Skip to content

No Breakthrough in Sight

Washington, D.C., and the long life of housing segregation

On a cool spring day in April 1968, President Lyndon Johnson walked into the White House’s East Room, where he was greeted with what the Associated Press described as “loud, enthusiastic, and sustained” applause from civil rights leaders and politicos alike. It had been a week since James Earl Ray killed Martin Luther King Jr. with a single shot, triggering a wave of civil unrest some called the Holy Week Uprisings. A day after the murder, Johnson had sent a letter to Congress urging them to expedite a bill that would outlaw housing discrimination based on “the color of his [a man’s] skin.” Then, six days later, he was in the House Chamber to sign the Civil Rights Act of 1968, which included Title VIII, the Fair Housing Act. “Now the Negro families no longer suffer the humiliation of being turned away because of their race,” he said.

But saying so did not make it so. While blatant discrimination faded in some areas of Black American life, the real estate market was not transformed with the stroke of LBJ’s pen. Even now, after more than half a century has elapsed, statistics show persistent inequality in the housing sector. In 1960, eight years before passage of the Fair Housing Act, 65 percent of white Americans owned their homes, compared to 38 percent of Black Americans. Last year, 74.6 percent of whites owned their homes while only 45.3 percent of Blacks did. Over the last sixty-two years, not only has the racial gap remained, it has grown from a 27-point gap to a more than 29-point gap today.

Washington, D.C. itself is a case study in failed aspirations, and not just because of legislation that didn’t deliver on a promise. A city with a rich history of Black migration and a growing Black middle class has remained segregated, almost as if it were two: one city serving as a bastion of opportunity for the educated elite, the other as a once-imagined cultural utopia in decay. In the wider metropolitan area, the disparity is especially pronounced, as is the case with most urban-suburban comparisons. The Center for Economic Studies reported last year that, based on 2020 census data, the level of segregation in the greater Washington area (often called DMV, for District, Maryland, and Virginia) ranked as “very high.” On an index that measures Black-white segregation among fifty metro areas in the United States with the largest Black populations, D.C. was thirteenth highest. Census data also shows that white homeownership in the D.C. metro region is around 50 percent, while it’s just shy of 26 percent for Blacks.

“In terms of the laws on the books, we are measurably better now,” Mechele Dickerson, a public policy professor at the University of Texas at Austin, and author of Homeownership and America’s Financial Underclass, told me. But if the question is whether we’ve achieved housing equality, “we are no closer now than we were fifty years ago.”

Civil Disorders

The Fair Housing Act was a long time coming. Just a year before the Holy Week Uprisings, lingering resentment among Blacks boiled over. In the summer of 1967, more than 150 race riots broke out in major cities across the country, leading to dozens of deaths and thousands of arrests, particularly in Detroit and Newark. On July 27, 1967, only days after ordering federal troops to Detroit, President Johnson addressed the nation in a televised speech. “The only genuine, long-range solution for what has happened lies in an attack—mounted at every level—upon the conditions that breed despair and violence,” he said. “All of us know what those conditions are: ignorance, discrimination, slums, poverty, disease, not enough jobs.”

In one instance in 1944, a Black federal government employee bought a three-story Bloomingdale rowhouse, only to be forced to vacate after her white neighbors took her to court.

He then announced the creation of a special Advisory Commission on Civil Disorders, overseen by Governor Otto Kerner of Illinois. Seven months later, the Kerner Commission released a 431-page report that identified segregation and poverty as the main drivers of the collective Black rage. “Our nation is moving toward two societies, one black, one white—separate and unequal,” the report warned. “What white Americans have never fully understood—but what the Negro can never forget—is that white society is deeply implicated in the ghetto. White institutions created it, white institutions maintain it, and white society condones it.”

Then, as now, it was difficult for much of white America to accept such a statement, or even grasp what it meant. Many northern liberals may have assumed resistance to integration was primarily a relic of the old South. Yet, as Richard Rothstein, a research associate at the Economic Policy Institute, wrote in his 2017 book The Color of Law, racial segregation wasn’t just a southern preoccupation: “It was a nationwide project of the federal government in the twentieth century, designed and implemented by its most liberal leaders.” Rothstein traces the ways New Deal policies were designed to make home-buying easier, but also to consistently “enforce residential racial segregation.” Homeownership was a high-risk, high-cost venture before the Great Depression, so less than half of Americans owned their homes at the turn of the century. When the Depression hit, foreclosures drove hundreds of thousands out of their homes.

