Bush Conservatives Help Preserve Racism in Housing

USA Today has a recent story on how the Bush administration is not vigorously pursuing housing discrimination cases even as discrimination complaints against real estate agents, landlords, and lending companies have grown in recent years. (photo: Licht)

In effect, real estate agents, landlords, lenders, and other (mostly white) housing actors can discriminate on racial, gender, and other illegal grounds in the United States until the cows come home, with very little chance of suffering any significant penalty for that discrimination. This has been true for many years in this country. That is, our civil rights laws in the housing area are not enforced or they are weakly enforced. The USA Today reporter summarizes the U.S. reality of no redress for housing discrimination:

Most renters and buyers who seek help from the U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development are unlikely to get relief for their complaints, which can include alleged discrimination by landlords and sellers based on race, religion, sex or disability. The agency is throwing out a growing number of complaints, federal data show. The housing agency, responsible for investigating and prosecuting cases under the Federal Fair Housing Act, filed 31 discrimination charges in 2007 and 36 in 2006. Charges for those two years combined dropped 65% from the last two years of the Clinton administration — 111 charges were filed in 1999; 82 in 2000. Complaints during the same period rose from fewer than 7,100 in both 1999 and 2000 to more than 10,000 in both 2006 and 2007.

The shocking lawlessness of HUD can be seen in the continuing lethargy in charging housing discriminators this year, with only 12 housing providers being charged so far this year, with two other cases referred to the Justice department. The article quotes National Fair Housing Alliance head, the veteran housing advocate Shanna Smith, as noting that none of the major Bush agencies responsible for enforcing fair housing laws is doing its job: “It’s a drop in the bucket for the number of complaints that happen annually.”

HUD defends itself with the claim that they prefer to negotiate settlements, rather than to go to court:

The agency is settling more cases overall than during the previous administration, but the percentage of settled cases has declined. In 1999, HUD settled 778 cases, 42% of the total investigated. In 2007, it settled 948 cases — 36.5% of the total investigated.

No presidential administration since the housing laws were passed has made this national housing scandal a priority to address. There are millions of housing discrimination acts in this country each year, but only 10,000 people file complaints—and only a few thousand cases (at most) of the housing discrimination cases are resolved each year by federal agencies or HUD-certified and funded local and state housing agencies.

A major Urban Institute study done for the previous HUD administration in 2000 involved 4,600 paired tests in 23 metropolitan areas. These paired tests involved a person of color and a white person posing as home seekers as they visit real estate or rental agents and inquire about advertised housing. According to this report, rental agents in metropolitan markets were less likely to give people of color information about available housing or an opportunity to inspect available housing than they were for whites. Nationally, rental agents subjected African Americans and Asian Americans to discrimination about 22 percent of the time; Latinos, 26 percent of the time; and Native Americans, 29 percent of the time. In metropolitan markets, real estate agents were less likely to give home buyers of color an opportunity to inquire about or inspect available homes in predominantly white neighborhoods. Agents were less likely to give home buyers of color assistance with financing. African Americans homebuyers were discriminated against 17 percent of the time, and Latino home buyers were discriminated against 20 percent of the time, with Asian American and Pacific Islander home buyers experiencing discrimination about 20 percent of the time and Native American home buyers facing discrimination 17 percent of the time.

Moreover, if we look beyond this initial-stage (one-visit) discrimination and examine later-stage housing discrimination, such as for multiple housing searches and dealing with mortgage lenders, and if we extrapolate these data to all people of color searching for housing across the country over a year, we can reasonably estimate that several million cases of housing discrimination are carried out each year, a large proportion being racial discrimination cases. Roberta Achtenberg, assistant HUD secretary in the 1990s, estimated that the number could be as high as 10 million cases of housing discrimination annually.

It is interesting how often whites, especially white conservatives, claim we are no longer a racist country. I gather that looking at actual data on housing and much other institutionalized discrimination as it affects Americans of color is too much of burden for these analysts. (photo: josho99)

Note: In addition to the National Fair Housing Alliance, the National Fair Housing Advocate Online has good research discussions on fair housing issues, as well as good links to helpful legal and other resources.

