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Opinion Trump (again) uses housing as a racial wedge

President Trump stops to talk to reporters as he walks to board Marine One and departs from the South Lawn at the White House on Wednesday in Washington.
President Trump stops to talk to reporters as he walks to board Marine One and departs from the South Lawn at the White House on Wednesday in Washington. (Jabin Botsford/The Washington Post)

On Wednesday, Trump tweeted what may be the most nakedly racist appeal to White voters that I’ve seen since the days of segregationist state leaders such as Alabama’s George Wallace and Georgia’s Lester Maddox:

“I am happy to inform all of the people living their Suburban Lifestyle Dream that you will no longer be bothered or financially hurt by having low income housing built in your neighborhood. . . . Your housing prices will go up based on the market, and crime will go down. I have rescinded the Obama-Biden AFFH Rule. Enjoy!”

Many people probably don’t know what the “Obama-Biden AFFH Rule” is, but its roots are in the 1968 Fair Housing Act, specifically its Affirmatively Furthering Fair Housing provision. That section of the law required federal agencies that deal with housing and banking to pursue their missions in a way that would actively desegregate housing. In 2015, the Obama administration spelled out how communities should measure their progress, or lack thereof, in eliminating housing bias, and tied federal funding for housing and urban development to those measurements.

Trump’s tweet is a promise not to actively enforce that provision. And it’s a message to White people they can go ahead and do whatever they feel is necessary to keep Black people and Latinos from moving into their neighborhoods.

Look at how he delivers that message. He uses the words, and assumes the context, of the era when the Fair Housing Act was passed — a time of “white flight” from the inner cities to the suburbs. He uses “low income housing” as not-so-coded language for “housing occupied by people of color,” and his meaning is clear. White Americans, your property values would suffer if an African American or Latino family were to move in next door. There would be more crime, because, well, you know how those people are. But don’t worry. Barack Obama wanted to make you let them in, but I’ll keep them out.

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At a moment when the Black Lives Matter protests have sparked a debate on how to eradicate systemic racism, Trump vows to keep it alive.

This attack on desegregation should come as no surprise. Trump’s first appearance in the public eye came in 1973, when he, his father and their real estate company were sued by the Justice Department for refusing to rent apartments to African Americans. Rather than quietly reach a settlement, as other developers had done, the Trumps filed a ridiculous $100 million countersuit and accused the federal government of forcing them to accept “welfare recipients” as tenants. In the end, the Trumps agreed to a consent decree in which they promised to stop discriminating against minorities without admitting they had been doing so.

This racist mind-set about housing is fully in keeping with the tenor of his inflame-the-base reelection campaign, in which he has demonized racial-justice protesters as “anarchists” and “agitators” while cheering, for example, the White couple in St. Louis who pointed guns at demonstrators marching past.

Trump’s reflexively racist views might not have changed over the years. But the nation has.

For one thing, the suburbs are far from lily-white. According to studies by the Brookings Institution, the racial demographics of America’s suburbs now roughly mirror those of the nation as a whole. In some metropolitan areas, more African Americans, Latinos and Asian Americans are “living their Suburban Lifestyle Dream” (as Trump put it) than are living in the core cities.

At the same time, however, patterns of racial segregation in housing persist, including in many suburbs. Segregation in housing leads to segregation in schools, which helps perpetuate structural disparities. The fact that a given house in a White suburban neighborhood tends to be assessed at a higher value than an identical house in a comparable African American neighborhood helps maintain the massive wealth gap between Black and White people. A serious federal effort to “affirmatively” reduce segregation would help lessen inequality.

Most Americans see this as a moment of racial reckoning, according to polls. Trump has also fallen behind with suburban voters, who have become a key electoral bellwether. In response, Trump promises his followers a return to the racial caste system that stratified the nation before the civil rights movement.

At least the president is up front about all of this. The Republican Party cannot pretend there is anything at work here other than old-fashioned racism. Those who support Trump’s reelection must also support, and cheer, his adamant refusal to enforce a landmark piece of civil rights legislation. Enjoy!

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Read more:

Read a letter in response to this piece: It is diversity that makes ‘suburban dreams’ come true

Read a transcript of Eugene Robinson’s July 28 live chat

Submit a question for Eugene Robinson’s Aug. 4 live chat

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