Knocking on the Door: The Federal Government's Attempt to Desegregate the Suburbs

Knocking on the Door: The Federal Government's Attempt to Desegregate the Suburbs

by Christopher Bonastia


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Knocking on the Door is the first book-length work to analyze federal involvement in residential segregation from Reconstruction to the present. Providing a particularly detailed analysis of the period 1968 to 1973, the book examines how the U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development (HUD) attempted to forge elementary changes in segregated residential patterns by opening up the suburbs to groups historically excluded for racial or economic reasons. The door did not shut completely on this possibility until President Richard Nixon took the drastic step of freezing all federal housing funds in January 1973. Knocking on the Door assesses this near-miss in political history, exploring how HUD came surprisingly close to implementing rigorous antidiscrimination policies, and why the agency's efforts were derailed by Nixon.

Christopher Bonastia shows how the Nixon years were ripe for federal action to foster residential desegregation. The period was marked by new legislative protections against housing discrimination, unprecedented federal involvement in housing construction, and frequent judicial backing for the actions of civil rights agencies.

By comparing housing desegregation policies to civil rights enforcement in employment and education, Bonastia offers an unrivaled account of why civil rights policies diverge so sharply in their ambition and effectiveness.

Product Details

ISBN-13: 9780691136196
Publisher: Princeton University Press
Publication date: 02/24/2008
Pages: 256
Product dimensions: 6.00(w) x 9.25(h) x (d)
Age Range: 18 Years

About the Author

Christopher Bonastia is assistant professor in the Department of Sociology at Lehman College, City University of New York, and a former Robert Wood Johnson Scholar in Health Policy at the University of
California, Berkeley

Read an Excerpt

Knocking on the Door

The Federal Government's Attempt to Desegregate the Suburbs
By Christopher Bonastia

Princeton University Press

Copyright © 2006 Princeton University Press
All right reserved.

ISBN: 0-691-11934-1

Chapter One


The Forgotten Civil Rights Issue

EVERY FEW YEARS, Americans are left with another civil rights milestone to consider. Recently, journalists, scholars, movement participants, and politicians have pondered the impact of the Fair Housing Act of 1968 (the year 2003 marked its thirty-fifth anniversary), 1954's Brown v. Board of Education Supreme Court decision (fiftieth anniversary) and the Civil Rights Act of 1964 (fortieth anniversary). Some of these analyses bask in self-congratulation that we have "come so far," while others approach something close to despair over how much remains to be accomplished and how many opportunities have been wasted or lost.

Analysts often treat the array of contentious political actions, court decisions, legislation, and bureaucratic implementation that constitute the "civil rights revolution" as a coherent whole-again, either as inspirational triumph or tragic failure. The reality is more complex. We have, in fact, come a considerable way. The nation's largest corporations and most prestigious universities consider racial diversity (admittedly, a vaguely defined concept) to be in theirself-interest, a nearly complete reversal over the past forty years. The most egregious forms of discrimination and segregation have diminished considerably. Yet there has also been unmistakable stagnation in the nation's commitment to racial equality, and even substantial backsliding. For example, after rapid reductions in primary and secondary educational segregation in the late 1960s and the first half of the 1970s, segregation levels peaked in 1988 and have been declining since.

The most sobering legacy of dashed hopes in reducing racial segregation and discrimination is in housing. While Americans continue to believe that children are better off attending desegregated schools-at least if no sacrifices are required-residential segregation is largely a lost cause, or so it may appear. Some interpret the call for residential desegregation as implying that people of color need to be around whites to thrive. To others, residential desegregation simply lacks urgency. In this mistaken view, racial and ethnic clustering is a benign outcome of economic disparities and the preferences of people to "be with their own."

Lastly, the conventional wisdom about residential segregation is that the government can and should do little to tinker with the market forces that sort people into neighborhoods by class, race, and ethnicity. Residential segregation is a difficult problem to address, but not because it is beyond the government's purview. To the contrary, one important reason that residential segregation is so severe and resistant to effective solutions is that federal, state, and local governments had (and continue to have) such a large hand in creating and maintaining it. The consequences of residential segregation are numerous and far-reaching, though often obscured. Among other effects, segregation exacerbates black/white wealth disparities by affording African American homeowners lower returns on their investment, and it limits employment opportunities. Racially separate and unequal schools are a direct result of segregated housing patterns.

In the late 1960s and the early 1970s, the federal government had the opportunity to begin to correct the injustices that prevented African Americans and other racial and ethnic minorities from obtaining housing wherever they could afford. The federal government-in particular, the United States Department of Housing and Urban Development (HUD)-took this responsibility seriously, and worked to fashion desegregation policies that rivaled the intensity of those that were being implemented in employment and education. Without question, administrative agencies attempting to battle segregation faced different sets of obstacles and opportunities in the three primary areas of civil rights: employment, education, and housing. Congress enacted legal protections against housing discrimination four years after the historic Civil Rights Act of 1964, which prohibited discrimination in employment and education. From 1964 to 1968, federal bureaucrats began to discover what approaches to desegregation were more or less effective, civil rights opponents in Congress began to devise ways to restrain the more activist impulses of government agencies, and numerous riots and expressions of black militancy reduced white support for civil rights initiatives.

