, takes the story from President Kennedy’s signing of the 1961 Executive Order on Fair Housing up through passage of the Fair Housing Act in 1968. This is a story of the idealistic aspirations of HUD Secretary Robert Weaver and his aides confronting the intractable obstacle of an entrenched federal bureaucracy. The excerpt that follows introduces Freund’s research.

For the full Freund report – “‘Democracy’s Unfinished Business’: Federal Policy and the Search for Fair Housing, 1961-1968” — along with the Hirsch and Mohl reports, go to PRRAC’s website,

In July of 1963, the Administrator of the Housing and Home Finance Agency (HHFA), Robert Weaver, spoke to a meeting of his agency’s Intergroup Relations Service (IRS), the “race relations” staff charged with promoting non-discrimination in federal housing programs. His talk came at a time of dramatic change in the federal government’s relationship to metropolitan development. After three decades of condoning and actively promoting racial segregation in both the private and public housing and development sectors, federal officials began, in the early 1960s, to declare their commitment to fair housing. During the 1960 presidential campaign, John F. Kennedy promised to eliminate housing discrimination with “a stroke of the presidential pen,” and soon after his election appointed Weaver—a former “race relations” officer, a long-time critic of federal policy and outspoken advocate of equal housing opportunity, and a black man—to run the HHFA. And in November of 1962, Kennedy made good on his campaign promise, issuing Executive Order 11063, which prohibited racial discrimination in some federally-supported housing development. Its symbolic importance notwithstanding, the new Executive Order had a very limited reach, in the end covering less than 1% of the nation’s housing units. But Weaver and other like-minded reformers—particularly his colleagues in the IRS—interpreted the Order much more broadly, repeatedly distinguishing between its “letter” and its “spirit.” They viewed it as part of a larger reform effort—particularly in light of Kennedy’s amendment of another Executive Order that banned discrimination in federal employment practices—and felt they now had a mandate to pursue a quite radical re-orientation of both federal policy and practice.

Weaver used his appearance before the IRS in the summer of 1963 to outline this vision for reform, explaining what would be required to alter the government’s impact on metropolitan development and to remedy the results of policies that for decades had both discriminated and segregated. Most important, he declared, was that the pursuit of “fair housing” become a responsibility of all housing officials, a goal integral to the day-to-day operations of all HHFA units, rather than a special assignment relegated to the IRS. He argued, in effect, for transforming the culture of the housing bureaucracy, for changing the way that its agents thought about the impact of federal interventions, both past and present, and about the issue of racial equity in housing. “[T]he implementing of the President’s [Executive Orders],” he explained, in a formal statement to IRS officials,

"is a responsibility of all associated with the HHFA. The head of each constituent agency is held responsible for the implementation over the programs under his jurisdiction, and all line staff have the primary responsibility of carrying out the requirements and purposes of these Orders just as they have with respect to all other policy and program objectives and requirements. In other words, the President’s Orders will be carried out through the operations of the total staff and not through a new or separate operational staff."

This would require that the administrators and employees of the Federal Housing Administration (FHA), the Public Housing Administration (PHA), the Urban Renewal Administration (URA), and the Federal National Mortgage Association (FNMA) actively commit themselves to disrupting patterns of discrimination and to channeling resources to populations long denied the benefits of federal largesse. And it was the IRS’s job to facilitate this, Weaver explained, by “work[ing] closely with and, through the heads of Agency units,” to “encourage key staff member[s] to . . . make the fullest contribution toward the achievement of equal opportunity.”

But merely shifting “policy and program objectives and requirements,” he continued, was not sufficient. Equally important was a change in the very language of federal policy, in the ways federal officials conceived of their mission and portrayed it to the public. “There is no place under our equal opportunity policy goals,” the Administrator continued, “for usage of concepts and statements connoting separateness. Our usage should take on appropriate alternatives such as housing open to or available to or accessible to Negroes, or nonwhites or minorities in lieu of ‘Negro housing,’ ‘nonwhite housing,’ ‘minority housing,’ etc.”

