The McCloskeys as Keynoters

Dianne Feeley

ALTHOUGH IT DID seem bizarre to invite the gun-waving couple Mark and Patricia McCloskey to give a four-minute address on the opening night of the Republican National Convention, in truth they were Exhibit A in Trump’s re-election strategy to “protect” the suburbs.

The couple are facing felony charges for brandishing their guns at protesters marching by their St. Louis mansion last June.

While a Black Lives Matter demonstration took a shortcut to the mayor’s house by slipping through the open gate of the private street where the McCloskeys live, the couple maintain they feared for their lives. Mark McCloskey, 63, pointed an AR-15 rifle at protesters while Patricia McCloskey, 61, wielded a semiautomatic handgun.

The personal-injury lawyers spoke to the Republican convention from their 52-room palazzo about how they were determined to defend their property.

Patricia McCloskey claimed that the demonstrators wanted to “abolish the suburbs altogether” by ending single-family home zoning, bringing in crime, lawlessness and low-quality apartment units. She noted that Trump ”smartly” got rid of such a policy.

This vision matches Trump’s campaign speeches. On the campaign trail in Michigan, he remarked:

“The suburbs are the American dream, and I will tell you, I have protected your suburbs. You know I got rid of a regulation that played with your zoning and played with other things, where they force projects into the suburbs of our great country. And I got rid of it.”

The clear message: Trump is a “law-and-order” guy who will prevent an “invasion.”

As a child growing up in San Francisco in the 1950s, I remember my mother telling me that if a Black family moved into the neighborhood, we’d have to move. When I questioned her, she said our house would lose value because the mere presence of one Black family would destroy its market price.

As we talked, she mentioned how it would be difficult to be neighbors to a Black family. If my brother and me played with their children, then as we got older we might think it was acceptable to date, or marry. It seemed to me that even more than the potential loss of money, my mother was worried about the future of my brother and I should we be so foolish as to cross the color line.

Housing researchers have concluded that most racial discrimination is the result of U.S. public policy, reinforced by white homeowners whipped up by developers and real estate brokers into protecting their property values and their “way of life.”

Zoning laws, restrictive covenants that homeowners were once required to sign and redlining were the main mechanisms through which the real estate industry, in cahoots with every level of government, enforced racial segregation in 20th century America. These mechanisms were in clear violation of the 1866 Civil Rights Act. However no case was taken up by the U.S. Supreme Court between 1883 and 1948, when covenants were finally ruled illegal.

While it’s easy to see the discrimination of a landlord or management company refusing to rent to Black people, local zoning laws on paper seem race neutral. These include restrictions on multiple-family occupancy, banning commercial development, proscribing lot size and setting architectural standards. Yet these measures successfully eliminate most Black families.

Between the end of World War II and the 1950s developers and homeowners associations united to “protect” neighborhoods from those they viewed as “undesirable,” i.e. Jews and Blacks. They campaigned for and elected city officials who opposed civil rights organizations and their demand for open housing. They also filed legal briefs in support of restrictive covenants and successfully passed “homeowner rights” ordinances.

Associations networked to monitor attempts by Blacks to buy homes in their neighborhood, and when they did, they received a visit from association members, who offered to buy the home. If they declined, extra-legal action included breaking windows, setting fires and turning out weeks-long rocking-throwing crowds.

Consequently, areas where African-American families could find housing were the ones zoned for industrial and commercial development. These are where toxic waste dumps and incinerators were built — and are still operating. As a result, the health of the Black community suffers. No wonder that when COVID-19 hit, the virus found Blacks twice or three times more vulnerable than whites.

From Redlining to Spacial Segregation

Deeds that restricted the homeowner from selling to non-whites date from before World War I. Redlining, invented by an agency of the federal government, sprang up during the 1930s Depression. As many homeowners went into foreclosure, what was to become the Federal Housing Administration (FHA) purchased mortgages and issued new ones with long-term payment schedules.

To minimize the risk of defaults, the FHA hired real estate agents to appraise the home’s worth. Given that the agents’ national ethics code required the maintenance of segregation, the resulting metropolitan area maps were colored green for the “safest” neighborhoods, and red if even one African-American family resided there.

That is, the presence of even one Black family made it a “risky” area.  This was true even when the neighborhood was solidly middle class.

