- Knocking on the Door: The Federal Government’s Attempt to Desegregate the Suburbs
The racial segregation of American cities and suburbs seems like such a deeply-rooted social fact that it can be difficult to conceive of how housing policy could do much to alter it. But imagine, for a moment, if efforts to combat discrimination in housing had been implemented through a form of "affirmative action" for housing, similar to the approach taken by the Equal Opportunity Employment Commission in the workplace. Affirmative action in housing would be implemented at the municipal level, holding local governments accountable for taking active efforts to encourage racial and economic desegregation, perhaps using the threat of cutting off federal funds to municipalities that could not show that they were making serious efforts to diversify their populations. If such a policy had been adopted along with investigation of individual housing discrimination complaints, what might modern American cities and suburbs look like?
This intriguing question is one of those raised in Christopher Bonastia's Knocking on the Door: The Federal Government's Attempt to Desegregation the Suburbs. Knocking on the Door tells the little-known story of how the Department of Housing and Urban Development came surprisingly close to implementing a form of affirmative action in housing. The book provides a broad review of the influence of American housing policy on racial segregation since the Civil War and discusses the implementation of workplace and school desegregation as contrast cases to housing. While providing a broad backdrop, the book's discussion is especially focused on 1968 to 1973. The Civil Rights Act of 1968 banned racial discrimination in private and public housing. In the immediately following years officials at HUD, who were charged with implementing the 1968 Civil Rights Act, seriously considered several surprisingly aggressive approaches to foster housing desegregation.
Bonastia reveals that HUD officials considered implementing a goals-and-timetables approach to housing integration similar to that adopted by [End Page 859] the EEOC in employment. Officials considered this alternative because they came to believe, as EEOC officials did, that responding to individual discrimination complaints was only likely to be effective in stopping the most open discrimination. In a few instances, they forced municipalities to change local policies aimed at thwarting low-income housing developments by threatening to cut off funds. These efforts stopped suddenly in 1973, when Nixon froze new commitments of federal funds for housing following financial scandals in several HUD programs. Funding commitments had been HUD's source of leverage over local municipalities.
Much of the book's analysis aims to understand why the 1968 housing act failed to achieve any substantial desegregation in housing. Bonastia argues that the multiple missions of HUD, which include encouraging housing production and urban development as well as fair housing, resulted in less effective implementation of desegregation goals than was the case for workplaces and schools, for which civil rights enforcement was the primary duty of a single office. He argues that the weak institutional home for housing policy provided by HUD was a major reason for its lack of effectiveness. Bonastia's arguments in this vein are pretty convincing, although there are other reasons to believe that housing would be an especially difficult domain to achieve desegregation through government action. Housing desegregation differs from school desegregation in that housing is mostly private while schools are mostly public, and housing differs from workplaces in that neighbor relations are less formalized and more elective than those among coworkers. I would have liked further discussion of these differences, although Bonastia generally is careful not to overclaim how much of a difference a more aggressive policy might have made.
From the perspective of the sociology of housing and race, I found the book most useful in helping to complete the picture of federal policies relating to housing segregation. Well-known scholarly accounts like Massey and Denton's American Apartheid and Jackson's The Crabgrass Frontier emphasize how the history of federal housing policies, especially in mortgage lending and development, have...