Brentin Mock is a staff writer at CityLab. He was previously the justice editor at Grist.
Fifty years ago, Martin Luther King was assassinated. But the racist housing and policing policies he was fighting are still with us.
In 1968, Esquire spoke with James Baldwin about possible solutions to racial tensions in the wake of Martin Luther King’s assassination. It was a wide-ranging discussion, but it often gravitated towards the issues of housing and policing—two longstanding challenges that have historically obstructed African Americans’ paths toward economic mobility and empowerment in the United States. Asked about low-income housing development, the acclaimed novelist said he didn’t want any more housing projects built in Harlem.
“I want someone to attack the real-estate lobby because that’s the only way to destroy the ghetto,” said Baldwin. Asked what he thought about building low-income housing in the suburbs, he said, “Well, that depends on the will of the American people, doesn’t it? That’s why they are in the suburbs—to get away from me.”
As Amanda Hurley wrote in this 2018 Year in Review series, the suburbs have since grown to become a much more complicated place. But the racism undergirding Baldwin’s sentiments on what the suburbs had become and how they got that way in 1968 still remain with us, 50 years later. And the people most heavily burdened by racism are still taking to the streets to express their concerns and rages over it as well.
When high school students organized school walkouts earlier this year to protest weak gun laws, black and Latino students made sure this agenda included the fact that students of color had been attending schools under threats of gun violence and insecurity for decades. These protests closely resembled the 1968 student walkouts in Los Angeles over safer school conditions for Latino students.
The way government and law enforcement officials respond to these protests hasn’t changed much, either—police still are mostly positioned to manage and suppress such uprisings, often by force; government officials, meanwhile, continue to struggle with how to address their root causes. In 2018, as America commemorated King in his final living moments, we seemed simultaneously invested in resuscitating and maintaining many of the problems that he died trying to remedy in 1968.
When it comes to housing, most if not all major cities still contain similar rates of spatial-racial segregation seen in King’s day. The reasons for that lie as much with the real estate lobbies that have continued promoting exclusionary zoning policies as they do with the banks that continue to propagate inequitable lending patterns.
The 1968 Fair Housing Act, which Congress passed a week after King was assassinated, was supposed to curb such lending disparities, and the Affirmatively Furthering Fair Housing provision within it was supposed to redirect low-income housing construction to wealthier suburbs. But African Americans and Latinos are today rejected for mortgages at much higher rates than whites, as Reveal and the Center for Investigative Reporting reported earlier this year. Writing about the report, CityLab’s Kriston Capps mapped what that looks like today in the cities of Jacksonville and St. Louis, where uneven lending policies have helped keep those cities’ neighborhoods as racially segregated as they were even before 1968.
“Where de jure segregation was once the rule, de facto segregation still persists,” wrote Capps. “For example, in Jacksonville, new home mortgages still fall within the very same lines that banks drew to prevent black families from moving into white neighborhoods or building wealth some 80 years ago.’
As for the Affirmatively Furthering Fair Housing rule, HUD Secretary Ben Carson has been chipping away at it, and this year he eliminated a key tool that local jurisdictions were to use for figuring out effective ways of deploying low-income housing resources more equitably across cities and suburbs.
It is perhaps no surprise then that real estate market forces have been rekindling the kind of discriminatory redlining housing practices that the Fair Housing Act was supposed to outlaw. Such practices have perpetuated racial segregation patterns today that extend beyond just residential layouts—the distribution of standardized, reputable financial institutions, healthy food markets, green space, and fitness centers are also disproportionately concentrated in white neighborhoods in several major metros today because of enduring redlining procedures.
The police view the people who protest such conditions with suspicion, as they did in King’s day. In April, thousands of people descended upon Memphis, where King was killed, to participate in demonstrations, rallies, and services to honor the slain civil rights leader. Some of those demonstrators were unlawfully tracked and monitored by Memphis police. Back when King had led protests on behalf of Memphis sanitation workers in 1968, the police were secretly watching and taking notes on activists then as well. A consent decree installed in 1978 was supposed to end these surveillance tactics, but they were back at it in the years leading up to 2018, when a court intervention ended it for good.
The kind of intrusive policing that Memphis adopted was also embraced by other cities in 1968 to quell uprisings that were boiling across urban America, and the U.S. military began gearing up for its own intervention. In 1968, retired intelligence officer Colonel Robert B. Rigg wrote in ARMY magazine how “urban jungles” would give violence-causing activists an edge over police in a revolt. He called for “an effective system of intelligence in the ghettos” that would deploy undercover police and intelligence agents “to fight pitched urban battles here in America.”
In 1968, the federal government under President Lyndon B. Johnson was preparing to handle urban America’s discontent in a different way, having received the findings of the Report of the National Advisory Commission on Civil Disorders, aka “The Kerner Report.” That report acknowledged that urban uprisings were triggered by the legacy of racism and economic inequality that had left too many African Americans and Latinos socially marginalized and economically disadvantaged. Riggs was dismissive of the idea that “social, economic, or political reforms” like those called for in the Kerner Report could work as forcefully as a military or law enforcement approach.
What Riggs perhaps couldn’t foresee (or refused to see) was that law enforcement was just as overtaken by racist forces as every other American institution, making it an unsuitable tool for resolving problems rooted in racism. The Kerner Report recognized this in 1968, stating that, “police have come to symbolize white power, white racism and white repression.”
50 years later, The New York Times Magazine reported that police departments across America have failed to stop the rise of violent white supremacists and nationalists—as seen in Charlottesville in 2017—in part because of the white supremacists and nationalists found within their own police forces.
Perhaps this is exactly what Baldwin saw coming when he told Esquire in 1968 that he wanted “the mayor of every city and the President of this nation [to] go on the air and address the white people for a change. Tell them to cool it.”
Baldwin was also prescient in another way: Asked what should be done about the “white flight” from the cities to the suburbs, Baldwin said of white Americans, “If he wants to save his city, perhaps he should consider moving back. They’re his cities, too.”
Well, “moving back” is exactly what happened: It was found in 2015 that nearly half of the 50 largest metros reported increasing white populations for the first time in decades. With that return to the city has come rising living costs that far outpace working-class wages, the resulting displacement of low-income families, cultural clashes in previously minority-dominated neighborhoods that are being reshaped to accommodate new white neighbors, and an increase in nuisance complaints that lead to the over-criminalization of people of color.
A point sometimes lost in that gentrification paradox is that whites have been able to flee from the cities to the suburbs and back with relative ease over the decades, while many African Americans today remain in the same segregated and under-served neighborhoods that their parents were confined to in 1968. That half-century stuck-in-place narrative is reinforced by the government’s failures over the decades to adequately enforce the Fair Housing Act and other laws passed to protect non-white families from racist policies. For many of those families, 2018 was just 1968 all over again.