Black Reparations for Twentieth Century Federal Housing Discrimination: The Construction of White Wealth and the Effects of Denied Black Homeownership

57 Pages Posted: 23 Jun 2020 Last revised: 25 Jun 2020

See all articles by Jane Kim

Jane Kim

Columbia University - Law School; Harvard University

Date Written: December 1, 2019


This year marks the 400th anniversary of the first documented arrival of Africans to the United States, which resulted in the enslavement of approximately 4 million Africans and their descendants in the United States between 1619 and 1865. On June 19, 2019—or “Juneteenth,” the holiday that celebrates the end of slavery in the United States—the U.S. House of Representatives held a hearing to discuss a reparations bill seeking to address the legacy of slavery and racism against African-Americans in the United States. The landmark reparations bill marks the first time since the Reconstruction Era nearly 150 years ago that Congress has reignited a “long overdue” national conversation on reparations. The purpose of the reparations bill was: “[t]o address the fundamental injustice, cruelty, brutality, and inhumanity of slavery in the United States,” and to establish a commission to study and consider a national apology and proposal for reparations for the institution of slavery, for subsequent “de jure and de facto” discrimination against African-Americans, and for the impact of such lasting “forces.”

Since June, the reparations bill has made little to no progress through either the House or the Senate. Indeed, the idea of reparations to African- and black-Americans for the profound harms of slavery and its legacy of racism in the United States has gained limited traction in the past two centuries. Opposing the reparations bill, Senate majority leader Mitch McConnell stated: “I don’t think reparations for something that happened 150 years ago for whom none of us currently living are responsible is a good idea. . . . We’ve tried to deal with our original sin of slavery by fighting a civil war, by passing landmark civil rights legislation. We elected an African American president.” Senator McConnell is not alone in his position. Critics of reparations for slavery and its effects have historically argued that the challenges of pragmatism, causation, and time make reparations improper and infeasible. Critics often ask how reparations should be quantified and distributed, whether we can determine what would have happened but-for slavery, and whether the passage of over 125 years erodes “ancient injustice” claims for compensation, accountability, and standing. Tabling the rich but somewhat static debate on black reparations for U.S. slavery, this paper takes a different approach and focuses on a narrow band of more recent and quantifiable government wrongs for which black-Americans are entitled to reparations.

This paper examines the U.S. government’s instigation, participation, authorization, and perpetuation of federal housing discrimination against black-Americans from the 1930s to the 1980s and the damage that such discrimination caused and continues to cause today. Delving into the U.S. government’s twentieth century federal housing practices, this paper discusses how the government effectively barred black-Americans from obtaining quality housing and from investing in housing as wealth, while simultaneously subsidizing and endorsing white homeownership, white suburbs, and white wealth. Quantifying the U.S. government’s discriminatory practices with current wealth gaps between white- and black-American communities, this paper discusses the effects of twentieth century federal housing discrimination and argues that such government-initiated wrongs justify black reparations.

Part I examines the U.S. government’s housing practices—from the New Deal until the 1968 Fair Housing Act and its 1988 Amendments—to reveal that although the New Deal’s national housing programs revolutionized homeownership and home equity in the United States, the U.S. government’s federal housing programs were racially discriminatory. Specifically, and quite shockingly, the U.S. government actively created and promulgated racist neighborhood rating systems that constructed black neighborhoods and black property as unstable, volatile, hazardous, and not worthy of investment. Using these racist rating systems, the federal government endorsed racial covenants and invested federal money into the creation and accumulation of white wealth, the value of whiteness, white suburbia, and white homeownership. Meanwhile, the government denied blacks federal housing funding, fueling black stigma and barring black-Americans from the invaluable twentieth century opportunities of homeownership and home equity.

Understanding the U.S. government’s discriminatory housing practices, Part II discusses and quantifies the effects of the government’s housing discrimination on black-American households and communities. Finding that approximately 120 billion 1950s dollars—or more than 1.239 quintillion 2019 dollars—were invested to subsidize and create white-American wealth through homeownership, Part II discusses both the quantifiable and the less quantifiable effects of twentieth century federal housing discrimination. Mapping the impact of the U.S. government’s discriminatory housing practices to the black-white wealth gap, Part II argues that the black-white wealth gap may be attributable, at least in part, to twentieth century federal housing discrimination.

In conclusion, this paper argues in favor of black reparations for the discriminatory U.S. housing practices that persisted from the 1930s to the 1980s—and whose remnants pervasively continue to damage black-American communities today. At a minimum, this paper argues that the U.S. government should compensate black-Americans for the 1.239 quintillion dollars of discriminatory federal housing spending. In addition, recognizing the power of wealth accumulation, the U.S. government should consider the grave and lasting impact of its discriminatory housing practices in order to repair the government-initiated wrongs perpetrated merely one generation ago. While black reparations for federal housing discrimination do not speak to or cure the issues of reparations for slavery in the United States, such reparations are one step forward in correcting past wrongs that continue to devastate black-American communities and will continue to haunt our country, if left unrepaired.

Keywords: Civil Rights, Reparations, Housing Discrimination

Suggested Citation

Kim, Jane, Black Reparations for Twentieth Century Federal Housing Discrimination: The Construction of White Wealth and the Effects of Denied Black Homeownership (December 1, 2019). Boston University Public Interest Law Journal, Volume 29, Issue 135 (Winter 2019), Available at SSRN:

Jane Kim (Contact Author)

Columbia University - Law School ( email )


Harvard University

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