The Supreme Court handed the Obama administration an unexpected but welcome victory this month in a case involving housing bias. The court upheld a long-standing precedent that the policies and practices followed by governments, lenders and others that have the effect of disproportionately harming minorities are illegal even if those harmed cannot prove they were victims of intentional discrimination.
The Obama administration had feared the court might overturn that well established principle, which has guided federal enforcement of the 1968 Fair Housing Act for decades. Instead, by a 5-4, margin the court rightly reaffirmed it as an essential element in the struggle to make America a more just and integrated society.
The case was brought by a Texas fair housing group that accused the state's Department of Housing and Community Affairs of awarding tax credits to developers of affordable housing in a way that effectively kept African-Americans out of white neighborhoods. Texas officials denied their policies were discriminatory, but the group cited statistics showing that the effects of the department's policies and practices served to perpetuate segregated neighborhoods and prevent blacks from moving into more diverse communities with better schools and lower crime.
A federal appeals court sided with the plaintiffs, ruling that the housing group's statistical evidence was enough to sustain a complaint of discrimination even if it couldn't prove that Texas officials were motivated by overt racial bias. It based its decision on an interpretation of the statute long accepted by federal appeals courts across the country that have used statistical evidence to uncover unconscious or disguised prejudice that results in segregated housing patterns. Because the effect of Texas' housing policies clearly had a "disparate impact" on people because of their race, they violated the rights of minorities protected under the Fair Housing Act.
Texas officials appealed that decision to the Supreme Court, and the justices upheld the lower court's ruling. Justice Anthony Kennedy, who joined with the court's four liberal justices to uphold the precedent, wrote the majority opinion. While the country has taken important steps toward becoming a more integrated society in the decades since the law was enacted, he wrote, "much progress remains to be made in our nation's continuing struggle against racial isolation." He went on to say that even as the country strives to put its segregated past behind it, "its vestiges remain today, intertwined with the country's economic and social life."
There is no doubt about the harm discrimination does to those victimized by it. A recent study by Harvard researchers found that young African-American children whose families receive housing vouchers that allow them to move out of segregated neighborhoods into more racially and economically integrated communities not only are more likely to do better in school and stay out of trouble with the law than their peers who remain behind, they are also more likely to attend college and earn more over the course of their careers.
The principle that even unintentional discrimination has harmful effects applies to adults as well. African-Americans are often charged higher rents and mortgage interest rates than whites for comparable dwellings, usually without their even being aware that they are victims of housing discrimination. Without the kind of statistical evidence of disparate impact the court has now upheld, it would be nearly impossible for them to claim protection under the law.
The Obama administration initially tried to prevent the courts from ruling on the Fair Housing Act because it feared the justices' willingness to hear a matter that has been considered settled law for decades could only mean that they intended to overturn it. In the past Justice Kennedy has rarely sided with the court's liberal minority on civil rights issues, but in this case — along with this month's landmark decision legalizing same-sex marriage in all 50 states — he clearly came down on the right side of history.
America still has a long way to go toward eliminating the last vestiges of discrimination in all its forms from our national life. But the principle that racism is unacceptable even when it is hidden behind institutional structures and policies that appear color-blind must be upheld if the nation is ever to achieve that goal.