By Greg Varner
There is wealth and political power in Washington, DC, but also high levels of racial and class isolation, which certainly has to do with the continued segregation in the United States.
This was the suggestion of sociologist Douglas Massey, co-author (with Nancy Denton) of American apartheid, which highlights the systematic discrimination of black Americans in housing in a virtual event on Friday to mark the retirement of Gregory Squires, GW Professor of Sociology and Public Order and Public Administration.
Mr. Massey, along with Lisa Rice, President and CEO of the National Fair Housing Alliance, was one of four guest panelists for the event sponsored by the Columbian College of Arts and Sciences at George Washington University; Stefanie DeLuca, Professor of Sociology and Social Policy at Johns Hopkins University; and Richard Rothstein, author of the bestseller the Color of the lawshowing how American politicians have deliberately created racially homogeneous neighborhoods.
Dr. Squires, a prolific writer with many publications, has edited The fight for fair living space, a collection that brings together various activists and scholars to study the history of the struggle against segregation and develop strategies for the future. The book was celebrated for its importance to the field.
Each of the panelists presented testimonials to the guest of honor. Event host Ivy Ken, an associate professor in the GW Department of Sociology, set the tone, saying, “Greg was very intimidating to work with,” citing his publications. “And it all seems to have been done in his spare time.”
Mary Tschirhart, director of the Trachtenberg School of Public Policy and Public Administration, also praised Mr. Squires in her introduction. “I hope he continues to contribute to the debate,” she said. “We need his persistence and his wisdom.”
Ms. Rice noted that Dr. Squires clearly shows that “the place – where you live – is inextricably linked with opportunity”.
She noted that much more money is being devoted to white school districts than districts that mainly serve colored people. Black people are more likely to live in “food deserts” where healthy food is not conveniently available, which has a negative impact on their health. Residents in segregated neighborhoods also have less access to credit as banks are concentrated in white neighborhoods.
The latter fact, Ms. Rice noted, is sometimes explained in terms of economics. However, banks are far more likely to close branches in high-income black areas than in low-income white areas.
“It’s a matter of race, not a question of economy,” concluded Ms. Rice.
She advocates a race-neutral plan to help first generation homeowners pay a down payment. For this type of assistance, she added, 5 million borrowers would be eligible, including about 2 million aspiring black homeowners and a smaller proportion of LatinX and Asian American borrowers.
“Neighborhoods,” agreed Dr. Massey to be “an important hub for the transfer of advantages and disadvantages”. He wrote Dr. Squires admitted that he had raised awareness of the harm segregation does to any group, especially African Americans.
The idea that all Americans have the same choice when it comes to finding their neighborhood, said Dr. DeLuca, is wrong. First of all, the time to look for an apartment is hard to come by for parents who combine work and childcare. “People end up in neighborhoods, they don’t choose them,” she said.
In addition, according to Dr. DeLuca, African Americans face less financial opportunity and become susceptible to various shady practices. The credit history is used by landlords to decline applications from potential tenants.
There are two main systems for determining the value of African American homes in low-income neighborhoods, noted Mr. Rothstein. The first is a system of asset appraisals used to determine property tax, and the second is a system of appraisals commissioned by banks to lend money.
A large city like Chicago might only have one appraiser and thousands of appraisers. With numbers like this, Mr Rothstein noted, it’s harder to come up with data to show that valuations are too low in African American neighborhoods.
One solution to this problem is to set up a trained corps of certified appraisers and to ask the banks to cooperate by means of commission reports from this body.
“Perhaps you can instruct banks to commission this corps of certified appraisers for a second appraisal,” said Rothstein.
With so many Americans physically racially segregated, Mr. Rothstein asked, how can we hope to develop a common national identity? In today’s political climate, this is becoming increasingly urgent.
“Today we are experiencing the most terrifying and extremely dangerous political polarization in this country that we have had since the 1850s,” said Rothstein. “And this polarization led to civil war.”
Before turning to questions from the audience, Dr. Squires to the panelists.
“You four make up Mount Rushmore of segregation research and advocacy, in my opinion,” he said. “If I had known that we could hold such an event, I would have retired years ago.”