On April 3, 1968, Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. told his audience of striking black sanitation workers and their supporters, “The world is all messed up. The nation is sick. Trouble is in the land; confusion all around.” But, he said, “We have an opportunity to make America a better nation.”
As a reverend, Dr. King was speaking from a faith tradition focused on ensuring that the “least of these” — those who the powerful have blocked from justice — would come to be treated with fairness and dignity as a matter of policy surely, but also as a matter of spirit. He lauded the loving acts of everyday people — sitting in, marching, boycotting, registering to vote, walking up the school steps to integrate a school and putting down the keys to the truck to win a fair wage and work in safe conditions — that helped the nation to reach its most perfect form and become a truly beloved community.
In that spirit, Dr. King exhorted his listeners, “Let us develop a dangerous kind of unselfishness.”
In the past month, news out of the U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development (HUD) suggests how, fundamentally, this vision of the nation as a beloved community is under attack. A home is more than a roof over our heads. It can provide stability, the opportunity to raise our families in a safe neighborhood with clean air and water, and access to good jobs, efficient transportation and high-quality schools.
The Trump administration is shifting the values driving the work of HUD from using “housing as a platform for improving quality of life” and “building inclusive and sustainable communities free from discrimination,” to promoting “self-sufficiency.” Recent reporting by the New York Times shows that the Trump administration’s HUD is already pulling the teeth out of fair housing enforcement. The agency has indefinitely delayed high-priority fair housing investigations and the implementation of a rule that requires affirmative plans for integrating racially-segregated neighborhoods.
The move by the administration to aggressively block enforcement of fair housing laws will erode the little progress that has been made to integrate communities along both racial and economic lines. In their recently released study of intergenerational income mobility, Stanford economist Raj Chetty and his colleagues have shown that most African American children grow up in high-poverty neighborhoods that restrict upward mobility. HUD policies should increase opportunity, not close it off.
In his 1968 speech, Dr. King famously reflected, “I just want to do God’s will. And He’s allowed me to go up to the mountain. And I’ve looked over. And I’ve seen the Promised Land. I may not get there with you. But I want you to know tonight that we, as a people, will get to the Promised Land!”
HUD’s abandonment of its role of ensuring that communities are inclusive and free of discrimination takes us away from the American ideal. It will hurt black communities disproportionately, and potentially for generations. But it helps only the greedy few who profit when the rest of us are divided from each other.
Instead of policies and agency practices that divide us by doubling down on the grave inequality created by historic and current discrimination, we should advance policies that repair these rifts and bring us together. Policies like the Obama-era Affirmatively Furthering Fair Housing rule, and the Fair Housing Act of 1968 on which that rule builds, take strong steps to ensure that housing contributes to equalizing opportunity across race. While bad housing policy can turn back progress, addressing the deep inequality built up over time will require a robust and deliberate policy agenda, like Everyone’s Economy (which my organization released earlier this year).
A policy agenda grounded in our shared fate — as a beloved community — ensures that each of us does not find ourselves standing alone and that we can all engage in the civic lives of our neighborhoods and nation regardless of our economic circumstances or race. And it moves us closer to ensuring that we all share fairly in the prosperity we create as a country.
In the spirit of Dr. King, “Let us move on in these powerful days, these days of challenge to make America what it ought to be.” And do not let HUD turn us ‘round. May we use Fair Housing Month in April as our opportunity to put the spirit of Dr. King into practice.