Redlined and Blockbusted

The federal government launched sweeping new initiatives starting in the 1930s to boost homeownership, like changing banking laws to create longer-term and more affordable mortgage loans. On June 27, 1934, President Franklin D. Roosevelt signed the National Housing Act into law, which created the Federal Housing Administration to jumpstart home-building, primarily by spurring banks to keep lending, with government-insured mortgages that protected them against borrowers’ defaults.

Along with Veterans Administration programs, created in 1944 to help veterans buy homes, the policies worked: national homeownership rates rose from 44 percent in 1940 to 62 percent in 1960. But these initiatives didn’t do much to help Black and brown Americans because they weren’t designed to. “First, the government embarked on a scheme to persuade as many white families as possible to move from urban apartments to single-family homes,” Rothstein wrote. “Then, once suburbanization was under way, the government, with explicit racial intent, made it nearly impossible for African Americans to follow.”

As citizens of color tried to make use of these new federal interventions, both federal and private entities began to engage in racist strategies to block them from homeownership. “Specifically, realtors and appraisers used pseudoscientific theories to determine whether the home a borrower sought to buy was in a ‘safe’ and ‘stable’ neighborhood,” Mechele Dickerson wrote in her 2021 essay “Systemic Racism and Housing.” People of color applying for federal loans to buy property in areas deemed “dangerous or high-risk” would have their application denied, forcing them to either pay for the home in cash or find a loan through other means. Both the government and banks relied on maps that showed undesirable areas in red. “When redlining was legal,” she told me, “you created neighborhoods in some cities that were sort of deprived of capital, deprived of investments.”

Redlining was a common practice in the post-war boom years, encouraged by government agencies and embraced by banks. Yet it was one of several factors in keeping cities and suburbs segregated. White landowners had long inserted racially restrictive covenants into deeds, barring homeowners and their heirs from selling, leasing, or giving their homes to nonwhite Americans. Meanwhile, the practice of “blockbusting” would often drive white flight. “In the first part of blockbusting, investors preyed on biases or misconceptions about Blacks and convinced the [white] owners to sell their homes quickly and move before the impending Black ‘invasion’ eroded the value of their homes,” Dickerson wrote in her essay. After white residents fled, the investors would then purchase their homes at below-market prices and sell them to Black buyers at above-market prices.

Some racist strategies were illegal well before passage of the Fair Housing Act. The 1917 Buchanan v. Warley ruling by the Supreme Court barred cities from enacting municipal zoning laws prohibiting Black residents from living in white neighborhoods—though, Rothstein points out, the Court’s reasoning was that since the Fourteenth Amendment protected “freedom of contract,” restrictive zoning laws “interfered with the right of a property owner to sell to whomever he pleased.”

Thirty-one years later, the Shelley v. Kraemer decision ruled that racially restrictive covenants were unconstitutional. But these racist practices, in concert with one another, were used long enough to help create all-white suburban neighborhoods while decimating, dispersing, and disempowering Black communities. The damage inflicted was already done, and its cumulative effects would last generations.

The Washington Mecca

There was a time when it seemed things might go differently in Washington, D.C.—that the nation’s capital might lead the way toward integrating Blacks into middle-class prosperity. Between the start of the Civil War and Reconstruction, more than twenty-five thousand Black Americans moved to D.C., fleeing violence in the South. They often settled in a few areas near military forts, like Fort Stevens and Fort Totten, which were built to protect D.C. from Confederate attacks, because the Union Army provided medical care, education, shelter, and jobs that weren’t available elsewhere. “We were widely considered the capital of Black Americans as far back as the 1890s, just because of the amount of Black athletes, but also large Black institutions . . . even though in the 1890s we were nowhere near a Black majority,” George Derek Musgrove, an associate professor and co-author of Chocolate City: A History of Race and Democracy in the Nation’s Capital, told me.

By 1900, the city’s Black population swelled to around eighty-seven thousand residents. Black leaders established institutions like the Bethel Literary and Historical Association; the Colored Preparatory High School, which was the nation’s first public Black high school. Howard University, known as the “capstone of Negro education” back then and “The Mecca” today, drew Black students from around the country. Howard’s graduate schools would go on to produce many of the country’s Black professionals, not to mention the city’s own Black elite. Black intellectuals, artists, and activists gravitated in droves to the city, alongside migrants from the South looking for quality work. Washington provided stable, well-paying jobs through the federal government, and federal workers soon formed the core of the city’s Black middle and upper classes.

