Earlier this month marked the 50thanniversary of the passage of the 1968 Fair Housing Act. On March 1, 1968, the Kerner Commission issued its report to Congress on race relations in the United States, warning that “America is dividing into two societies, black and white, separate and unequal.” According to the Kerner Commission, one of the chief manifestations of this inequality was residential segregation, which relegated Blacks to crowded urban ghettoes. Congress responded to the Kerner Commission report with the 1968 Act, an attempt to reduce residential segregation and provide access to economic opportunities for people of color. Despite the urgency of the report, the Act stalled in Congress until the assassination of Martin Luther King, Jr. sparked nationwide riots in inner cities. The Fair Housing Act is far-reaching. Among other provisions, it requires the federal government to engage in affirmative action to integrate federally owned and subsidized housing. Unfortunately, the Act’s anniversary passed with little fanfare.
Two provisions of the 1968 Fair Housing Act were based on Congress’ power to enforce the 13thAmendment. The first, the “Anti-Blockbusting Provision,” prohibits realtors from using race-based rumors to scare people into selling their homes at a reduced rate. The second, the 1968 Hate Crimes Act, makes it a crime for a person to interfere in certain “federally protected activities,” including economic activities, on the basis of their race. According to New York Senator Charles Goodell, “the 13th amendment to the Constitution forever barred slavery and involuntary servitude in the United States. It was viewed by those who had approved it as abolishing not just enforced service of one person for another but as a guarantee to all citizens, of the outlawing of all the badges and incidents of slavery. One hundred and three years after its adoption the Congress has yet to remove all the disabilities of that servitude.” Like the 1866 Civil Rights Act before it, the 1968 Fair Housing Act addressed the badges and incidents of slavery.
Given the significance of the Fair Housing Act, it’s surprising how little acclaim the Act received on its April 11 anniversary. On the other hand, the 1968 Fair Housing Act was controversial when it was enacted, and its wide-reaching mandate is largely unenforced. According to one of the act’s sponsors, Walter Mondale, “The public servants tasked with implementing it have often forgotten — or refused to pursue — its ultimate goal of building an integrated society.” Mondale points out that federal officials balked at enforcing the Act’s integration mandate until the Obama administration. Now, the current Secretary of Housing and Urban Development, Ben Carson, referred to those Obama era regulations as “mandated social engineering.”
Rather than celebrate the Act’s anniversary, Secretary Carson seems intent on undermining it. For example, Secretary Carson recently removed anti-discrimination language from HUD’s mission statement. As advocates for civil rights struggle to maintain hard won gains from the past 50 years, comprehensive measures like he 1968 Fair Housing Act seem sadly anachronistic. However, 50 years after the Kerner commission report, little has improved. Blacks experience unemployment at twice the rate as whites, and according to a recent study, our cities and schools are re-segregating. Try as we might to ignore and deny it, people of color in our country are still suffering from the badges and incidents of slavery.