But since President Lyndon Johnson signed the Fair Housing Act into law, serious integration efforts on the federal level have been curbed. Johnson’s immediate successor, Richard Nixon, derailed his own secretary of Housing and Urban Development’s integration program, which withdrew federal funds from jurisdictions that did not comply with the civil-rights law. The secretary, George Romney, had been committed to reversing the segregated housing patterns that the government helped engineer, saying that the suburbs were a “high-income white noose” around black inner cities. But Romney’s program, which he called “Open Communities,” faced backlash from Nixon’s political advisers, and the president publicly denounced it as “forced integration.”
Nixon’s views on housing ran directly against King’s dream of an integrated America. “I am convinced that while legal segregation is totally wrong,” Nixon wrote, “forced integration of housing or education is just as wrong.” Much to the delight of his reelection campaign, Nixon successfully thwarted Romney’s program and eventually forced the secretary out of his administration. A 2012 ProPublica investigation found that since then, HUD has only twice held federal funds from jurisdictions for violating the Fair Housing Act. In fact, Nixon’s early steps to dismantle the housing act were so influential that 40 years after Romney resigned, his son, Republican presidential nominee Mitt Romney, suggested that he may eliminate HUD altogether during a private fundraiser for his 2012 campaign.
“The reason that an aggressive program like [George Romney’s] hasn’t been done since is that there’s no political support for it,” said Richard Rothstein, a research associate at the Economic Policy Institute and author of The Color of Law. “And part of the reason there’s no political support for it is because we’ve adopted this myth that the government wasn’t responsible for segregation, and so there’s no governmental responsibility for undoing it.”
The reality, however, is that the government is uniquely responsible for creating slums, which King viewed as “a system of internal colonialism not unlike the exploitation of the Congo by Belgium.” In the 1930s, the government-sponsored Home Owners’ Loan Corporation introduced the private-sector to redlining when it produced color-coded maps of urban areas; black neighborhoods were marked in red, which indicated that they were the riskiest areas to insure mortgages. Consequently, white residents received virtually all loans from the Federal Housing Administration between 1934 and 1962. “But for this kind of government policy, we would not have the segregated patterns that we have today,” Rothstein said.
The FHA was so determined to keep African Americans out of white neighborhoods that it provided methods for doing so in its underwriting manual, which stated that “natural or artificially established barriers will prove effective in protecting a neighborhood and the locations within it from adverse influences … [which] includes prevention of the infiltration of business and industrial uses, lower class occupancy, and inharmonious racial groups.” As Rothstein writes in his book, the FHA favored areas that built highways through and between neighborhoods to keep them separated on the basis of race. In one instance, the FHA refused to guarantee loans for homes in a Detroit development adjacent to a black neighborhood unless the developer built a wall to keep the black neighbors out. “The reason federal agencies are on the hook in the first place is that they created the segregated and unequal society that we have today,” Katherine O’Regan, a former HUD official, said.