Dan Rodricks

Ben Carson, Donald Trump and the old dog whistles of housing and race | COMMENTARY

Ben Carson, Secretary of Housing and Urban Development, left, and President Donald Trump in the Oval Office in June 2019.

Ben Carson, the former Johns Hopkins neurosurgeon who serves as the nation’s housing secretary, paid tribute Monday to Rep. John Lewis as the Georgia congressman and civil rights leader laid in state in the Capitol Rotunda. “We are all called to be our brother’s keeper,” Carson wrote in a tweet, “and @repjohnlewis made that calling his life’s work.”

So lovely the words, and so empty.


Carson might feel the call, but when it comes to racial discrimination in housing, he’s not “my brother’s keeper.” He dismisses efforts to address segregation as “social engineering,” and he just eliminated an ambitious federal rule, established in the Obama administration, that made local governments demonstrate with data how they actively support the Fair Housing Act five decades after its passage.

Carson substituted a weaker rule that will allow cities, towns and counties to self-certify that they’re doing the right thing, a setback for efforts to enforce the 52-year-old law. “We are tearing down the Obama Administration’s Affirmatively Furthering Fair Housing rule,” Carson tweeted last week, calling it “an overreach of unelected Washington bureaucrats into local communities.”


In that same tweet, Carson said: “President @realDonaldTrump and I agree that the best run communities are the ones run locally,” an ironic statement given Trump’s mobilization of militarized federal police to confront protesters in Portland, Oregon despite objections from local officials.

But Carson’s obliviousness to that irony is minor compared to the one represented in his praise of Lewis.

The Obama rule supporting and advancing the Fair Housing Act was grounded in civil rights. Congress passed the law in the aftermath of the riots of 1968 following the assassination of the Rev. Martin Luther King Jr. In 2015, the Obama administration required municipalities to look at their housing patterns for evidence of discrimination, then come up with plans to address them.

“The whole purpose of the rule was to finally provide meaningful guidance for how communities should be advancing fair housing decades after the passage of the Fair Housing Act,” says Sarah Brundage, senior director of public policy at Columbia-based Enterprise Community Partners. “We were frankly still trying to make up for lost time in addressing segregation, and this new rule is a big step backward for our federal government’s commitment toward progress.”

“The new rule is really a return to the status quo,” adds Robyn Dorsey, fair housing director for the Fair Housing Action Center of Maryland. “So new housing development in Maryland will remain unchanged. We will continue to see a glut of investment, financing and loans in white communities while Black neighborhoods struggle for an infusion of capital. The housing affordability crisis will continue unabated and families will still be forced to choose between housing they can afford and homes near good schools and jobs.”

In 2015, the Supreme Court found in a Texas case that both overtly discriminatory practices and practices shown to result in a “disparate impact” — not based on race, but disproportionately affecting minorities — could violate the Fair Housing Act. It’s not enough to say, “Hey, we’re all well-meaning people who don’t discriminate.” If affordable housing never gets built outside of low-income and blighted areas, that’s a pattern and, uncorrected, not one that deserves support with federal dollars.

Federal oversight of housing practices is what Carson calls “overreach,” correcting discriminatory practices is what he calls “social engineering,” tired phrases from a retired doctor who once called Obamacare “the worst thing that has happened in this nation since slavery.”

Trump, meanwhile, is stuck in the past, warning whites about a nonexistent onslaught of poor people in affluent suburbs. With fewer than 100 days to go to November’s election, he’s hitting notes like those heard decades ago from bigots when fair housing laws went on the books — “You’re home is your castle, protect it!” — and, later, when poor Black families received rent vouchers that allowed them to move out of public housing to better neighborhoods. Citing the Obama rule, Trump claims that Democrats want to “abolish our beautiful and successful suburbs … bringing who knows into your suburbs, so your communities will be unsafe and your housing values will go down.”


That’s not a dog whistle. That’s the fearmonger air horn.

“Trump’s announcement [eliminating the Obama-era rule] is a thinly-coded racial scare tactic, playing only to his base,” says attorney Barbara Samuels, who has long toiled in the fair housing fields for the American Civil Liberties Union of Maryland. “The duty to affirmatively further fair housing is not a creation of President Obama that [Trump] can undo. It’s been the law since 1968. Despite the Trump administration’s attempt to undermine civil rights, many cities and suburbs are continuing to follow the approach of the Obama administration’s regulation.”

Indeed, there is new and growing awareness that segregation has been the root of many failings. “Studies have long demonstrated that racial integration at the neighborhood level is critical to reducing social inequality and improving the health, education and future life chances of children,” says Michael Reisch, emeritus professor at the University of Maryland School of Social Work. “And intervention by the federal government is necessary to achieve those goals.”

Two recent long-term studies showed Baltimore to be one of the hardest places in the nation for kids to escape poverty. That has only started to change in recent years, and only because of a remedy worked out in federal court.

We are still a nation of laws and not of petty men. But that doesn’t stop Trump. And we’ve seen this act before — a candidate for president stoking fears of an “urban menace,” though you have to go back three decades to find the last blatant example.

“It’s a strategy,” says Reisch, “to peel off a small, but critical slice of the electorate — white suburbanites, particularly women — essential to his reelection. Whether the American people will fall for that ploy will be a test of the nation’s collective gullibility and Trump’s ability as a snake oil salesman.”