By Craig Gurian
Hillary Clinton’s call for Americans to face up to “the reality of systemic racism” is the latest in a series of stirring calls to idealism and action on civil rights. Directly after her loss to Sen. Bernie Sanders in New Hampshire, she had told her audience that, “When people anywhere in America are held back by injustice, that demands action.” She did not triangulate. “Human rights across the board for every single American,” she exclaimed.
This is not a new theme for her. Clinton’s recent remarks reminded me of those she delivered after the racist shooting of African-American churchgoers in Charleston last year. Then she had said, “We can’t hide from any of these hard truths about race and justice in America,” adding, “We have to name them and then own them and then change them.”
Expose injustice, then act to end it: an inspiring formula. Alas, I know from personal experience that what Clinton actually means is something far more pedestrian: “Speak out and act to end injustice . . . as long as it’s not too close to home or politically inconvenient.”
The Clintons, since 1999, have lived in Chappaqua in Westchester County, a wealthy suburb of New York that continues to be characterized by deep residential segregation. Indeed, the 2010 census showed, Westchester has 19 towns and villages with a non-Latino, African-American household population of less than 2% .
The segregation did not occur “naturally.” On the contrary, it was a result of intentional discrimination practiced over many decades by government at all levels and by the various actors in the private housing market. In other words, the segregation was socially engineered. That social engineering continues today in the form of exclusionary zoning that prevents developers from producing affordable housing with the potential to desegregate.
Westchester County itself, to get tens of millions of dollars in federal funds, claimed for years it was “affirmatively furthering fair housing” — that is, identifying and taking the necessary steps to overcome barriers to fair housing choice. In fact, Westchester had no intention of breaking down barriers to fair housing choice. On the contrary, it had a “hands-off” policy toward its towns and villages, regardless of how restrictive local zoning was.