Civil Rights in a Desegregating America
88 Pages Posted: 14 Oct 2015 Last revised: 6 Nov 2016
Date Written: October 12, 2015
The law largely has overlooked one of the most important sociological developments of the last half-century: a sharp decline in residential segregation. In 1970, 80% of African Americans would have had to switch neighborhoods for blacks to be spread evenly across the typical metropolitan area. By 2010, this proportion was down to 55%, and was continuing to fall. Bringing this striking trend (and its causes) to the attention of the legal literature is my initial aim in this Article.
My more fundamental goal, though, is to explore what desegregation means for the three bodies of civil rights law — housing discrimination, vote dilution, and school segregation — to which it is tied most closely. I first explain how all three bodies historically relied on segregation. Its perpetuation by housing practices led to disparate impact liability under the Fair Housing Act. It meant that minority groups were “geographically compact,” as required by the Voting Rights Act. And it contributed to the racially separated schools from which segregative intent was inferred in Brown and its progeny.
I then argue that all of these doctrines are disrupted by desegregation. Fair Housing Act plaintiffs cannot win certain disparate impact suits if residential patterns are stably integrated. Nor can claimants under the Voting Rights Act satisfy the statute’s geographic compactness requirement. And desegregating homes usually result in desegregating schools, which in turn make illicit intent difficult to infer.
Lastly, I offer some tentative thoughts about civil rights law in a less racially separated America. I am most optimistic about the Fair Housing Act. “Integrated and balanced living patterns” are among the statute’s aspirations, and it increasingly is achieving them. Conversely, I am most pessimistic about the Voting Rights Act. One of its objectives is minority representation, which is threatened when minorities are politically distinctive but spatially dispersed. And a mixed verdict seems in order for school desegregation law. Rising residential integration eventually should produce rising school integration. But it has not done so yet, and even when it does, this improvement may not reach schools’ other racial imbalances.
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