Weaver’s vision was informed by decades of personal engagement with the policies he was now charged with remaking. Thus, his reform efforts represented, on one level, an important victory for critics of federal housing policy. Since the early 1930s, Weaver was among the civil rights activists and a small group of federal officials who had been challenging a wide range of government interventions in both the public and private markets for residence, documenting how these programs favored white applicants, denied resources to minorities, and maintained a strict “color line” in most of the nation’s metropolitan areas. Weaver and others were well aware that, since the Depression, the state had helped build a two-tiered, or “dual,” housing market, a market that segregated both space and material resources by race. And critics like Weaver were intimately familiar with the role that federal interventions had played in normalizing popular discussions about this dual market. They recognized not only that the state had promoted segregation, but that an acceptance of the racially segregated market for homes was literally inscribed within federal policy and practice. They saw it as the mission of a reformed HHFA to change both the ways that the government shaped urban outcomes and the ways Americans conceived of the market for homes.

These reformers’ new prominence was not enough, however, to alter the course of federal programs. When Weaver ended his service as the nation’s chief housing official in 1968, he had far from achieved the hoped-for transformation in both government operations and thinking. There were, to be sure, several important victories during his tenure, including passage of Title VI of the Civil Rights Act of 1964, which confirmed prohibitions against racial discrimination in federal housing, and the elevation of HHFA to cabinet level status in 1965 (creating the Department of Housing and Urban Development, which he headed, as the nation’s first African-American cabinet member). Still, by 1968 the structure of the agencies that Weaver oversaw had barely changed, and the assumptions about the dual housing market, so long entrenched in practice and in bureaucratic culture, continued to guide federal policy. Indeed, not until 1967 did the PHA abandon a controversial tenant placement practice that was facilitating the continued segregation of public housing sites, and that year an internal FHA investigation revealed what realtors and homebuyers alike had long recognized: that the agency continued to deny mortgage insurance to most non-whites, in defiance of the Executive Order. On top of this, Title VI of the 1964 Civil Rights Act did not apply to federal programs of insurance or guarantee, thus excluding from its purview all private homes financed with the assistance of the FHA or Veterans Administration—the market for housing that benefited most from New Deal-era reforms. Finally, the fast-growing “conventional” market for home mortgages, while overseen and indirectly subsidized by federal regulatory agencies, including the Federal Home Loan Bank Board, remained untouched by fair housing law.

Given Weaver’s expertise and experience, why was the HHFA and later HUD unable to implement substantive and effective reform? Why, in an era that saw the federal government commit itself to protecting civil rights, did the new “fair housing” mandate prove to be so inadequate? Congressional, bureaucratic and private sector opposition to open occupancy was certainly an important obstacle, as many observers have long noted. And the federal government, through decades of support for the two-tiered housing market, had provided crucial momentum for opponents of integrating housing. But to fully appreciate the legacy of past federal actions, one must consider both the structural and ideological impacts of government policy, which together transformed the ways that countless whites came to understand the politics of race and residence in metropolitan America.

First, when Weaver and other federal officials attempted to remake government policy in the early 1960s, they inherited a vast federal bureaucracy—oversight and regulatory programs, mortgage insurance programs, and a public housing program, among others—that had supported segregation for three decades, that had created a powerful new market for private housing for white people (to the exclusion of minorities), and that was very resistant to change. The programs that restructured the market for private housing and that built and managed a new market for public housing had been grounded in the principle that “separate but equal” was perfectly acceptable. And of critical importance, the flourishing market for private housing had by the early 1960s become foundational to post-war economic growth, in part by fueling a massive “flight” to the ever-expanding suburbs, which in turn further insulated countless whites from minority communities seen as threatening to families, communities and property values. In short, federal policies had been instrumental to building a political and economic constituency deeply resistant to change. To alter these government programs would require more than executive orders and legislative prohibitions against discrimination.

At the same time, HHFA and HUD officials inherited a powerful ideological legacy that would further obstruct their efforts. Throughout the first three decades of federal intervention in the market for residence, most public officials and their private sector allies had insisted that the development of the “two-tiered” market was a natural, market-driven development, merely the product of consumer choice, and thus in no way shaped by federal interventions themselves. In short, they had insisted that the federal government was not directly responsible for the segregated outcomes its programs had helped produce. Thus, when Weaver and others were charged with reforming a system of programs that, for 30 years, had discriminated by race, they were faced with widespread resistance from public and private sector leaders deeply invested in the myth that the state was not culpable for the spatial and economic segregation that had come to characterize the post-war metropolis. In the eyes of countless political leaders, federal officials and white homeowners, there was simply no evidence that the federal government had helped create the problem. Why then, they asked, should the government be responsible for finding a solution?

Join Our Email List
Search for:             
Join Our Email List