It was no accident that fair housing legislation lagged behind antidis-crimination protections in other areas. (In light of Congress' penchant for writing vague legislative language, it is also no accident that the legislature never defined what it meant by "fair housing.") A substantial proportion of Americans have the strong sense that the federal government has no business intervening in the private housing market. The fact that the federal government historically has acted quite forcefully in the housing market-on the side of segregation-is lost on many people. Given this heavy governmental influence on housing patterns, spurring significant reductions in residential segregation was a demanding responsibility for the federal government, but not an impossible one.

This book chronicles federal governmental involvement in residential segregation, placing particular focus on the years of the Nixon Administration, when HUD attempted to reverse this legacy of enforced residential segregation. In the end the agency was unable to foster meaningful changes in segregation patterns. Scholars of social policy study success disproportionately because it is easier to study, and successful policies are more prominent than failed ones. To comprehend fully how a law may fulfill its stated objectives, however, we need to understand the many reasons why this often does not occur.


George Romney, secretary of HUD, had a reputation for speaking in blunt terms. "Our nation's metropolitan areas cannot endure ... a rundown, festering black core, surrounded by a well-to-do, indifferent white ring," he said on one occasion in 1970. On another, he insisted that "the most explosive threat to our nation is the confrontation between the poor and the minority groups who are concentrated in the central cities, and the middle income and affluent who live in the surrounding and separate communities. This confrontation is divisive. It is explosive. It must be resolved."

Romney's sense of urgency had faded by the time he left HUD in early 1973, disillusioned by widespread scandals in the agency's housing production programs and his own inability to steer this massive, unwieldy bureaucracy. Nevertheless, he was correct in pointing to the destructive effects of racial and economic isolation, effects that continue to accrue today. At the dawn of the Nixon Administration, the time was ripe for federal action to foster residential desegregation. In fact, this opportunity to attack discrimination and segregation in housing was unprecedented. Though civil rights supporters typically had few positive things to say about President Richard Nixon, it was under Nixon that unmatched progress in Southern school desegregation took place and that affirmative action in employment took hold, beginning with the presidentially approved "Philadelphia Plan" to integrate the construction trades.

At several junctures during this period, HUD appeared to be building the momentum to help forge elementary changes in segregated residential patterns by "opening up the suburbs" to groups historically excluded for racial or economic reasons. The door did not shut completely on this possibility until Nixon took the drastic step of freezing all federal housing funds in January 1973. Knocking on the Door assesses this "near-miss" in political history, exploring how HUD came surprisingly close to implementing unpopular antidiscrimination policies and why President Nixon derailed the agency's civil rights drive. It is perhaps obvious now that HUD was, in the end, unsuccessful. It may not be so obvious why these initiatives failed or how they might have succeeded. To be sure, one can identify some of the important elements in the failure of housing desegregation by highlighting commonly cited factors: substantial opposition from industry, considerable public resistance, inadequate mobilization of advocacy groups, and lukewarm support from Congress, to name a few. Yet, when we view housing desegregation in the context of other, relatively more successful civil rights policies such as affirmative action in employment and school desegregation (until it was abandoned), these factors alone fail to account for the varying trajectories of these policies. If one is to make sense of HUD's failure, it is crucial to understand how the structure of the agency made its component offices particularly apt to lose legitimacy, and how the array of missions within the agency resulted in various sectors of the agency working at cross-purposes from one another. These characteristics in particular made HUD acutely vulnerable to political attack, and President Nixon seized upon this vulnerability.

At first blush, the era of Richard Nixon's presidency (1969-74) may seem an unlikely period to identify as one in which effective federal attacks on residential segregation were most likely. Nixon is often remembered as an individual whose domestic political stances were calculated to gain the support of whites, especially Southern whites, who had grown resentful of the outbreaks of black rage in inner cities and of the expanding scope of federal civil rights enforcement. Internal disputes over philosophies and protest strategies severely weakened the civil rights movement, and public support for governmental attempts to fight discrimination appeared to be eroding. There is, however, a flip side to this picture. While Congress passed most of the prominent twentieth century civil rights legislation during the Johnson Administration, in the Civil Rights Acts of 1964 and 1968 and the Voting Rights Act of 1965, the specific policies that would carry out the aims of these laws took form during the Nixon Administration. During this time, federal agencies escalated their efforts to carry out federal civil rights laws, and courts largely deferred to the wisdom of the agencies.

