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Housing discrimination in Detroit: An example of systemic racism

Explaining systemic racism, how it impacted Detroit through housing discrimination in the 20th century

DETROIT – One concept has been often mentioned amid our country’s current crisis, but it is not as often understood: systemic racism.

Systemic racism shows up across systems in our community such as education, the criminal justice system, employment and housing. When it comes to housing discrimination, there is no need to look further than what happened right here in Detroit.

Historically speaking, owning a home is the easiest way for an American family to build wealth. That opportunity was not always available to Black Americans, and that exclusion reverberates throughout our neighborhoods and communities today.

A large number of Black people, White people and immigrants moved to Detroit between 1930-1970, all planning to work hard to achieve the American dream -- which felt attainable, thanks to the burgeoning auto industry.

However, the country was still crippled from the effects of the Great Depression during the early 1930s. To get the economy moving, President Franklin Delano Roosevelt established The New Deal: a series of programs and policies designed to address needs for relief, reform and recovery generated by the Great Depression.

One of those policies was the National Housing Act of 1934, which provided low-interest, government-backed mortgages to White people only. Subsidized contractors were funded to build new subdivisions as long as they promised not to sell the homes they built to Black people and sometimes immigrants.

In essence a White man and a Black man of the same age, both working at Ford Motor Company with the same earning potential, could apply for a house in the same neighborhood -- but only the White man would likely be approved. The Black man was forced to find a house in a Black neighborhood or in a newly-developed “housing project,” such as Brewster Douglass.

To streamline the process the government and neighborhoods used tactics such as redlining and restrictive covenants to keep non-Whites out. Landlords wouldn’t rent to Black people and, if they did, they would charge Black people more than they did White people.

By the 1960s, at the height of the Civil Rights Movement, Black people were fed up with housing discrimination in addition to systemic police abuse, job discrimination and other forms of bias. In response, demonstrations, protests and riots cropped up in Detroit and in other cities across America.

White people started to feel unsafe and moved, taking their equity with them. Most White people weren’t rich but they were able to buy better homes and, or use that equity to help their kids go to college.

There was no way for Black people to catch up, further widening the wealth gap in the U.S.

Click here for more posts from Local 4′s ‘Spirit of Detroit: Fulfilling the Dream’ Special, where we address racism in America and how to effect real change in our communities.


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