Debating Black “Street Lit,” New Urban Fiction

The May/June 2008 Issue of Colorlines (an excellent source for current events in the racial area!) has an interesting article by Almah LaVon Rice on the “The Rise of Street Literature,” the new Black fiction since the late 1990s. This new fictional literature is often termed “street lit,” “ghetto lit,” and “urban fiction,” and it is increasing youthful black readers dramatically. The article notes how it started in 1999 with activist Sister Souljah:

That’s when breakaway success greeted the novel The Coldest Winter Ever penned by rapper-activist Sista Souljah. Still considered to be the one of the best offerings in urban fiction, Souljah’s tale chronicles the hustling life and times of Winter Santiaga, who stole clothes and transported drugs for a living. Now considered classics, other novels from the late ‘90s include Teri Woods’s True to the Game and Vickie Stringer’s Let That Be The Reason. Both writers published their own books and sold them from the trunks of their cars after collecting numerous rejections from mainstream publishers.

According to Essence magazine’s count from African American bookstores, this type of urban fiction includes most of the best-selling paperback books there these days. There is a significant debate about the new literature, however. On the one hand,

Critics and supporters of the genre are pleased that Black youth in particular are reading. But some have mixed feelings about promoting literacy by any means necessary. “To some extent, there is an exposure to a part of urban culture that has rarely been explored in a way that it is now…which can be a starting point for civic dialogues,” offers Tracey Michae’l Lewis, who teaches writing and literature at Community College of Philadelphia and Philadelphia University. “Unfortunately, we have to ask ourselves, ‘What is this costing us?’”

And the cost includes increasing the stereotyped portraits of African Americans, especially youth, that this literature has made significant use of, as well as the new rush of commercial publishers, that is the dominant white-run publishing companies, into this new publishing arena, seeking of course the almighty dollar. African Americans, the article, suggests

appear to be reading street lit to find themselves and escape themselves at the same time. Some readers enjoy losing themselves in portrayals of preternaturally lavish lifestyles, racy sex and ride-or-die dramas of the streets, while others enjoy the genre for its reflective qualities. It’s hard to say, though, how many readers actually have a personal connection to what they are reading. Some even insist that “keeping it real,” the towering commandment of the hip-hop era, is, well, not very real. “Most folks ain’t living that life in the hood,” argues Constance Shabazz, who maintains an online bookstore. “And even those who are don’t see the glamour in it.” It brings up the question of how much entities like Simon and Schuster are implicated in shaping ideas about cultural and racial authenticity—and then selling them to the communities they supposedly come from.

Shabazz adds a critical point too that she knows excellent black authors who could not get contracts with major white-run publishers because they would not write this type of exploitative urban novel. Once again, powerful whites pick up on black creativity, then control and channel it for substantial white profits, much like they did with a good proportion of rap music. This savvy article makes further critical points that are on target, it seems:

But writing about the streets does not a street lit writer make. Classics such as Richard Wright’s Native Son and Ann Petry’s The Street are lauded as examples of nuanced, complicated treatments of Black urban life.

Beyond this quality issue, there is also the problem of accenting old themes from a white racist framing of black Americans, the one that accents black violence and violent black men, which once again white publishers love:

Ultimately, street lit arouses contention because issues of race and representation have repercussions beyond book covers. Noting the spike in Black-on-Black crime in Seattle, teen-service librarian Wadiyah Nelson declares, “So it is OK to kill off Black men on the streets, in movies, videos, music and now in books.” How does literary liberty align with racial responsibility? Do the anti-heroes of street lit have a duty to be more, well, heroic?

And the article concludes with some soul searching:

And who we are in print should be represented as prismatically as who we, in fact, are. It is a shame and an irony that expansive depictions by Black writers are censored by market forces because they contradict the racist mirage of real Blacks. . .Black folk can be highly visible and still seldom seen.

The allusion here is to Ralph Ellison’s brilliant American classic, Invisible Man. At the beginning of that famous book, the black protagonist asserts:

“I am an invisible man. No, I am not a spook like those who haunted Edgar Allan Poe; nor am I one of your Hollywood-movie ectoplasms. I am a man of substance, of flesh and bone, fiber and liquids — and I might even be said to possess a mind. I am invisible, understand, simply because people refuse to see me.”

In this still-racist system, Black men, women, and children are often not recognized for what they really are by the dominant white community. Their real bones, fiber, and minds are invisible to most whites, like the captains of the U.S. entertainment industry, who do not see them as full human beings with distinctive talents, accomplishments, virtues, and burdens. The loss from accenting old racial stereotypes is huge, including for this society in general.