Wednesday, May 18, 2022


Article Index

D. Federal Policies In The Twentieth Century Perpetuated The Status Of African Americans As Third-Class Citizens.

Twentieth-century governmental policies - both before and after Brown - have perpetuated the legacy of slavery and state-sanctioned segregation and discrimination by erecting barriers that depressed black economic advancement and that substantially eliminated opportunities for generations of blacks to amass personal and familial assets. Even with the hard fought victory of Brown and the end of de jure segregation in public schools, blacks continued to suffer the frontal effects of federal policies designed to ensure their status as third-class citizens.

*16 For the first third of the century, the majority of blacks lived in a plantation economy that was “essentially feudalistic.” As sharecroppers and tenant farmers, blacks were trapped in an economy that required them to pay more than they earned, and therefore they lived in “perpetual indebtedness [that kept] the tenant farmer nearly … as securely tied to the land and to his landlord as he was under slavery.” Even here, blacks were paid less than whites and, consequently, were less able to escape the system.

Although conceived to promote the general social welfare, New Deal economic programs imposed serious barriers to black economic advancement. Provisions of the Social Security Act, insisted upon by southern Congressmen, for more than two decades excluded domestic servants and agricultural workers from old-age pension coverage and unemployment benefits- the core programs of the Social Security Act. The racial effects of this exclusion were dramatic. More than 60% of the excluded workers were African-American, and “in the cotton states of the Deep South (Mississippi, Alabama, Georgia and South Carolina) more than three in four excluded workers were *17 black.” For similar reasons, another New Deal measure that brought a measure of economic security to many Americans omitted large numbers of blacks. When Congress adopted the Fair Labor Standards Act in 1938, it incorporated the same agricultural and domestic worker exemptions as featured in the Social Security Act.

With the support and encouragement of state and local actors, the federal government adopted policies that severely limited black home ownership opportunities, thereby depriving blacks of one of the most effective routes to personal and family wealth accumulation. For decades beginning in the 1930s the Federal Housing Administration (“FHA”) actively fostered residential segregation. Even after restrictive covenants were outlawed by this Court in 1948, the FHA overlooked devices adopted by neighborhood organizations and private citizens that accomplished the same discriminatory ends as the restrictive *18 covenants. These discriminatory practices, and similar practices by the Veterans Administration, excluded African Americans from major federal housing support programs. FHA deputy commissioner Philip Maloney reported in 1967 that in “a number of large urban centers … virtually no minority family housing has been provided through FHA.”

The FHA also institutionalized overtly discriminatory lending practices that denied black families the opportunities to buy homes and accumulate equity. It defined “incompatible racial elements” as grounds for rejecting a mortgage and encouraged appraisers to rely upon physical barriers or racial covenants to guarantee against the encroachment of “inharmonious racial groups.” Redlining practices by the FHA and the Federal Home Loan Bank Board continued through the 1970s. Private banks and savings-and-loan associations patterned their lending policies on the discriminatory practices of the FHA, extending the reach of federal policy deep into the private sector. Moreover, these private practices continued into the 1990s. Comparably qualified black families are still rejected for home loans 60% *19 more often than white families. Federal regulators acquiesced in this discriminatory conduct throughout the 1970s and 1980s.

Federal “urban renewal” policy devastated black urban areas. “Slum clearance,” officially introduced in 1949, diminished available housing for African-Americans and ripped apart black neighborhoods by destroying local businesses. Along with federal public housing policy that concentrated African Americans in racially isolated, economically depressed areas, urban renewal policies destabilized inner cities, setting in motion a downward economic spiral that further limited blacks' access to capital. Perhaps nowhere are the deleterious ripple effects of these policies more apparent than in the devastation of largely black inner-city urban areas, including severe economic underdevelopment, substandard schools, limited housing, rampant unemployment, and a paucity of jobs that pay a livable wage. The deep involvement of the federal government in these policies not only reinforced previous patterns but lent them “a permanence never before seen,” one *20 that “virtually constituted a new form of de jure segregation.” The passage of otherwise landmark civil rights legislation has failed to ameliorate the widespread and deeply rooted effects of longtime government policies devised to oppress blacks and to subvert black achievement.


Vernellia R. Randall
Founder and Editor
Professor Emerita of Law
The University of Dayton School of Law