On April 11, 1968, one week after the assassination of the Rev. Martin Luther King Jr., President Lyndon B. Johnson signed Title VIII of the Civil Rights Act of 1968 into law.
The legislation, better known as the Fair Housing Act, made it a federal offense to discriminate against a person wishing to rent or buy real estate based on “race, color, religion or national origin,” among other things. But as we celebrate the progress and balance the law has attempted to bring about over the past 40 years, the numbers give us a different story.
It’s clear that when it comes to achieving racial equality in housing, we still have a long way to go. This is the perfect time for journalists to use statistical analysis to get behind the numbers to understand some of the finer points of the U.S. housing market as it pertains to race.
A few stats from 2000:
• According to the U.S. Census Bureau, about 73 percent of whites were classified as homeowners, compared to just 46 percent of blacks.
• The Lewis Mumford Center for Comparative Urban and Regional Research at the University of Albany found that 65 percent of blacks and whites still lived in segregated neighborhoods.
• Blacks and Hispanics represented nearly three out of every four residents in neighborhoods of concentrated poverty, according to the Brookings Institute.
Jason Reece, a senior researcher with the Kirwan Institute for the Study of Race and Ethnicity at The Ohio State University in Columbus, Ohio, has spoken at several SPJ events on this topic and believes that using such statistics will result in a treasure trove of stories for interested journalists.
His nonprofit organization, which takes a critical look at race and ethnicity as it relates to everyday life, has used 50 years of research and data to map areas of success — and failure — in the fight for fair housing. And since the beginning, the institute has found that where a person lives dictates his or her quality of life.
“Housing is the primary mechanism for accessing opportunity in our society,” Reece said during a recent presentation sponsored by the Greater Cincinnati chapter of the Society of Professional Journalists. “Your environment has a profound impact on the likelihood of success.”
Brown University’s “State of Public School Integration” study showed that in all three of Ohio’s largest metropolitan areas (Cincinnati, Cleveland and Columbus), predominately black neighborhoods have two to three times the poverty rate of white neighborhoods. This affects nearly all facets of life, he added, including health, public safety and the ability to build personal wealth. Some of the major areas are:
Education. Reece said that because housing segregation breaks down along color lines, our schools — particularly those in inner cities — are suffering because of “rapid re-segregation.” Once a neighborhood goes downhill, everyone who can afford to move out does so, leaving behind areas of concentrated poverty. That in turn lowers the amount of money collected through property taxes, which means less money for school districts that were already struggling.
The result is affluent districts that serve mostly white students and under-funded districts for blacks and Hispanics. The Lewis Mumford Center estimates that the national rate of racial dissimilarity is 65 percent. (A rate of zero occurs when minorities and whites students are distributed evenly throughout school districts; a rate of 100 means complete racial isolation.)
Transportation. Suburban sprawl requires more highways, not public transportation. Combined with disinvestment in urban cores across the country, these factors deliver a one-two punch: no jobs near the places where great numbers of minorities live, and fewer ways to get to the areas where job growth is occurring. The Brookings Institute found that in Cincinnati alone, nearly 60 percent of the black population is physically separated from more than 40 percent of jobs that are at least 10 miles from the city’s center.
Why is this type of data important to journalists? Because it fills in the blanks with analysis that can help change perceptions about poor people.
“Section 8 has done more to eliminate housing disparities than any other federal program,” said Elizabeth Brown, executive director of Housing Opportunities Made Equal, a Cincinnati-based fair housing group. “But the program suffers because of perception. People think that ‘thugs’ are going to move into their neighborhoods.”
Race will continue to be a polarizing issue, and any discussion of it will generally elicit some eye rolling and heavy sighs. But when you “crunch the numbers,” all that remains are the cold, hard truth of racial disparity and social inequity. Journalists should lead the charge and use the 40th anniversary of the momentous passing of the Fair Housing legislation to spur the much-needed dialogue about what keeps most Americans living separate and unequal.