Fair Housing on the Ropes: The U.S. Supreme Court Hears Housing Discrimination Case

Forty nine years ago, my father gave a powerful address to the Chicago Freedom Movement Rally at Soldier Field in Chicago, Illinois. There, he emphasized that Black and Brown families were living in "rat-infested slums." Worse, minorities were paying a higher rent for less space while Whites, paying less in rent, were enjoying higher-quality housing, with more square footage. He said that the time had come for the nation to end the "long and desolate night of slumism."

Dr. King was primarily speaking to the powerful businessmen, politicians and judges, who had their vision, in his words, "blurred by political expedience rather than commitment" to improve the living conditions by failing to address the dehumanizing housing conditions that characterized Chicago's West Side. There were many "West Sides" in the United States in 1966. In spite of the implementation of the Fair Housing Act, unfortunately, there are still numerous communities throughout the United States that are similar to those my father described almost fifty years ago. And, due to recent events, the progress that has been made to ensure stronger policies to prevent this type of housing discrimination is being threatened.

Late last month, The United States Supreme Court heard oral arguments in the case of Texas Department of Housing and Community Affairs v. The Inclusive Communities Project. The Roberts Court will rule on whether or not the Fair Housing Act's doctrine of "disparate impact" should be preserved, or rule that this tool for evaluating covert housing discrimination should be eliminated. Many who are well-versed on this issue believe that the Court will nullify this Act since, historically, the nine justices have not routinely intervened in cases when the lower appellate courts have been in agreement. Since there has not been a question of the law, I fear that the outcome of the case will be a blow to yet another progressive measure that the United States Congress passed shortly after the assassination of my father, Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr., in 1968.

Long gone are the days of the liberal consensus that characterized the United States from Franklin Roosevelt's New Deal, to Harry Truman's Fair Deal, to John F. Kennedy's New Frontier, and finally, to, perhaps the most liberal reforms of them all -- Lyndon Johnson's Great Society. Johnson, a principal champion of liberal government, signed the landmark legislative acts that characterized the Second Reconstruction, a period from the middle 1950s to 1970 of steadily progressive measures to address centuries of inequities suffered by blacks. President Johnson understood that America could not continue to compete with the world with blacks and minorities as members of a permanent underclass.

Unlike President Johnson, this current United States Supreme Court appears to be adopting a strategy of Deconstruction similar to its Nineteenth-Century predecessors. Those predecessors struck down the Civil Rights Act of 1875, which declared that all citizens, regardless of color, were "entitled to the full and equal enjoyment" of public accommodations. This decision cleared the way for widespread legal segregation as states began to immediately redraft their constitutions to legalize the discriminatory practices against African-Americans.

Shamefully, the Court's systematic dismantling of Section 5 of the Voting Rights Act and the Court's anticipated modification of the Fair Housing Act may cause it to be remembered by history as a strict constructionist Court with neither heart nor soul. Within five years, it has erased the gains of almost 60 years of progressive reform that sought to foster a spirit of what my father called "interconnectedness." This is extremely detrimental to our nation, to our global citizenry and to the realization of the "Beloved Community."

Dr. Bernice A. King is Chief Executive Officer of The King Center