Biggest segregator of housing ever? Uncle Sam

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This article, in revised form, was podcast on Public Radio's This American Life on Nov. 24, 2013.

When the Great Migration began in 1910, just 10 percent of black Americans lived outside the South. Six decades later, nearly half of the country's 22.5 million African Americans called other states home. In all, 6 million African Americans left the South, a flow of humanity that redrew the nation's racial map.

The migrants sought jobs in booming Northern cities such as New York, Chicago, Milwaukee, Cleveland, Detroit and Philadelphia. In the early years, they moved into white neighborhoods, rarely living in places that were more than 30 percent black, according to sociologists Douglas Massey of Princeton University and Nancy Denton of the State University of New York at Albany.

It didn't last.

Cities and towns began adopting zoning codes that designated neighborhoods as all-white and all-black. When the U.S. Supreme Court struck down those laws as unconstitutional, real estate agents wrote "codes of ethics" that included bans on selling homes to African Americans outside of black areas. In some cities, white residents responded to the arrival of black families with riots, home bombings, and cross burnings. They formed associations dedicated to blocking even a single black family from moving in.

White communities also embraced racial covenants — legal language in deeds that barred any subsequent purchaser from selling to African Americans.

Still, African Americans kept moving north. By 1930, the black population in Northern cities had grown by 40 percent as another 1 million left the South.

Around this time the federal government began promoting the racial division of Northern cities, primarily through New Deal loan programs.

The Home Owners' Loan Corporation, created in 1933, introduced the practice of redlining, marking in red ink swaths of cities in which it would not lend. It rated white neighborhoods as the least risky and black neighborhoods as the most. It would not lend to a black person seeking to buy in a white neighborhood, or vice versa.

When the Federal Housing Administration opened its doors a year later, it adopted the same practices. As a result, 98 percent of the loans the FHA insured between 1934 and 1962 went to white borrowers. The policies encouraged white flight as even neighborhoods with small numbers of African Americans were rated as "hazardous." White residents who didn't mind black neighbors found their home values decreasing as the government refused to insure mortgages for new buyers.

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