In Weighing Racial Discrimination, Consider Outcome, Not Just Intent

In the last two weeks, the Supreme Court handed down some monumental decisions: health care subsidies were upheld, ensuring millions will continue to see the benefits of the Affordable Care Act; and marriage equality became the law of the land, allowing LGBTQI people to marry. But, there was another major decision tucked in there, too: in Texas Department of Housing and Community Affairs et al v. Inclusive Communities Project, Inc., et al, the Supreme Court affirmed that it is not the intent of racial discrimination that matters, but the impact.

In some instances, rules may be in place that appear to be colorblind or even prevent racial discrimination, but racial bias and racist actions still lead to disparate impact. This was the case in Seattle, where the city’s Office for Civil Rights uncovered evidence of discrimination at 13 rental properties across the city. There, prospective tenants were treated differently depending on their race, gender identity, sexual orientation, and/or national origin. Such discrimination is not limited to housing, of course; people of color, especially, are discriminated against in nearly all areas of life, including policing, employment, and childhood education.

When we envision discrimination, we typically think of situations like these where it comes from individuals and leads to a broader impact on people of color.

However, the recent Supreme Court decision centered on a case where funds designed in part to combat segregation were distributed so that they instead contributed to continuing segregation. Here, it was not racist individuals or racial bias that led to such disparate impact; it was, instead, a lack of recognizing that impact and thinking strategically about alternatives that could better counter the existing segregation.

This short-sightedness and lack of a racial justice lens led to a concentration of low-income housing in communities of color, contributing to, rather than changing a system that ghettoizes low-income communities of color.

On July 8, President Obama announced stricter rules against housing segregation, including requiring local governments to account for “how they will use federal housing funds to reduce racial disparities.” This is an important step in helping local governments avoid the short-sighted actions that occurred in Texas, and could make significant progress in addressing the concentration of poverty in communities of color.

However, we must recognize that systemic and economic racism are entwined within more aspects of our society than housing. Expecting a housing fix to assure we avoid the 1968 prophecy noted by Justice Kennedy that the nation “is moving toward two societies, one black, one white – separate and un-equal” would itself be short-sighted. Instead, we must seek to recognize, call out, and address all policies and actors that, intentionally or not, perpetuate a system of economic racism. Whether in health outcomes, voting rights, policing, higher education, employment, or nearly any other area, policies and actions must take into account their impact on people of color in order to dismantle to a system of economic racism that has existed in this country for far too long.