The urban decay that for years gutted America’s inner cities, turning them into poor and crumbling wards of disadvantage, can be traced back to a racist lending policy instituted by a government program meant to insure bank loans.
Long before Israeli and American leaders popularized the term red line to issue threats against Iran and set boundaries for Syrian chemical weapons use, the term had an even more sinister legacy: The US government’s process, starting in the 1930s, of delineating areas in cities for urban and suburban development for whites and leaving the rest to wallow in decay, known as redlining.
Redlining policies not only reinforced existing segregation in cities still besotted by America’s legacy of slavery, but also created new divisions by encouraging restrictive covenants that enforced separation of minorities from whites.
Exactly 50 years ago, at the height of the civil rights era, the government changed course by passing the Fair Housing Act and outlawing discriminatory housing practices. Yet even today, experts and policy analysts say the deleterious effects of those earlier practices persist and continue to shape American cities for the worse.
‘It will allow segregation and inequality. There is no limitation’
With Israel currently considering its own law that would support segregationist housing, America’s inability to shake the legacy of redlining could provide a cautionary tale about the dangers of instituting such policies, and the Frankenstein’s monster of inequality it creates.
In the mid-1930s, the newly created Federal Housing Administration asked the Home Owners Loan Corporation to create maps of over 200 cities across the US demarcating areas by how risky it was to insure mortgages there.
The maps followed racial lines, with areas of cities where African-Americans lived blotted out in red and the “undesirable population” there ineligible for FHA-backed mortgages.
Yellow areas, where many Jews and other minorities lived, were considered risky because of the possibility of “foreign-born, negro, or lower grade populations.” Suburbs inhabited by affluent whites were marked in blue and green, the safest places to direct development dollars.
The FHA handbook and HOLC maps were explicit in their desire to keep “inharmonious racial groups” from mixing, and in many cases the government made developers impose covenants restricting sales of homes or plots to whites as a condition for receiving federal backing for their projects.
“It was explicitly segregationist. The federal government in this country had many policies that were explicitly designed to make sure African Americans and whites could not live near each other,” said Richard Rothstein, whose 2017 book “The Color of Law” looks at how the federal government actively worked to segregate cities.
It took over 30 years for the US to reverse course, passing the Fair Housing Act that outlawed discrimination in April 1968.
Yet according to Rothstein and other historians, the damage had already been done, and even 50 years later, cities still bear not only the scars but festering open wounds of those policies.
A 2017 study from the Federal Reserve Bank of Chicago found that inequalities persisted as late as 2010 along border areas between red and yellow, and yellow and blue areas. “The maps had a causal and persistent effect on the development of neighborhoods through credit access,” the authors wrote.
“We still have a very, very segregated society, in terms of housing and [by extension] schools,” Brown University sociologist John R. Logan recently told US News and World Report.
According to Rothstein, a large part of the problem was the fact that by the time blacks could buy in more affluent areas, the homes there were already out of reach because prices had risen so much.
“In Levittown, there were very inexpensive homes. They sold for $8,000 to $9,000 [$100,000 in today’s inflation-adjusted dollars] a piece. African American families could have afforded those and could have moved out of public housing,” Rothstein said, referring to the post-war New York suburb where blacks were forbidden. By the time the town was desegregated, those homes were out of reach. “Today they are worth $400,000 to $500,000. The white families who purchased them gained enormous equity appreciation.”
Meanwhile, blacks were in debt to unregulated money lenders, the only places they could get a loan, and even after 1968 some banks continued to practice racist lending policies.
The resulting legacy is rampant inequality, in both wealth and opportunities for escaping poverty. Black communities continue to not only be separate but unequal.
“Nationwide today African American wealth is about 10 percent of white wealth, but African Americans make 60 percent as much as whites. That’s an enormous difference,” said Rothstein, pointing the legacy of segregated housing as the main factor keeping blacks in poverty.
“Discrimination … laws reached their apex in the mid-20th century, when the federal government—through housing policies—engineered the wealth gap, which remains with us to this day,” wrote Ta-Nehesi Coates in a landmark 2014 Atlantic article titled “The Case for Reparations.”
“An unsegregated America might see poverty, and all its effects, spread across the country with no particular bias toward skin color. Instead, the concentration of poverty has been paired with a concentration of melanin. The resulting conflagration has been devastating.”
‘A huge turn on the highway’
Historians say the racist housing policies were a way to continue segregating communities after the Supreme Court knocked down explicitly racist zoning regulations.
