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The Supreme Court, the Fair Housing Act and the Racism Debate

posted by Alan White

The Supreme Court made a noteworthy contribution to the crescendo in our national conversation about race in its recent Texas v. ICP Fair Housing Act decision.

The Court affirmed that the Fair Housing Act prohibits not only explicit racial discrimination, but also policies and practices that have the effect of excluding or harming racial minorities.

In marked contrast to its Voting Rights Act and other decisions, the Supreme Court (5-vote majority) in this case did not declare that racism has nearly ended, nor that the time for corrective laws is coming to an end. Justice Kennedy, the perennial swing voter, grounded the continuing vitality of disparate impact analysis in the sad legacy of various policies, including redlining, steering, and restrictive covenants, a legacy that insures the persistence of geographic segregation of races in the United States, and perpetuates our vast opportunity and wealth gaps. In his opinion, he harkens back to the Kerner Commission's conclusion that the uprisings of the 1960s arose in no small measure from the ghettoization and racial apartheid of American cities. 

As a matter of legal doctrine the issue was straightforward. The Fair Housing Act has been interpreted consistently for more than forty years by all lower federal courts to prohibit housing and housing finance practices that exclude or discriminate against racial minorities in their effects. For example, a town's zoning plan that completely prohibits multifamily housing construction violates the Fair Housing Act when the result is to perpetuate the virtual exclusion of black families from the town. In the housing finance sphere, a bank's refusal to make mortgage loans in certain zip codes, or below a certain dollar amount, will violate the FHA if it has an unjustified disparate impact on minority homebuyers. Congress has re-enacted and amended the FHA without ever disapproving the application of disparate impact analysis.

Often, the difference between disparate impact and disparate treatment is a matter of proof, not of underlying facts. For example, in the exclusionary zoning cases, there is often evidence of racial animus at least among some members of the excluding suburb's governing bodies, but perhaps not enough to link a particular zoning vote to that racism. Some disparate impact cases are about racism by subterfuge. Others are about implicit bias, or even thoughtless discrimination. Disparate impact analysis, per Justice Kennedy, "permits plaintiffs to counteract unconscious prejudices and disguised animus that escape easy classification as disparate treatment."

One undoubted consequence of disparate impact analysis is that banks are under an affirmative obligation not to perpetuate the legacy of racism and the racial wealth divide with home lending practices and policies that have no business justification. No doubt, in the aftermath of the decision banks will protest that they must now enact racial quotas or make risky mortgage loans to unqualified borrowers. Housing lenders depend on an vast array of explicit and implicit state subsidies. The Fair Housing Act does not require making loans that won't be repaid. It does impose an affirmative public duty to make home loans in a way that closes rather than widens our nation's racial divide.

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