These words, drafted by my father, Norman Bernstein, in the summer of 1961, could easily have been written in response to headlines today. Back then, the State Department had an embarrassing problem. Nearly 20 newly independent African nations had established embassies in D.C., and the African diplomats and their teams were facing the indignity of being turned away by housing providers and other establishments in the then-segregated city, solely by virtue of the color of their skin.
Harris Wofford, special assistant to President John F. Kennedy, set out to resolve the issue by convening a meeting of 54 “real estate men” and imploring them to allow the diplomats to rent and buy their homes. Among them was my father, who then was responsible for 3,500 apartments across Washington — a portfolio built over the course of 20 years through partnerships funded with capital from friends and relatives.
Compelled by his experiences with discrimination as the child of Jewish Russian immigrants, my 40-year-old father seized the opportunity to propose that all present at the meeting lift restrictions for not just the African diplomats but all people of color. No one stepped up. In fact, only five members of that group of 54, including my father, agreed to open their buildings to the diplomats. After the meeting, he actively lobbied other apartment owners to join him in renting their apartments to people of all races and engaged with city leaders to change and strengthen fair housing access laws. “The issue of racial discrimination is certainly not a local problem — it is a national problem,” he argued in a 1961 op-ed. “In my opinion, it is one of the great moral challenges of this century.”
Three years later, the Civil Rights Act of 1964 was signed into law, followed by the Fair Housing Act of 1968, making it illegal for housing providers to discriminate on the basis of race. Though he would never take any credit for the passage of those laws, my father’s willingness to stand firm in his beliefs is a reminder that each of us has the power to bend the arc of history toward justice.
Nearly 60 years have passed since my father’s stand to address racial inequity in D.C., yet the battle against racial discrimination continues. In 1961, explicit racism outright prohibited Black people from living in certain buildings and neighborhoods. Today, barriers of implicit and structural racism may be less concrete, but they are no less effective at segregating our communities and restricting economic mobility. De facto discrimination resulting from community member biases is compounded by local, state and federal policies that continue to keep many families of color trapped in underserved neighborhoods. Calls for fair housing enforcement are rooted in more than morality — numerous studies have demonstrated that more equitable cities enjoy faster economic growth than their less equitable peers. While private initiatives, such as the Washington Housing Conservancy, and public efforts, such as D.C. Mayor Muriel E. Bowser’s (D) $100 million annual commitment to D.C.’s Housing Production Trust Fund, are working to address these problems at their root cause, recent efforts to roll back federal fair housing legislation will make it even more difficult to identify and address patterns of discrimination.
Good intentions alone will not repair the world. Like my father, we must act.
We must act to support organizations that create and preserve affordable housing and officials like D.C. Attorney General Karl A. Racine, whose office filed three lawsuits aimed at protecting residents from housing discrimination. We need bold solutions that put this region on a lasting path toward racial equity.
This January will mark my father’s 100th birthday. In honor of his 100th year as a Washingtonian and activist, the Diane and Norman Bernstein Foundation will make special gifts and commitments totaling $15 million to local organizations, including those fighting for equality and justice.
Sixty years ago, my father called on his peers to stand up to injustice, and today, we are supporting organizations that are striving to make the ideal of equal opportunity for all a reality.