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Pulitzer-Prize Winning Author Nikole Hannah-Jones joins NLIHC’s Marla Newman Discuss Racial Equity and Housing Justice

Almost 5,000 people joined a special NLIHC broadcast on July 7 to hear Pulitzer-Prize winning author Nikole Hannah-Jones and NLIHC’s Board Chair Marla Newman discuss “Racial Equity and Housing Justice during and after COVID-19.” Ms. Hannah-Jones, the creator of the New York Times Magazine’s “The 1619 Project,” covers racial injustice for The New York Times Magazine and has spent years chronicling how official policy has created and maintains racial segregation in housing and schools. Her deeply personal reports on the Black experience in America offer a compelling case for greater equity. 

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Nikole Hannah-Jones’s perspective is critically important today, as police brutality towards Black Americans and the disproportionate impacts of the COVID-19 pandemic on people of color reveal in stark relief our nation’s historical and ongoing systemic racism. Her deep understanding of how our country’s housing injustice is driven by and fuels structural racism makes hers an essential voice during this critical moment.

Nikole Hannah-Jones (left) and Marla Newman discuss Racial Equity and Housing Justice.

The following are highlights from Nikole Hannah-Jones’ comments:

On the importance of where one lives:

When you decide to purchase a home, real estate agents say ‘location, location, location.’ They don’t say ‘house, house, house.’ They make it very clear that what’s more important than the actual structure that you buy, is the neighborhood that you buy into. Whether that neighborhood is one that offers you opportunities, whether that is a neighborhood that has resources, whether that is a neighborhood that has schools that serve children well, whether it has parks, whether it has places to shop—that’s really what real estate agents are selling you.

The same way that neighborhoods can benefit you by being full of opportunities, we also know that neighborhoods can have the opposite effect. Where you live can also ensure that your children won’t attend high quality schools, that you will be over-policed, that you will live in a food desert, and that you will live next to environmental toxins that make you and your children more sick.

On housing segregation:

We have these ideas that racism is a purview of the south and the north was abolitionist and free. But that’s of course based on a falsehood. For the vast history of our country, 98 to 99 percent of Black people lived in the south. There were parts of the south, of course, where Black people outnumbered white people. So the south developed this racial architecture which we have called Jim Crow—which is where the south controlled the Black population through a network of explicit laws that basically ordered everything that Black people could do, where Black people could go, what type of jobs Black people could have, what types of schools Black people could attend. Northerners never really had to do that because for the vast history of our country, there were never large numbers of Black people in the north. Though…the north also created an architecture of laws particularly before the end of slavery. Many northern states made it illegal for Black people to live in those states of if Black people moved to northern states, they had to actually pay a fee or deposit and have a white person vouch for their good character. We have erased that truth from our memory.

The Great Migration begins at the turn of the 20th century where Black people began to flee the south and look for opportunities in the north. We see the racial map of America really changed drastically in that 60-year period. You go from nearly all Black people living in the south to half of Black people living in the north. As Black people begin to move to the north the façade of the racially egalitarian North disappears because those white communities respond to rising numbers of Black people by figuring out how do we contain and control this population. The way that they did that was largely through housing. It was by segregating Black people and housing, by creating ghettos, by creating arbitrary boundaries of which you could not rent or sell to Black people outside of those boundaries and this effort was led by the federal government which of course created redlining maps and determined that area where Black people live were not insurable…

Housing became the mechanism of social control in the north. There weren’t integrated schools because Black people couldn’t live in the neighborhoods where white people sent their kids to schools. Black people didn’t shop where white people shopped because they didn’t live in those neighborhoods. They didn’t go the parks where white people went to because they didn’t live in those neighborhoods. Housing became very effective as a tool [of constraining Black people] in the north. Unfortunately, what that meant is after we saw laws saying you could no longer legally discriminate against Black people, you saw much more integration in the south because the south never had to segregate by housing—the south segregated by law. So Black people and white people were more intimate in their housing. In the north, which segregated by housing, when those laws passed that said you no longer could bar Black people from schools and from public facilities, it didn’t change the racial makeup of the neighborhoods. The federal government has never really enforced fair housing law, and local governments have never really enforced their housing laws. So, if you look all across the country that hyper segregation that northern cities created has remained largely intact as has the school segregation that it drives.

