Ben Carson’s Opposition To Obama’s Desegregation Plan Is Incoherent

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Ben Carson’s Opposition To Obama’s Desegregation Plan Is Incoherent

Ben Carson refuses to connect his own dots, Bill Schur writes. (Photo: Gage Skidmore/flickr/cc)

The announcement that Ben Carson has been tapped to lead the Department of Housing and Urban Development has come with reminders that Carson opposes President Barack Obama’s new rules intended to strengthen enforcement of the 1968 Fair Housing Act and reduce the number of people that live in segregated communities.

For example, the New York Times reported: “In an opinion article in 2015 for The Washington Times, Mr. Carson compared an Obama administration housing regulation to ‘the failure of school busing’ because it would place affordable housing ‘primarily in wealthier neighborhoods with few current minority residents.'”

But just quoting snippets of the oped doesn’t fully capture the utter incoherence of Carson’s argument. I encourage you to read the whole thing, then let’s try to walk through it together.

1. Carson Is Wrong on Busing

Carson equates the Obama’s housing rule with 1970s-era school busing: “by almost every objective, the experiment failed. Not only was there no real statistical improvement in school integration (the percentage of blacks attending majority black schools from 1972 to 1980 moved from 63.6 percent to 63.3 percent), but the program was unpopular among both blacks and whites.”

But Carson’s numbers are misleading, choosing a narrow timeframe and ignoring regional differences. As education professor George Theoharis explained in a 2015 Washington Post oped:

…despite declarations that busing to desegregate schools failed in the 1970s and 1980s, that era actually saw significant improvement in educational equity. When the National Assessment of Educational Progress began in the early 1970s, there was a 53-point gap in reading scores between black and white 17-year-olds. That chasm narrowed to 20 points by 1988. During that time, every region of the country except the Northeast saw steady gains in school integration. In the South in 1968, 78 percent of black children attended schools with almost exclusively minority students; by 1988, only 24 percent did. In the West during that period, the figure declined from 51 percent to 29 percent.

But since 1988, when education policy shifted away from desegregation efforts, the reading test score gap has grown — to 26 points in 2012 — with segregated schooling increasing in every region of the country.

It’s certainly true that busing caused a huge backlash among parents who didn’t want to be forced to bus their kids longer distances (as well as among those who didn’t want their children in integrated schools.) But that is not analogous to Obama’s housing rule. No one would be forced to leave their home; localities would only be forced to implement the 1968 law, which requires them to “affirmatively further” integration.

As the New York Times explains: “In practice, the rule provides those communities with detailed data on factors like racial demographics, poverty rates, school quality and housing voucher use to help them determine whether lower-income and minority families are isolated from good schools or segregated from opportunity. The rule requires communities to use that information to draft plans to reduce segregation where it exists. Those that habitually defy the requirements risk lose funding from the agency.”

2. Carson Admits That The Fair Housing Act Helped Combat Racist Policies

Carson is careful not to solely blame busing for “white flight.” He writes: “To be fair, white flight was not exclusively the consequence of forced integration policies. Other private and public housing policies such as redlining, restrictive covenants, discriminatory steering by real estate agents and restricted access to private capital — all attempts at social engineering — exacerbated the suburban segregation in the 1970s and ‘80s.”

Kudos to Carson for knowing as much. But the next logical step that follows is a need for public policies that can undo those effects.

A free and independent press is essential to the health of a functioning democracy

And Carson accepts that too! “It is true that the Fair Housing Act and other laws have greatly reduced explicit discrimination in housing, but significant disparities in housing availability and quality persist.”

So what’s the problem with Obama pursuing better enforcement of a law that is already on the books?

3. Carson Does Not Know What “Tortured Reading” Means

Carson’s complaint is, “The Obama administration’s new agency rules rely on a tortured reading of the Fair Housing laws to empower the Department of Housing and Urban Development to ‘affirmatively promote’ fair housing, even in the absence of explicit discrimination … These rules come on the heels of a Supreme Court decision narrowly upholding the use of ‘disparate impact’ analysis in determining whether municipal housing policies have a racially discriminatory effect, whether intended or not.”

In other words, it is a “tortured reading” for Obama’s HUD to follow the same logic that the Supreme Court used.

As Carson himself acknowledged, only combating explicit discrimination doesn’t fully resolve the problem of segregation. With rich data that captures the “disparate impact” of past policies, whether or not there was racist intent, localities can craft better desegregation policies.

But Carson refuses to connect his own dots. Instead he concludes by saying, “There are reasonable ways to use housing policy to enhance the opportunities available to lower-income citizens” … then fails to say what those other policies would be.

Now he has a chance to show us what ideas he had in mind, if he has anything in mind at all.

Bill Scher

Bill Scher is a senior writer at Campaign for America's Future. Follow him on Twitter: @billscher

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