In Israel, clause 7B of the controversial Nation-State Bill presents a virtual mirror of those century-old processes in the US, using law to directly further existing arrangements.
Much housing in Israel is already de-facto segregated. Towns describe themselves as Jewish or Arab, aside from the odd mixed city like Haifa or Lod, and even these places have Jewish or Arab neighborhoods.
It’s extremely rare for a Jew to have an Arab neighbor or vice versa, but until now it has never been part of the country’s de facto constitution to enforce those separations.
The clause, which has come under vociferous criticism and may now be softened, would “authorize a community composed of people having the same faith and nationality to maintain the exclusive character of that community.”
According to critics, that means self-determining communities can decide to ban Arabs, Ethiopian Jews, gays, divorced people, Christians, or a wide array of other subgroups.
“It will allow segregation and inequality. There is no limitation. It can be in any place in the country and even in any neighborhood,” said Sharon Abraham-Weiss, executive director of the Association for Civil Rights in Israel, better known as ACRI. “It’s so wide.”
Unlike the US, where redlining was used as a work around for anti-discrimination laws, in Israel discrimination will become the law should the bill pass. And not only the law, but a Basic Law, joining a set of legislation seen as Israel’s equivalent to the constitution, which is why some have made the issue their hill to die on.
“This is about the character of Israel as a democracy. It’s not a little change. We are speaking about a huge turn on the highway,” Abraham-Weiss said.
On Tuesday, President Reuven Rivlin took the nearly unprecedented step of intervening in the legislative process, writing an impassioned letter to lawmakers and urging them to rethink including the policy in the legislation, a sign of the dangers he saw.
The legislation in its current form “could harm the Jewish people worldwide and in Israel, and could even be used as a weapon by our enemies,” Rivlin wrote.
“Do we want to support the discrimination and exclusion of men and women based on their ethnic origin?”
You can’t go home again
Housing discrimination has consistently shown to be a harder ill to remedy than other types of discrimination, with its odious effects lasting for decades after racist laws were repealed.
‘If you abolish segregation in housing, the next day things don’t look much different’
In the US, South Africa and other places, efforts to level the playing field after decades of racism have failed to do the job. In Cape Town, academics, activists and policy makers launched an initiative last year to rethink housing policies given the “continuing apartheid” there.
“We had the civil rights movement, and the next day you could drink from a fountain or ride a bus. But if you abolish segregation in housing, the next day things don’t look much different. It’s much different to undo housing segregation,” Rothstein said.
“Housing policy can have a really long-lasting impact, since structures last a long time,” Daniel Hartley, one of the authors of the Chicago study, told The New York Times last year.
Israel is not the US or South Africa. It has neither the poisoned history of slavery or apartheid to contend with. But it has its own tortured past of strained relations between Jews and Arabs, as well as between Ashkenazi, Mizrahi and Ethiopian Jews, religious and non-religious and on and on.
It’s a country where boundaries between neighborhoods and towns “belonging” to different groups are already sharply defined, both de facto and through acceptance committees, which allow small towns, farming cooperatives and settlements to reject potential residents for a wide variety of reasons. The acceptance committees, which are permitted to turn away prospective residents for being “not suitable for the community’s social life,” exist in 117 Israeli communities, not including those in the West Bank.
There have been signs that the country wants to move away from this legacy, to integrate, celebrate difference and acceptance of others. The outcry over the bill is one of those signals.
“It’s easy to love someone like me. The question is how I act toward someone who is not,” national-religious columnist Chen Artzi-Srour wrote recently in populist daily Yedioth Ahronoth, recalling her disgust with being asked to submit to an acceptance committee in a town she was considering moving to.
In 2013, ACRI sued after a town being built on state lands advertised tenders for Jews only. The state promised to end the practice.
In 2015, the B’Emunah real estate company came under fire for a video marketing a new housing project that promised residents “good neighbors” unlike the Mizrahi Jews portrayed in the clip.
Two years later, a court ruled the same company could not market the homes to religious Jews only.
If the nation-state bill passes, it won’t just rewind Israel to a time when those things were acceptable. They will become the law, and they will sharpen divisions within the state to the bleeding edge of racism, at a time when the rest of the world is moving in the other direction.
And one day, should the Knesset decide to put the toothpaste back in the tube and abolish discriminatory housing, experience shows it may find it long ago crossed a red line from which there is no return.