Background: Residential Segregation

In the 1960s, housing in Los Angeles and most other northern cities was rigidly segregated with sharply defined Black ghettos, Latino barrios, and Asian "towns" (Chinatown, Japantown, etc). Known as "redlining," the northern system of residential segregation that mandated where each race lived was elaborate and complex. Its explicitly-stated purpose was to create, define, perpetuate, and control racial ghettos. The redlining system was managed by realator associations, enabled and funded by commercial banks, and required by federal agencies. Surrounded by "whites-only" territory, the nonwhite districts were for the most part densely-packed, poverty-stricken slums characterized by overpriced, substandard housing, inadequate and underfunded city services, overcrowded under-achieving schools, and high levels of crime.

The California Real Estate Board's Code of Ethics stated it plain and clear: "A realtor should never be instrumental in introducing into a neighborhood ... any race or nationality, or any individuals, whose presence will clearly be detrimental to property values." In other words, no nonwhites (and in some areas no Jews). On the white side of a redline border, no landlord would rent an apartment to a person of color, no realtor would show a house, no bank would grant a mortgage, no government agency would offer or insure a loan. On the other side, it would be just the reverse — no whites permitted and little or no investment in infrastructure or new construction. The resulting ghettos were so sharply defined that in some cases everyone living on one side of a street might be white while those living across the street might be entirely Black. Or Latino & Native-American. Or Asian.

The redlining system of housing segregation was enormously profitable and for the housing industry it was more about the money than their personal racial attitudes. By ruthlessly constricting the housing supply, they forced families who desperately needed a roof over their heads to pay premium rents for rundown, poorly maintained apartments. Nonwhites trying to buy a home had their choices restricted to overpriced houses with predatory mortgages charging excessive interest rates. Landlords, developers, speculators, banks, and insurance companies prospered — nonwhite men, women, and children endured and suffered.

Throughout the 1950s and '60s, battles against housing discrimination flared in northern cities across the nation, including Los Angeles. NAACP, CORE, and the ACLU filed lawsuits, lobbied for fair-housing legislation, protested restrictive covenants and other forms of housing discrimination, and guarded from racist violence the few nonwhite families who managed to integrate an all-white neighborhood. The demands for an end to both school and housing segregation and for integrated schools and neighborhoods stirred up fierce white opposition — a "White Backlash" against Black demands for human rights, racial equality, economic justice, and a fair share of political power.

At that time, while a good number of liberal whites did support open housing and integrated neighborhoods, a solid majority of the white population in northern cities supported residential segregation for two main reasons:

  1. They knew that integrated neighborhoods would inevitably lead to integrated schools and they believed that the quality of education provided by racially diverse schools would drop significantly. Since white school boards systematically under-funded schools with significant numbers of nonwhite students, that fear held a kernel of truth. Moreover, white parents knew that integrated neighborhoods and schools meant interracial dating, sex, and marriage. For some of them that was simply too horrifying to be risked.

  2. They also believed that nonwhites moving into their neighborhood would result in sharp and immediate declines in their property values. That fear too was based on a kernel of truth because the goal of redlining was to quickly transform blocks and neighborhoods from all-white to all Black, or Latino, or Asian — in some cases over the course of just a few months. Real estate speculators used "block busting" scare-tactics to drive down the prices that they themselves paid to the white home owners who they panicked into fleeing a newly integrated neighborhood. But the prices those speculators charged nonwhites for formerly white-owned homes were generally higher than previous market values.

    Similarly, rents paid by nonwhites were usually equal to, or higher, than those paid by the former white tenants, while landlords knew they were free to cut back on maintenance and upkeep because segregation provided them a captive population who had little competitive choice. So while landlords were loudly declaiming that the value of their apartment buildings had gone down due to integration — and therefore their tax assessment should be lowered — their profits were soaring.

    Over the long term, though, some newly integrated neighborhoods did degrade into ghetto slums due to a pattern of minimal building maintenance, redline restrictions barring financial investments in ghetto communities, and sharp declines in city services as municipal governments shifted public spending to neighborhoods that were still entirely white. White realtors and politicians, however, attributed such declines to alleged character defaults of the new nonwhite residents.

White fears of property value loss, declining schools, and interracial marriage spurred intense white opposition to housing integration — and they voted accordingly. A reality well understood by white politicians, many of whom ran on explicitly racist platforms and some of whom deliberately exacerbated white fears for their personal partisan gain.