The city was also remarkably integrated at this point. Throughout Reconstruction, every quadrant of D.C. featured diverse neighborhoods with Black and white, wealthy and poor residents sometimes living in the same area. In 1860, for example, the city’s wealthiest man, a white banker, lived on the same block of H Street as a Black hotelier and a poor Black widow. But D.C. was also evolving into the first (and largest) predominantly Black city in the nation.

Plots, Wards, and Deeds

Yet developers envisioned a different future. When William Stewart, a wealthy New Yorker, moved to the city in 1865, he embarked on an ambitious plan to redevelop the West End. Soon, property taxes in the area climbed, and poor Blacks who could once afford the area were forced out. Stewart’s influence was aided by a Nevada mining millionaire named Francis Newlands, who bought seventeen hundred acres of land in Northwest Washington to develop luxury country homes.

The experts and locals I spoke to while doing research for this story all shared the same conclusion: D.C. is just as segregated as ever.

Newlands, who was both a U.S. senator and an active investor in land and trolley systems, and who believed the United States should be a “white man’s country,” screened potential buyers to ensure that they’d “maintain or increase values” of the property and protect against “undesirable elements.” As a result of Stewart’s and Newlands’s ambitions, LeDroit Park, the West End, and Chevy Chase developed into exclusive enclaves for upper-class buyers. New developments created for the upper and middle classes sprung up, as well, in populous D.C. neighborhoods like Kalorama, Washington Heights, Brookland, and Petworth; they made no space for poor or Black residents.

Citizens associations, made up of white male property holders, also popped up throughout the District. By 1900, twenty such groups used their collective power to reinforce segregation on claims that Black residents would bring crime and poverty to their neighborhoods. One association’s brochure bragged about keeping “objectionable classes” out of their neighborhood.

Congress played its part as well: in 1902, the Senate Park Commission issued a report that sought to redesign the city, which included developing buildings and parks in areas populated by working-class Washingtonians. Federal buildings overtook integrated neighborhoods downtown over the next few decades; Union Station itself was built on top of an Irish-African American enclave called Swampoodle.

Real estate developers took up racially restrictive covenants on houses in the surrounding suburban area. A 1931 deed, for example, blocked Jews from buying or renting lots. A 1936 deed from the Petworth neighborhood stated that the lot “shall never be rented, leased, sold, transferred or conveyed unto or in trust for any negro or colored person of person of negro blood or extraction.” Most of the District’s new neighborhoods were off limits to the burgeoning Black majority, either due to these contracts or because developers simply refused to sell to Black families. In one instance in 1944, a Black federal government employee bought a three-story Bloomingdale rowhouse, only to be forced to vacate after her white neighbors took her to court.

In 1949, Congress passed the Housing Act seeking to beautify America’s cities, starting with D.C. One of its major projects pushed Black renters out of southwestern neighborhoods toward other Black areas that were already crowded. Segregating D.C. was a multipronged, dynamic effort aided by federal lawmakers, local officials, and white citizens—a complex coordination necessitated by the expansiveness of the city’s Black community. By the mid-1900s, federal policies encouraging white homeownership in the suburbs left the District with a higher proportion of Black residents. Between 1950 and 1960, a third of the District’s white population left.

The Rise of Chocolate City

It’s around this time that D.C. became known as “Chocolate City.” The Black population surpassed 50 percent for the first time in 1957. “Local DJs on Black radio stations in the city, who were really great at reflecting what was going on in the community and talking to their listeners, picked up on the nickname,” Musgrove said. (The moniker caught on—the funk band Parliament named their 1975 album Chocolate City.) President Johnson directed the United Planning Organization to funnel federal money into city programs to fight poverty back in 1965. Local Black Power activists, including future mayor Marion Barry, routed that money toward community programs like a freedom school in Northeast and a pilot program putting police under community oversight in the Shaw and Columbia Heights area.

It’s not that segregation, which was at “near-apartheid levels in many cities” around 1940, hasn’t mitigated.

In 1973, Congress granted D.C. its own sovereign government through the District of Columbia Home Rule Act, reestablishing an elected mayor and a thirteen-member council in the city for the first time in a century. That first mayor turned out to be Walter Edward Washington, a Black man. “Once we get the return of democratic governance in 1974, there’s no question that the government is going to be Black,” Musgrove said. D.C.’s city council was quickly taken over by activists like Barry, Sterling Tucker, Nadine Winter, and Douglas Moore, all of them involved in the Civil Rights and Black Power movements at the time. By the mid-1970s—after the federal government outlawed housing discrimination, a robust radical network infiltrated local government, and the city got Blacker overall—D.C. was simultaneously the seat of the overwhelmingly white-oriented national power structure in Congress and the White House, while the surrounding city was a Black power base.

