New York Law School

Old Habits Die Hard

In response to the Great Depression, then President Franklin D. Roosevelt enacted a series of domestic programs that were meant to provide relief for the unemployed and poor, and improve a financial system that would prevent future economic depressions. These programs included development of agencies like the Civilian Conservative Corps. (“CCC”) that employed over three million people and the Federal Housing Administration (“FHA”) that regulated the banking industry that provided mortgages for homes and guaranteed those mortgages. These programs and many like them were collectively known as the New Deal. The New Deal was supposed to provide relief for everyone equally, but although the programs were new, the prejudices were old. Many of the reforms meant to provide economic and housing relief excluded African Americans and widened the wealth gap between Whites and African Americans. The ripple effects of this discrimination are felt even today.

The relief programs were not supposed to discriminate on the basis of race nor were they supposed to further the racial and gender inequality of the time. However, old habits die-hard and many of the people who ran the programs were discriminating against African Americans and women. One example is The CCC, one of the first new deal programs. It was a public works project intended to promote environmental conservation through intense outdoor labor. This program was meant to relieve unemployment and keep youth off the street. More importantly, it was meant to provide jobs at a time when jobs were scare. Although the CCC was supposed to utilize non-discriminatory practices, the men that ran it had deep roots in the South where discrimination was rampant. African American membership in the CCC was limited to ten percent. African American CCC members were eventually segregated from their white counter-parts. Although there was a clause in the law establishing the CCC that outlawed discrimination based on race, the CCC held that segregation was not discrimination. The overriding principles of the New Deal legislation were meant to provide economic relief to people on a non-discriminatory basis. However, the drafters of the legislation fell short on two fronts. First, they did not explicitly add these non-discriminatory practices into their legislation and second, these federal programs were run by local community leaders or local authorities who used their own racial biases in administering these programs. According to an article published by the Roosevelt Institute titled [African Americans and the New Deal: A Look Back in History], although the CCC employed almost 3 million men in 1933, less than 300,000 of those jobs went to African Americans. In an era where jobs were scarce, the CCC was critical in keeping the White male employed and financially afloat during the Depression. African Americans who were denied these federally funded jobs fell deeper into a cycle of poverty while their white counter-parts began their path to financial recovery.

The FHA was another New Deal relief program initiated under the National Housing Act of 1934. After the Great Depression, many banks failed causing a drastic decrease in home loans and ownership. The FHA was supposed to regulate the rate of interest and the terms of mortgages for loans the government insured. Before the FHA, most mortgages were short term, three to five years, with no amortization and balloon payments. These terms made mortgages unattainable for most people and became a key component in the housing collapse of the Great Depression. Although many people would be able to make the monthly mortgage payments on their homes they could not afford to pay off the entire balance when the loans came due in five years. At the time, banks were unregulated and would not extend mortgages past the three or five year terms and would simply foreclose on these homes. The FHA began regulating these practices by insisting on longer terms and lower interest rates. The FHA was meant to strengthen the housing market and end these predatory lending practices, making the American dream a reality for everyone. In 1934, the practice of redlining came into existence under the housing act. The National Housing Act created residential security maps which outlined the level of security for real estate investments in 239 cities around the United States. High-risk areas were outlined in red. Most minority neighborhoods were redlined which meant that they were automatically denied mortgages.

The mortgage discrimination that flourished under the National Housing Act led to decaying neighborhoods and the disenfranchised state of most inner city neighborhoods that we see today. Similarly, the Civilian Conservation Corps. that provided white males with the financial security they needed to survive and eventually thrive during an economically unstable time had the opposite effect on African Americans who were not offered this same safeguard.

Home ownership and equity is a source of wealth. The National Housing Association’s redlining practices created a middle class of mostly white males that extends into the present day. Without the ability to obtain mortgages African Americans were denied this source of wealth and advancement that came through rising real estate prices. Without the stability and financial advancement that comes with home ownership African-American neighborhoods, which were mostly inner city, neighborhoods fell into decay. This self-perpetuating cycle even permeates our present day society. Most white homebuyers are able to get help with a down payment on their first home from their parents. They can do this because their parents are able to take out loans on their own homes and use that equity to provide their children financial help. Most African-American homebuyers today are not afforded this same luxury because their parents were excluded from the mortgage assistance during the Roosevelt era. Homeownership became almost non-existent in minority neighborhoods because of these discriminatory practices and this lack of growth and advancement led to decaying and disenfranchised areas that became the inner city neighborhoods of today.

