Black Women, Migration, and the Delay of Fair Housing
By Kidiocus King-Carroll | March 6, 2018
On January 5th, 2018, Secretary Ben Carson and the Department of Housing and Urban Development (HUD) announced a delay of an Obama-era fair housing rule, the Affirmatively Furthering Fair Housing (AFFH) measure, until 2020. Instituted in 2015, the rule was meant to extend pieces of the Fair Housing Act (FHA) of 1968 that were never actualized—measures that call for communities to review and account for racially discriminatory housing policies or face sanctions such as the loss of community block grants and fair housing aid. Secretary Carson has called the AFFH “failed socialism” and “social engineering,” while U.S. Representative Maxine Waters (D-CA) characterized its delay as an attack on “minorities, women, families with children, and persons with disabilities.”
Histories of black migration indicate that, in fact, the delay of the AFFH will chiefly impact communities of color, women, and children, and it will especially impact black women and black woman-headed households in the deindustrialized urban north—that is, a group disproportionately affected by housing insecurity and discriminatory housing policies in a region with some of the country’s highest rates of residential segregation.
To situate these measures, it helps to consider two phases of black migration out of the rural, agricultural south to the urban, industrialized areas of the U.S. north and Midwest: The Great Migration (1910-1940) and the Second Great Migration (1940-1970).
In the Second Great Migration, some five million African Americans (47% of the total black population) migrated North. Black women and girls largely migrated to work as domestic laborers or clerical worker and outnumbered black men in the migration 88:100 from 1955-1960 and 91:100 from 1965-1971 (historian James N. Gregory attributes the gender tilt to the women’s particularly low job prospects in the south).
These women and girls immediately faced racialized residential segregation, crowded into inner city ghettos. Milwaukee provides a representative case in which the confluence of migration, gender, and federal policy led to housing discrimination amongst black women (similar processes took place in industrialized cities across the urban north).
In this brewing and manufacturing city on Lake Michigan, the government was largely socialist, yet black women migrants were forced into an area known as the “inner core.” A complex matrix of racially exclusive policies enacted by white residents who feared black residency in the city’s inner ring suburbs—communities such as Whitefish Bay, Shorewood, and Greendale—put them there. Eventually, these suburbs would even gain a reputation as “sundown towns,” where black people effectively weren’t allowed after dusk (a dubious distinction also earned by Cicero, a suburb of Chicago).
When the 1965 “Moynihan Report” (formally, the Department of Labor commissioned “The Negro Family: The Case for National Action”), authored by sociologist and Assistant Secretary for Labor, Patrick D. Moynihan, was released, it maintained that the preponderance of black female headed households in the urban north rendered the black family a “tangle of pathology.” This federal document essentially argued that black men had been emasculated by black matriarchy and concluded that black families could be reintroduced to the normative ideals of the state (i.e., middle class prosperity and two-parent households) through the destruction of said black matriarchy. Black feminist scholar Hortense Spillers argues that the report’s language gave rise to damning archetypes of black womanhood: the “misnaming” and depiction of black women as “sapphires” and “Black Ladies”, as pathological “welfare queens” scamming the system and bringing down housing values. In turn, these stereotypes impacted housing policy and its effect on black women, fueling racial resentment and white flight.
A succession of marches and rebellions in Detroit, Chicago, and Milwaukee pushed back against segregation and housing discrimination.
In Milwaukee, fair housing activists crossing the Menomonee River suffered hurled bricks and racial slurs as angry whites enacted their fears of black integration into white neighborhoods. Yet the protestors’ actions were successful in pushing forward the 1968 FHA, which mandated that it was unlawful to refuse to rent or sell to an individual because of their inclusion in a protected group.
Of course, one key directive was never enacted: the FHA’s order that local municipalities become active agents in racial desegregation. Today, black women migrants and their descendants still face housing insecurity and discrimination in Milwaukee. Historian James Loewen writes that, in the year 2000, Milwaukee was unique in that 96% of the city’s black residents still “lived within Milwaukee itself”; in other words, the suburbs were still out of reach for most black residents. Additionally, the city has an integration/segregation index of -13.6%, making it the third most segregated city in the country after Chicago (-18.6%) and Atlanta (-14.5%). Furthermore, sociologist Matthew J. Desmond depicts the ways in which African American women in Milwaukee (and other Midwestern cities) are disparately affected by eviction and unfair housing policies—maintaining that black women in predominantly black neighborhoods are twice as likely as men to be evicted (black women represent 9.69% of the city’s population but 30% of its evictions).
Compounding the devastating effect of housing discrimination on black women is the fact that some 1.5 million black men across the country have essentially disappeared from social life, whether through early death or incarceration.
When black women, on average, only possess $5 in median wealth in comparison to the rest of the country’s citizens, eviction and conviction are twin evils, working together to perpetuate economic disadvantage and housing insecurity.
While it remains to be seen whether the implementation of the AFFH might help curb segregation and housing insecurity, one thing is certain: without rigorously funded and enforced federal policy initiatives, black women will never get a chance to find out. In the wake of the delay, a possible way to rectify this disparity might be for HUD to expand funding as well as eligibility requirements for federally subsidized housing, an unlikely fix given proposed cuts to HUD’s budget.
In the absence of significant new commitments to affordable housing, arguably the most effective way to reduce racial disparities in housing, the federal government could take other less costly steps such as expanding targeted assistance for renters who experience a drastic but temporary loss of income. According to Desmond, when Milwaukee tenants facing eviction were given access to emergency housing aid from the American Recovery and Reinvestment Act of 2009, the city’s formal eviction rate fell by 15 percent. In addition to direct financial assistance, increasing publically funded legal services for low-income families in housing court could reduce discrimination in eviction and other decisions.