On fair housing:

Housing is the lynchpin of opportunity. . . . Fair housing was fought very viscerally and viciously, and actually it was not until Dr. King was assassinated that this country was able to pass the Civil Rights Act of 1968—a Fair Housing Act. Dr. King had been pushing for that law and again you could not get white popular support in Congress for it. There were more than 100 riots in American cities…and it was under that fear and duress that we finally got a Fair Housing Act. So it should not then be surprising that, with that much resistance to passing this law, you wouldn’t see an embrace of actually enforcing the law.

Whenever I hear that idea that trying to create integrated housing is social engineering, it’s clearly an ahistorical political view that is an intentional denial of how all of this inequality was architected with a great deal of government resources and that there is nothing natural about racial segregation. Race is a fiction. It has all been created as has the segregation. Which also means if it was created through government policy, it must be undone through government policy.

On undoing systemic racism:

In a country that is majority white, where white people control much of the levers of power and where Black people are [a] 13% minority, that means our rights in our access is always dependent upon convincing a large enough population of white Americans that this is important. Unfortunately, we haven’t had a great deal of success at that which is why Black people remain on the bottom of every indicator of well-being and why even in 2020 Black people are the most segregated group of people in this country.

I think it’s unfair to ask Black people, ‘How do we get white people to do what is just?’ These are problems that white Americans are going to have to decide are solvable and should be solved.

On the wealth gap:

In this country there’s a tremendous income and wealth gap, but the wealth gap is actually much more detrimental to your well-being. Wealth tends to be accumulated over time. It is passed down from generation to generation. Black Americans have almost no wealth. Black households have ten cents of wealth for every one dollar of wealth the white household have and if you are a Black family with children, you have one cent of wealth for every one dollar that white American have. Of course, we all know that the biggest generator of modern wealth in the United States has been housing.

Black people have no safety net whatsoever. The recent data has shown that more than one out of four Black people have missed at least one rental or mortgage payment since the COVID-19 shutdown. We’re going to see really mass evictions of particularly Black Americans—also Latinos. So that wealth has such a detrimental effect on your economic well-being. You just have no ability to weather hardships.

This has been a manufactured disadvantage that comes from 250 years of chattel slavery, 100 years of legal racism in this country, and a system that continues to discriminate against Black Americans. The only way you can address the theft of generations ability to build wealth and therefore have financial security is by transferring wealth to those communities.

On white supremacy:

We’ve got to let go of this white supremist death pact that this country continues to have where white people are willing to hurt themselves, hurt their own economic interest if they think larger numbers of Black and brown people will be hurt by those policies. Polling shows that the majority of white Americans feel that if a social policy is going to benefit a Black person their support for that policy declines even if that is a policy that they desperately need.

On federal response to the pandemic:

What the pandemic has exposed are that all of those excuses we had about why we couldn’t expand the social safety net, why we can’t have a universal income, why we can’t help people pay their rent—all of those excuses have been blown away by the pandemic. In a matter of weeks, when Republicans felt it was in their interest, we passed a three trillion-dollar stimulus package or aid package for Americans, we passed moratoriums on rent, we ensured that every American would have a base level of income… I think it gave lie to this idea that we simply can’t afford to take care of each other, that we can’t afford to give a basic standard of living to our fellow Americans, and this idea that people are underserving of help. Because the very people who look down on other people who needed help from the government found all of a sudden that they were relying on the government not because they did anything wrong, but because circumstances outside of your control can dictate whether you could pay your bills or not. So, I don’t know that you can put that genie back in a bottle and a year from now argue that we can’t do any of these things and that people are unworthy.

The thing that people can do right now is to call their Congress[person]…and make it clear that we have to still be passing programs to help our fellow Americans, that we cannot have this wave of evictions, people being homeless, people in the middle of a pandemic not having housing, not having access to healthcare, not having access to basic income. That’s what we have to be doing.

Individual citizens cannot stem the foreclosure and eviction crisis, that is what our government exists for, and I hope that we will come to understand that all of these years of being told that small government is the most important thing, that we should just rely on the benevolence of corporations to solve our societal problems was always a falsehood. There are things that only government can do, things that only government should do, and we need a strong government in a time like this. We’ve seen sparks of that but clearly not enough.