The CCC further extended the wealth gap between white males and African Americans. While white males were suffering the economic hardship of the Great Depression, African Americans were being crushed by the worse than normal economic hardships they faced. According to the New Deal reference library, the overall unemployment rate during the Great Depression was 25% and African Americans and minorities accounted for 50% of that unemployed population. As a result of the Great Depression white males were now competing with African Americans for jobs and the CCC was a great source for employment. With administrators promulgating rules that limited the number of jobs available to African Americans with the CCC, a program that was supposed to provide economic relief to all people equally, African Americans were at a severe financial disadvantage. African Americans were economically suppressed while Whites were given a leg up. Without the stability provided by these federally funded jobs the wealth gap between white males and African Americans continued to grow.

The roots of the widening wealth gap between Whites and African Americans can be traced back to the Roosevelt era New Deal reforms. These reforms were meant to equally help people of all racial backgrounds to not only survive an economic depression but to build anew and strive for a better and economically stable future. Beginning with the housing discrimination and leading up to employment discrimination, African Americans faced an economic disadvantage that they have yet to overcome. To build a solid economic foundation that lasts through generations you must first have a foundation on which to build. African Americans were excluded from building their foundations at the same time as their White counterparts and the effects of that delayed beginning is felt, even today. Today, when people do not like to discuss racial issues because most people want to believe we live in a so-called “fair” society, African Americans are still struggling to overcome the effects of earlier reforms that were meant to be “fair”.

#ALLLIVESMATTER: Speaking Out Against Injustice

Most people are aware of the cause behind the social media hashtag #BLACKLIVESMATTER; the movement began as a response to the brutal attacks on Black men and women by police officers and has ballooned into a multitude of movements that span across racial and cultural lines[1]. The movement has taken on several different permutations including #MUSLIMLIVESMATTER, #MIGRANTLIVESMATTER, #GAYLIVESMATTER and, most inclusively, #ALLLIVESMATTER. The #ALLLIVESMATTER movement in particular has sparked more than its fair share of controversy. Many believe that those who use the hashtag #ALLLIVESMATTER are hoping to diminish or counter the #BLACKLIVESMATTER movement. Huffington Post’s Politics Intern, Julia Craven, wrote an article titled “Please Stop Telling Me That All Lives Matter”[2] arguing that “race brings on individual issues for each minority group [and] saying “all lives matter” causes erasure of the differing disparities each group faces.” Similarly, New York Times opinion writer, George Yancy conducted an interview[3] with Judith Butler and posed the question “What’s Wrong With ‘All Lives Matter’?”[4] In response she stated “It is true that all lives matter, but it is equally true that not all lives are understood to matter which is precisely why it is most important to name the lives that have not mattered, and are struggling to matter in the way they deserve. [W]e cannot have a race-blind approach to the questions: which lives matter?” Others believe that the #ALLLIVESMATTER movement could be a way of asserting that people from all different racial and ethnic identities have obstacles and barriers that should be equally recognized. Read more

Fisher on Remand: Reconsidering the Rationale behind Race-Conscious Admission Programs

In Grutter v. Bollinger, the U.S. Supreme Court held that the use of race in school admission programs may be constitutionally permissible only if necessary to achieve student body diversity.[i] Today it is widely accepted by the courts that diversity forms the only constitutional justification for affirmative action programs. Stare decisis notwithstanding, however, it may be time to consider an alternative to the diversity rationale in light of the implications it carries for the most recent challenge to affirmative action in school admissions. A challenge that is likely to come again before the Supreme Court this coming term.

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Students or Criminals?: The Effect of School Safety Officers on the Rights of New York City Public School Students

Many people are probably not aware that School Safety Officers (“SSOs”) are present in all New York City public schools. The presence of SSOs creates an environment of punishment and puts the discipline of students in the hands of police officers rather than in school administrators and teachers. Arrests on school grounds take children out of the classroom, contributing to the school-to-prison pipeline, particularly in schools with high numbers of black and Latino students. This system is setting up many children to fail, rather than providing a safe environment where students can learn and thrive.

The application of zero tolerance policies and the involvement of SSOs in minor discipline incidents increases the likelihood that New York City youth will become involved in the juvenile, and eventually the criminal, justice system. In addition, the application of the police department’s “broken windows” policing led to record levels of suspensions during Michael Bloomberg’s administration. Prison should not be the end of the road for young New Yorkers; children should be attending school so that they receive the education and tools that they need to become productive members of society. Read more

The Central Park 5 and the Price of Racial Injustice

Recent news of the $40 million settlement in the Civil Rights Lawsuit for the wrongful conviction of five men in the Central Park Jogger rape case forces me as a law student and social justice advocate to confront the institutional failures of our legal system. The incarceration of these young men did not happen absent powerful social forces influenced by deep-rooted racial biases. Sadly, many of these conventions and fears are as alive today as they were then, and people of color continue to be treated differently by our courts.