Led by the liberal George Romney, HUD was charged with enforcing the newly passed fair housing law "affirmatively." Moreover, a serious housing shortage had led Congress to make an enormous federal commitment to subsidizing housing production in the 1968 Housing and Urban Development Act. Historically, the federal government has had an easier time securing regulatory compliance from private sector and from other governmental actors when the incentive of federal funding, or the threat of withholding these funds, is present. Thus, the 1968 housing production legislation provided HUD with substantial leverage to carry out the antidiscrimination law.

HUD was on its way to spearheading a sustained attack on racial and economic exclusion. Ultimately, these efforts came unhinged. The Nixon Administration merits close examination as a pivotal period in explaining the divergence of federal civil rights policies in housing from those in other areas, such as employment and education, where the United States adopted stronger (though by no means flawless) race-conscious policies in trying to reduce inequality between African Americans and whites. This was the best opportunity that America had to devise political solutions to the problem of residential segregation. It also may have been the last one, at least for the foreseeable future. In accord with the dominant political focus of the time, I pay closest attention to issues of black/white inequality and segregation (and primarily use the terms "black" and "white" to reflect the common nomenclature of that era). While antidis-crimination initiatives later incorporated other racial and ethnic groups (Latinos, Asians, Native Americans) as well as other affected classes (women, the disabled), initial policies directed at African Americans served as a template for subsequent expansions; thus, said policies are important to decipher as the foundation upon which more broadly inclusive approaches were built. This focus on the trajectory of residential desegregation policies during the Nixon Administration is supplemented by an assessment of the evolution of federal housing policies throughout the twentieth century, with particular attention to the ways in which these policies addressed or failed to address questions of racial discrimination. (Readers interested mainly in the historical narrative may wish to skip the theoretical discussion that follows, and proceed to page 16, "Hurdles to Housing Desegregation Initiatives.")


While studies that explore the processes and effects of segregation are numerous, relatively little scholarship seeks to understand the development of federal policies to address residential segregation. This study utilizes a comparative-historical framework to maximize analytical leverage in explaining the evolution of these policies. Employees of federal agencies are key players in the formation of social policies, despite the fact that the legislative and judicial branches are more visible political actors in the policy-making process. Legislative language is often vague, leaving a wide range of interpretation to the discretion of administrative agencies. When courts have acted prior to legislative passage and agency action, little change has ensued. To wit, school desegregation after the landmark Brown v. Board of Education (1954) decision moved excruciatingly slowly until congressional passage of the 1964 Civil Rights Act. In the late 1960s and early 1970s, courts often responded to the actions of civil rights agencies, in most cases deferring to the expertise of the agencies in civil rights enforcement (see, for example, the Supreme Court's 1971 Griggs v. Duke Power decision). Moreover, ignoring the role of government agencies in policy formation "leaves the most important political outcomes-the impact of policies on citizens-unstudied."

Skocpol argues that state bureaucracies are potentially capable of autonomous action, meaning that they may devise strategies of action independently of other branches of government, capitalists and organized business groups, political parties, interest groups, movement organizations, and public opinion. Some scholars have stressed the importance of organizational and intellectual capabilities in policy-making agencies seeking to establish autonomy. Carpenter's study of executive agencies from 1862 to 1928 finds that the ability of government bureaucracies to achieve autonomy is predicated upon political insulation from actors who try to control them, the development of unique organizational capacities, and strong organizational reputations (political legitimacy).

To act autonomously, he argues, agencies must establish political legitimacy, "a reputation for expertise, efficiency, or moral protection and a uniquely diverse complex of ties to organized interests and the media." Considering the cases of the Post Office, Agriculture Department, and Interior Department, Carpenter's account of American state-building is persuasive; however, his findings do not map neatly onto the civil rights agencies created in the 1960s. While agencies in the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries typically employed strategies of incremental program expansion, Congress expected the civil rights agencies to act quickly to carry out their mandates. The mission of fighting racial discrimination had immediate legitimacy, though the agencies did need to develop legitimacy for the strategies that they employed to bring these mandates to life. Rather than being earned over the course of years, bureaucratic autonomy was in some sense built into the civil rights agencies, since Congress offered little specific guidance to the agencies in civil rights legislation. (This autonomy could be stripped away if civil rights agencies subsequently developed bad reputations.)


Excerpted from Knocking on the Door by Christopher Bonastia Copyright © 2006 by Princeton University Press. Excerpted by permission.
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Table of Contents

Preface     ix
List of Abbreviations for Frequently Cited Government Agencies and Commissions     xiii
Residential Segregation: The Forgotten Civil Rights Issue     1
The Divergence of Civil Rights Policies in Housing, Education, and Employment     25
The Federal Government and Residential Segregation, 1866-1968     57
Conviction and Controversy: HUD Formulates Its Fair Housing Policies     91
Indirect Attack: A Housing Freeze Kills Civil Rights Efforts     121
The Recent Past, Present, and Future of Residential Desegregation     144
List of Abbreviations for Notes     167
Notes     169
Works Cited     207
Index     227

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