By 1935 the FHA produced the first edition of the Underwriting Manual as a guide to banks, pointing out “A change in social or racial occupancy generally leads to instability and a reduction in values.” At the same time, the New Deal built affordable housing. Disregarding post-Civil War legislation that made segregation illegal, these complexes were assigned to either whites or Blacks.

Of 26 projects built in the Northeast and Midwest, 16 were reserved for whites, eight for African Americans and two complexes where buildings were segregated.

Massive civil rights organizing, spearheaded by A. Philip Randolph of the Sleeping Car Porters, organized meetings and marches against segregation and projected a 1941 March on Washington. Just a week before, Roosevelt persuaded Randolph to call it off in exchange for an executive order prohibiting racial discrimination in the war industries.

The Fair Employment Practices Committee accomplished little, and the dual labor market continued. Black men and women had less access to jobs and, once hired, frequently faced harassment from management and coworkers, especially if they sought higher-paying jobs.

After World War II and the creation of the Veterans Administration, returning GIs were guaranteed mortgages, and this program continues today. That’s how my brother, a Vietnam veteran, bought his house.

Because the VA imposed the conditions outlined in the Underwriting Manual, Black veterans were almost totally excluded. This was at a moment in which the federal government, through the FHA and the Veterans Administration, expanded the housing market. But they financed exclusively white subdivisions like Westlake (just south of San Francisco), Lakewood (south of Los Angeles), Oak Forest in Houston, Prairie Village in Kansas City and, in New York City, Stuyvesant Town.

It is unlikely that any could have gotten off the ground without the federal agency’s infusion of capital. Levittown was able to mass produce 17,500 two-bedroom, 750-square-feet houses for $8,000, with no down-payment required. And the white homeowner got a federally-backed mortgage to boot.

Cities willingly condemned and cleared neighborhoods and provided tax abatements to the banks and insurance companies that worked with the federal agencies. In some cities “slum clearance” tore down formerly stable and integrated neighborhoods. But Black families, paying the most for the worst and densest housing, were left behind.

As for public housing, which Patricia McClosky dismissed as “low-quality apartment units,” its original purpose was subverted as African Americans were unable to take advantage of postwar subsidized housing. By 1950 the real estate industry had successfully lobbied for an upper-income limit on their rents. Over the next decade better off white and Black families were forced to move.

While the Fair Housing Act of 1968 outlawed segregation, by then the postwar housing pattern had been established. Not only was integrated and affordable public housing no longer a possibility, but as maintenance budgets were cut, remaining residents were demonized by politicians.

What little remains of public housing is viewed as a place to warehouse the poor. It has become increasingly segregated, rundown and crime ridden. And because schools are so closely tied to one’s residence, this means their neighborhood schools are increasingly segregated and resource starved.

In the early 1970s, when parents of Detroit public school students sued for integrated schools, the courts agreed with them about the degree of segregation but claimed it was impossible to demand suburban schools open their doors. After all, the judges concluded, suburban schools hadn’t “caused” segregation so they couldn’t be held accountable for reversing it.

Courts today see segregation as “de facto,” rather than intentionally imposed (“de jure”) therefore no action need be taken.

Politicians have come up with Housing Choice Vouchers (Section 8) as a way that the poor — disproportionately people of color — can be integrated into various neighborhoods. While the government supplements their rent, they must secure their own housing.

Since landlords can and do refuse to rent to people who have vouchers, the vast majority live in poorer neighborhoods where the housing stock is rundown and the rent high. Even when the family finds housing in a suburb, it is usually within a segregated enclave.

As of 2015, a million families had vouchers, with long waiting lists of those who have been approved and six million more who haven’t yet qualified.

Meanwhile, the economic recession of 2008-09 devastated Black homeownership, wiping out gains made over the last half century. A decade ago, when the mortgage crisis hit, it turned out that African Americans of various income levels had been steered toward higher-interest (subprime) mortgages. Today Black families are 40% less likely to own their homes and hold just one-tenth of the wealth of white families.

Given this history of segregation in housing, it’s easy enough to see that when the McCloskeys stand in front of their mansion with weapons — and when Trump talks about making sure suburban families “safe” — it is a barely disguised code in order to demonize families who have struggled for the right to live and work with dignity. These families deserve reparations for the trauma they have been subjected to; it is they who deserve to be safe.

November-December 2020, ATC 209