Who is responsible for this tragedy? Although it may be easy to blame the police dept. or jury, vilifying any one person or institution to the exclusion of others diminishes the true scope of this injustice. The overly ambitious prosecutor and the hasty detective played their respective roles within a larger system that tolerated racial prejudice and perpetuated systematized discrimination. It is this system that needs to be addressed.

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Stand Your Ground Laws: The Enshrinement of Racism Under the Guise of Self-Defense

The highly publicized murder trials of George Zimmerman and Michael Dunn have brought Stand Your Ground (SYG) laws to the forefront of public debate. In 2005, Florida was the first state to pass a SYG statute,[1] and two dozen other states have since followed suit. But the black and white nature of these laws had been largely overlooked by the public until the Florida killings of two teenage boys. The killings of Trayvon Martin and Jordan Davis are merely illustrative of how SYG laws have institutionally legitimized a fear rooted in racism.

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Recent Articles on R. Kelly Raise the Issue of Why Some Crimes Receive Less Publicity and Attention – Is it Because He is Famous, or Because his Alleged Victims are Young Girls from Poor Communities of Color?

We have all heard and may love the song, “Bump N Grind,” may have anticipated the release of R. Kelly’s most recent album, Black Panties, and may enjoy listening to his other albums, including Age Ain’t Nothing But a Number. What we may not have heard are the reports and outcries from the numerous young women whose lives have been allegedly ruined by R. Kelly’s sexual predation. In a recent issue of the Village Voice, Jim DeRogatis, former music journalist at the Chicago Sun-Times, offered his reason as to why no one has given attention to allegations around R. Kelly’s criminal behavior: “nobody matters less to our society than young black women. Nobody.”

It has been 15 years since DeRogatis first reported about R. Kelly’s alleged violent sexual acts upon teenaged girls of color in Chicago, including reports about the videotapes purportedly showing the rapper with one teenaged girl; yet, R. Kelly continues to avoid criminal sanctions while headlining major music festivals. In April 2014, over 200 school-aged girls were kidnapped in Africa and likely forced into slavery, yet received almost no media attention until activists demanded it. The violated girls in Chicago and the missing girls in Africa have two things in common: one, their dark skin; and two, no one seemed to care. Disappointingly, neither R. Kelly’s victims nor the missing African girls have become household names like those of JonBenet Ramsey and Elizabeth Smart. DeRogitis’ candid statement, “nobody matters less to our society than young black women,” seems to ring true not only as a distinctly American problem, but as a global one.

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White Like Me

Did you ever see that 1984 Eddie Murphy sketch “White Like Me” from Saturday Night Live? Murphy disguises himself as a white person and sees just how many rules don’t apply if your skin is paler. No collateral for a bank loan. Free food in restaurants. Even a free newspaper. Since 1984, we have elected an African American president, but, as Ta-Nehisi Coates so brilliantly argued in “The Case for Reparations,” black people are still being plundered in America. Here’s another example of how racism creeps into ordinary life as observed by a 65 year old white woman, me!

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The Persistent Problem of False Confessions

“I was there.” These three words became the crux of prosecutors’ arguments in fifty-six cases now under review by the Brooklyn District Attorney’s office in New York. The undeniable likeness of the confessions, all elicited during interrogations conducted by detective Louis Scarcella, lead to suspicion that these confessions were coerced. Following the recent exoneration and release of David Ranta, who was imprisoned for over two decades for a murder he did not commit,[1] several defendants currently serving lengthy prison sentences have come forward with damning information against Detective Scarcella. These defendants allege that their confessions were drafted for them and they were subsequently coerced to sign these statements using physical and mental tactics.[2]

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Pressure to Settle: The Mount Holly Settlement, Disparate Impact and the Fair Housing Act of 1968

 Parties rarely settle their dispute after the Supreme Court has agreed to hear their appeal and the case is scheduled for oral argument.  Yet the parties in Mount Holly v. Mount Holly Gardens Citizens in Action Inc. did.  Just weeks before their oral arguments would begin on December 4, 2013, Mount Holly Township settled its housing discrimination dispute with Mount Holly Gardens.  Both sides settled late November 13, 2013.  Why, after advocating at each level of appeal and finally receiving a highly sought after slot for oral argument in front of the Nation’s highest court, would these parties settle?

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