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Researcher: St. Louis segregation is a legacy of deliberate federal policy

Pruitt-Igoe, with the Vaughn Housing Complex at right
U.S. Geological Survey
St. Louis's Pruitt-Igoe is synomous with the failure of segregated public housing.

A researcher with the Economic Policy Institute says the federal government needs to recognize that it played a deliberate role in creating racially segregated neighborhoods in cities like St. Louis.

At a Missouri History Museum Symposium Saturday, the think tank’s Richard Rothstein drew a direct line between today’s segregated schools and neighborhoods and two federal housing programs from the 1930s, 40s and 50s: public housing and subsidized construction.

“We have a national myth that the reason our metropolitan areas are segregated is for informal reasons—private prejudice, differences in income, demographic trends, racial steering by real estate agents and so forth," Rothstein said. “The reality is that the segregation that we see today was established by the federal government with help from state and local governments. It’s an officially established system.”

Rothstein said the federal government purposefully created segregated neighborhoods throughout the country when it started building public housing in the 1930s. He said sometimes the government destroyed integrated neighborhoods like St. Louis’ Desoto-Carr neighborhood to build public housing that was earmarked for one race. Clinton-Peabody, for instance was built for white families on the near south-side of St. Louis while another public housing project was built for black families downtown.

After World War II, the federal government subsidized the construction of great swaths of homes in city suburbs and made them available to purchase for veterans—as long as they were white. Rothstein credits the appreciation in value of those homes as being a major reason white Americans have been able to build more wealth over the past few generations.

Richard Rothstein is a researcher with the Economic Policy Institute. He is based in Berkeley, California.
Credit Camille Phillips | St. Louis Public Radio
Richard Rothstein is a researcher with the Economic Policy Institute. He is based in Berkeley, California.

“The enormous difference in wealth between median African-American families and median white families is almost entirely attributable to federal housing policy of the 20th century by which whites were subsidized to buy suburban homes which then appreciated in value many times over over the next generation or two and African Americans were prohibited from buying those homes so they didn’t gain any of the benefits of equity appreciation that white families gained,” said Rothstein.

Ferguson resident Cassandra Butler was part of a small but invested crowd listening to Rothstein speak Saturday. She said his research was an affirmation.

“African Americans aren’t necessarily in the economic position they are in because we ourselves are inferior,” said Butler. “It’s constructed, institutional policies that have led to where we are.”

In October 2014 Rothstein wrote a paper analyzing the history of housing in Ferguson as a counter to what he said was an over-simplified narrative of “white flight.”

Butler said that paper gives needed context to her town.

Cassandra Butler lives in Ferguson and has a doctorate in public policy from the University of St. Louis-St. Louis.
Credit Camille Phillips | St. Louis Public Radio
Cassandra Butler lives in Ferguson and has a doctorate from the University of Missouri-St. Louis, where she studied public policy.

“Ferguson has transitioned from almost a sun-down town which was largely white based on public policies including restrictive covenants up until the middle 70s,” Butler said. “And that quick transition, though now we’re largely an African American city, there are still institutions that have memory of some of the policies of before and we haven’t been able to possibly weed out all of the cultural socialization aspects of being a community that was reinforced by public policies that should not be in play anymore.”

Rothstein’s major theme Saturday was that efforts to reduce segregation will be blocked as long as the country continues to operate under the myth that segregation is a result of private prejudice.

He pointed to a 2007 Supreme Court decision prohibiting schools in Louisville and Seattle from using race as a factor in school placement as an example. Both the majority and dissenting decision called segregation “de facto” instead of “de jure,” meaning that the segregation was not caused by government intervention.

“People think we have de facto segregation because we’ve stopped talking about this history,” Rothstein said. “It’s important that the American people recognize that we have a de jure system, an unconstitutional system of racial segregation by federal policy, because once they understand that, in our system that requires it be remedied.”

Rothstein said that it was too soon to talk about specific ways to reduce segregation because there was no point in doing so until there is the political to implement the changes.

“The kinds of remedies that would be necessary to desegregate the society, to remedy the constitutional violations are so extreme in today’s thinking that they’re laughable,” said Rothstein, referring to an example he gave during his presentation that would sell homes to black people at the price they would have paid when they were forbidden from purchasing the homes after World War II.

As an alternative, Rothstein suggested requiring that Section 8 vouchers and low-income housing credits be used exclusively in wealthier neighborhoods.  

“Both of those programs are presently used to reinforce segregation,” Rothstein said. “And we could very easily change those policies so that they pursue a policy of desegregation. We could require that section 8 vouchers only be used in high-opportunity neighborhoods. We could require that the low-income housing tax credits could only be used in high opportunity neighborhoods. But we’re not in any position to start making those requirements given the lack of understanding of the constitutional obligation to do so.”

Follow Camille Phillips on Twitter: @cmpcamille.