Straight from Central Casting

Authored By 
Nichole Nelson
Blog contributor 
Policy Fellow
January 19, 2017

 This article originally appeared in the December 8, 2016 edition of the Yale Daily News.

“He looks the part.” President-elect Donald Trump’s superficial assessment of Mitt Romney as a potential choice to become Secretary of State can easily apply to Ben Carson, his nominee to lead the U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development (HUD). If Romney’s all-American good looks and calm demeanor are sufficient qualifications for Secretary of State, then the question becomes, what exactly are Ben Carson’s qualifications to lead HUD?  

As a man who lacks formal housing policy, urban planning, or real estate experience, the only qualification that comes to mind is Carson’s racial identity as an African American. This nomination is similar to Trump’s appointment of South Carolina Governor Nikki Haley to serve as U.N. Ambassador. She lacks experience in her field, but Trump may think that she is qualified because of her Indian ancestry. However, “looking the part” and possessing the qualifications to lead a federal agency are two separate things.

Trump’s nomination of Carson is dangerous, not simply because of the pure tokenism in its assumption that Carson has intimate knowledge of housing and urban development because he is an African American from Detroit.  It is most troubling because Carson’s failure to grasp fundamental housing issues will have dire effects on the housing market. The housing market that Carson is inheriting is hyper-segregated as a result of decades of government policy designed to facilitate homeownership for white Americans while simultaneously hindering homeownership opportunities for people of color. 

During the Great Depression, President Franklin Roosevelt hoped to stabilize the country’s economy, and subsequently, its housing market.  He sought to, aid “one-third of a nation ill-housed, ill-clad, ill nourished.” However, instead of facilitating homeownership for all Americans, the federal government wove racism into federal housing agencies’ fundamental fabric. 

While the Home Owners’ Loan Corporation (HOLC) and Federal Housing Administration (FHA) made home loans available to millions of white Americans and aided in the construction and financing of quintessential, postwar suburbs like Levittown, New York, these agencies also intentionally denied loans to homebuyers of color. The HOLC and FHA created security maps for many cities, which used letter ratings that determined homebuyers’ ability to receive bank loans for homes based on their neighborhoods’ racial composition. White neighborhoods received the highest rating, marking their residents eligible for loans for suburban homeownership. The agencies denied residents of Black, Asian, Latino, and Native American neighborhoods loans for homes. Many people of color found themselves subsequently confined to deteriorating, inner-city neighborhoods with substandard housing and limited access to amenities.

Interestingly enough, it was Mitt Romney’s father, George Romney, who acted aggressively to combat housing discrimination during his tenure as HUD Secretary from 1969 to 1973. While HUD Secretary, Romney enforced the Fair Housing Act of 1968 to “affirmatively further” fair housing. For example, Romney ordered HUD officials to deny “applications for or water, sewer, and highway projects from cities and states where local policies fostered segregated housing.”

In accordance with his interpretation of the Fair Housing Act, Romney famously punished the white, working-class, Detroit suburb of Warren, Michigan for blatantly discriminating against black homebuyers and denied the suburb a $3 million urban renewal grant until it accepted low-income housing. Unfortunately for Romney, when President Nixon looked toward the upcoming Presidential Election of 1972, he feared that Romney’s actions would alienate the powerful voting bloc of white, working-class voters who had helped ensure his election in 1968. Subsequently, Nixon made Romney’s job increasingly more difficult until Romney resigned in January 1973. Since Romney, subsequent HUD Secretaries have done little to substantively address fair housing. 

Fair housing is integral, not only because of its promise to alleviate the effects of racial residential segregation and subsequent concentrated poverty on African Americans and other people of color, but also to ensure the entire nation’s economic future. Where you live determines your access to education, employment, transportation, health care, and even healthy food. Entire generations of people of color have been denied opportunities to succeed because of white flight. Discriminatory housing policies drive down tax revenue and leave public schools without the minimum taxes necessary to educate them. Deindustrialization ensues, leaving Rustbelt cities like Detroit and Cleveland in desperate need of economic revitalization. Even when the middle class returns to urban areas, the crippling effects of gentrification price low-income people and people of color out of their homes.

How, then, can entire communities that are left behind contribute to the American economy and effectively help America compete on the world stage? While fair housing has a disproportionate impact on people of color, it’s not just a problem for people of color. It’s America’s problem.

Assuming Carson’s knowledge of this complicated history solely because he is black underscores the Trump Cabinet’s tokenization of people of color and marginalization of their issues. America’s housing crisis can only be resolved with a qualified, experienced HUD Secretary who has innovative ideas to enforce fair housing.  Ultimately, Trump’s appointment of Ben Carson means that he is using “his African American” to make his Cabinet appear diverse without acknowledging the history of housing discrimination that the African Americans have endured and will continue to endure under Secretary Ben Carson.

Nichole Nelson is an ISPS Graduate Policy Fellow, and a doctoral candidate in History at Yale University. She studies fair housing policies. 

Area of study 
Urban & Housing Policy