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Confronting the history of housing discrimination: "It's just a remarkable record of exclusion"

Confronting legacy of housing discrimination
Confronting legacy of housing discrimination 07:21

"CBS This Morning" co-host Tony Dokoupil's grandfather became a homeowner in 1953, moving his wife and three children out of a tiny apartment in Manhattan and into a new house in Lyndhurst, New Jersey. It was one of America's growing suburbs.

He wasn't alone. After World War II, millions of families made similar moves. Lyn­d­hurst Mayor Robert Gi­angeruso told Dokoupil that many people moving to Lyndhurst were a part of the working class, compromised of masons, carpenters and farmers.

Joe Cofone, a retired police officer and an unofficial town historian, said Lyndhurst could be considered a classic American suburb. "One of the best places you could ever imagine to grow up," Cofone said.

But America's suburbs have another story — less often told — about who could buy these homes and benefit from that boom-time economy and who could not.

"It's just a remarkable record of exclusion," David Troutt, a law professor at Rutgers University, said. "It is not accidental, America's suburbs, and it is not just a question of bad attitudes. It's a question about inequitable rules."

From the 1930s to the 1960s, the major federal programs that developed the suburbs and guaranteed mortgages were for Whites-only, first as a matter of policy and later in practice.

"Redlining" is a term that comes from maps adopted by the Federal Housing Authority. Green, blue and yellow areas were typically eligible for government-backed loans and investment. The red areas - often with large minority populations - were not eligible, leaving them starved for resources

Along with physical separation, Black Americans suffered disproportionately due to their living conditions. Drinking water from wells in some neighborhoods was spoiled with typhoid. Some lacked proper utilities, including electricity and gas, and some were divided off railroad lines. 

Troutt said none of these details were surprising to him.

"Not at all. In fact, you can multiply those findings across the country. ... Those who were fortunate enough to enjoy the largess of this government were able to see benefits accrue over generations, which they could then share with their children and their grandchildren," he said. "And so to be left out of that process of household wealth accumulation has been devastating for Black families."

By 1950, about half of the new home purchases in America were made with government-backed loans. But 98% of them went to White buyers. 

Many White Americans are just now learning about this history of government-supported housing discrimination. "Most people would not have known that the federal government had this program in place," Cofone said.

Yet many people like Lee Porter were personally physically aware that racist policies prevented Black families from moving into highly-desired neighborhoods.

"I didn't call it redlining. But yeah, that's what it was," Porter said.

"What did you call it?" Dokoupil asked.

"We call it ...'This is the area that persons of color can live,'" Porter replied.

At 94 years old, Porter still runs the Fair Housing Council of Bergen County. She's been called the "Mother of Fair Housing" in New Jersey. Porter has lived in Bergen County since the 1960s when she and her husband were blocked from buying homes they could afford.

"How did you feel when you found out that real estate agents were steering you away from the white houses?" Dokoupil asked.

"I was quite angry about it. But I was persistent. I was, I was determined to get what I wanted, the same as anybody else," Porter said.

Black families who couldn't own those nicer homes have not been able to build the same wealth over time. According to Federal Reserve data, the median White household has about ten times the accumulated wealth as the median Black household.

With many Americans now coming to terms with how big a role the federal government had in enforcing discrimination, the question is what is going to do be done with this knowledge?

"You know, that's a good question. I don't have the answer to that, Tony. I wish I did," Cofone said.

The White House on Wednesday said it supports the study of reparations for Black Americans. In Congress, Bill HR-40 would examine the history of slavery and discriminatory government policies and suggest ways to address inequality.

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