And Blacks and Latinos who managed to obtain an apartment or buy a home in a white neighborhood faced ostracism, harassment, and in some cases violence. And some communities, Glendale California for example, were notorious "sundown towns" where any nonwhite seen on the street after sunset was picked up by the police and either charged with some phony infraction and incarcerated overnight or unceremoniously taken to the city line and ordered never to return.

Los Angeles CORE, an integrated direct action organization with a significant number of white members was in the thick of these struggles, particularly against explicitly racist, white-only housing tracts in Torrance and Inglewood owned by real estate tycoon Don Wilson. But some in LA CORE questioned the value of breaking down racial barriers to home ownership in white-only suburbs. They argued that few Afro-Americans had the economic means to buy newly-built homes in such places and that fewer-still wanted to live in a hostile white suburb far from Black community life, churches, and businesses. In their view, CORE should concentrate on opening up white-only apartment buildings and home rentals near the existing ghetto that Afro-Americans could more easily afford. Most of LA CORE's elected leadership, however, both Black and white, were professionals or business people and they thought otherwise.

The intensifying white backlash against school and housing integration exacerbated a hidden fault line within LA CORE. Taking their cue from Birmingham and other dramatic protests in the South, one CORE faction urged the chapter to continue mounting more, bigger, and more disruptive demonstrations. They believed that civil rights victories could only be won through militant protests. But the dominant faction saw allying with the liberal wing of the Democratic Party and lobbying for legislative relief as the only viable strategy. Democratic Party leaders, however, were terrified that the rising white backlash would hurt the party's electoral chances in the 1964 elections, so they wanted CORE to "cool it." By the end of summer 1963, the moderate CORE leaders had been convinced by the liberal politicos to halt all further direct action protests against segregated housing.

In part, that cessation of housing protests was in response to a major legislative victory that seemed to validate the moderate's legislative lobbying strategy. Under pressure from the Civil Rights Movement, liberal Democrats passed a fair housing bill on the last day of the California legislative session. Governor Edmund Brown signed it into law in September of 1963. Commonly known as the "Rumford Act," it outlawed redlining and other forms of housing discrimination statewide. The Rumford Act was fiercely opposed by Republican legislators who defended the absolute freedom of property owners to do whatever they wanted with their real estate regardless of broader social or economic consequences. In their view, that included the right to racially discriminate and maintain all-white neighborhoods.

The California Real Estate Association, which had fought the Rumford Act with every dollar and dime at their disposal, immediately filed court challenges against it, stalling its implementation. They then launched a well-financed initiative campaign to repeal it. They had no trouble getting thousands of whites to sign their petition. In November of 1964, voters overwhelmingly passed Proposition-14 by a two-thirds margin. Most California civil rights groups including CORE tried (unsuccessfully) to mobilize voters to defeat Prop-14, but the Non-Violent Action Committee (N-VAC) argued that Movement supporters should boycott the vote because the human rights of minorities must never be subject to majority-vote, and that by participating in the campaign civil rights leaders tacitly reinforced the legitimacy of white voters limiting Black rights.

Two years later, in 1966, the California Supreme Court overturned Prop-14 on constitutional grounds, restoring the Rumford Act. But again there were immediate court challenges that indefinitely forestalled its implementation. Two years after that, the assassination of Dr. King sparked violent ghetto revolts in more than 100 cities across the country. In response, Congress finally passed a national Fair Housing Act that, of course, applied to California and for the most part nullified the court challenges that were still blocking the Rumford Act.

The federal Fair Housing Act and California's Rumford Act prohibited most (though not all) overt, explicit forms of housing discrimination by medium and large-sized property owners, financial corporations, and government agencies. But over the decades since, many in the real estate and banking industries have continued to covertly evade those fair housing laws by various stratagems and subterfuges. And some local governments continue to use zoning rules, building permits, urban renewal projects, municipal ordinances, subsidies, set-asides, and highway-planning schemes for the same purpose.

As it stands now, affluent nonwhites can usually live where they want — if they're doggedly persistent and willing to push through and overcome discriminatory obstacles and in some cases racial hostility from neighbors and suspicion on the part of cops in patrol cars. But most people of color in the urban North still live in racially defined neighborhoods, though the boundaries of those districts are now blurry, no longer delineated with the knife-edge sharpness they had in the 1960s.

But two dynamics encountered by civil rights activists 50 years ago still remain constant today — persistent racial attitudes of "them versus us" held by a significant segment of American whites, and the deliberate, profit-motivated exacerbation of residential racism practiced by individuals and institutions who still financially benefit from housing segregation.

Portions of this article adapted from "Troublemaker" Memories of the Freedom Movement.

Copyright © Bruce Hartford.

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