Yet Blacks were not immune to the lure of the suburbs. The Fair Housing Act made it easier for well-to-do Black families to buy property outside the city. Many middle-class Black families gravitated toward Prince George’s County, Maryland: between 1970 and 2010, the area’s Black population swelled from 14 percent to nearly 65 percent. Leading up to the new millennium, D.C.’s racial population began to shift once again as Blacks filtered out of the city and whites slipped back in. The Black majority had gone from roughly 70 percent in the 1970s to less than 60 percent in the 1980s. In recent years, the population has dropped below 45 percent. There were 151,566 Black households in D.C. in 1990, according to the Urban Institute; by 2020, they’d shrunk to 122,253. White households, meanwhile, have swelled from 84,354 to 122,609 in the same period, making the ratio about even. “As more affluent, whiter residents moved to the area, the mix of commercial and retail amenities provided by the private market—and to a certain extent the public sector as well—shifted to accommodate the preferences of these newcomers,” Vanessa Perry, a public policy professor at George Washington University, told me.

The experts and locals I spoke to while doing research for this story all shared the same conclusion: D.C. is just as segregated as ever. The general population statistics for the district may suggest an even balance between Blacks, whites, and others, but the composition of each neighborhood says otherwise. Lauren Grimes, a fifth-generation Washingtonian, told me that D.C. has changed in striking ways in recent years. The city has made economic advances while still experiencing “much strife.” “Everywhere I have lived, attended school, worked, and socialized across the city—from Capitol Hill to Uptown—all display the same ambiguity,” Grimes said. “Whether they ‘look’ or ‘seem’ safe or not, you will most certainly hear police sirens; see people who are struggling mentally, physically, or financially ‘to no fault of their own’; and you will notice gentrification at almost every corner. Social injustices and gentrification are rampant in D.C.” Nathan Brown, who has lived in Washington for thirty-eight years, noted that the city had been beautified over the past few decades, but beautified for whom? “Our leaders knew through city planning and development that the demographics of the city was changing rapidly,” he said. “It was like the Great Migration but going the opposite way.” He’s become so passionate about preserving what’s left of Chocolate City that he spent nearly a decade trying to restore his old neighborhood in northwest D.C. after the Temple Courts public housing complex was demolished in 2008.

Both residents said that D.C. feels less welcoming to them, even though they’ve lived here for years. “It feels like ‘Chocolate City’ culture is being drowned out and diluted,” Grimes said. “Or it’s being made a mockery of instead of being celebrated. It feels like there are fewer opportunities for people who have lived in D.C. for generations to continue to raise families here, become homeowners, or be successful in general. It’s disheartening.”

How Long?

The Center for Economic Studies’s 2022 report on persistent segregation was titled Metropolitan Segregation: No Breakthrough in Sight. The authors noted that for “every decade since 1980, urban scholars have awaited the publication of new census data in the hope that it would show a breakthrough in efforts to desegregate American neighborhoods.” However, having studied the latest data from 2020, they concluded “there will be no breakthrough.” It’s not that segregation, which was at “near-apartheid levels in many cities” around 1940, hasn’t mitigated. The change has been glacial. At the current rate of change, the authors explained, Blacks might experience the same degree of segregation as Asians and Hispanics around the year 2050. In other words, “the most optimistic future scenario is for Black-white segregation to fall to the level experienced by other minority groups, and that is thirty years into the future.”

When LBJ signed the Fair Housing Act back in 1968, he characterized it as a turning point toward a more realized multiracial democracy. “It proclaims that fair housing for all—all human beings who live in this country—is now a part of the American way of life,” he said. But it hasn’t worked out that way, for all kinds of reasons. In real estate, wealth builds on wealth. White families have been able to gain asset wealth through the rising value of their homes and pass it on to the next generation. They’ve been able to benefit from better schools and healthier and safer neighborhoods. Even as the laws on the books have changed, many of the economic laws in the housing market kept working against Black families. The “American way of life” rests on an individualistic, competitive ethos, one that primarily rewards those with the means to accrue money and power. Who’s more apt to accrue it than those who already have it?