All Lives Should Matter, Part II

Early housing development, Levittown, N.Y.Hulton Archive/Getty Images

On July 7th, I first wrote about how all lives should matter, but they never have, illustrating my point by listing six instances of massacres of Black communities in this country between 1898 and 1923 ( Today, I’m making the point that systemic racism wasn’t always violent, but has been part of the fabric of our society just the same. Here are two examples.

1. On June 22, 1948, President Franklin D. Roosevelt signed the G.I. Bill into law on behalf of a grateful nation. Officially the “Servicemen’s Readjustment Act of 1944,” it provided benefits for college education, unemployment insurance, housing, and other benefits. It was one of the best vehicles for World War II veterans to join the middle class. But the devil was in the details.

The G.I. Bill programs were directed by local (white) officials. Consequently, many deserving veterans received no benefits. Historian Ira Katznelson is quoted as saying “the law was deliberately designed to accommodate Jim Crow”. The results were predictable — in the New York and northern New Jersey suburbs, fewer than 100 mortgages were given to non-white veterans out of about 67,000 insured by the Bill. By 1946, only one-fifth of the 100,000 Black veterans who had applied for educational benefits had registered in a college, and banks and mortgage agencies frequently refused loans to them. (

2. You may have heard of Levittown, New York, an unincorporated area in Nassau County.  Considered the first suburb in the country, its intent was to provide affordable housing for soldiers returning from World War II. Construction was begun in 1947 by the company Levitt & Sons, who used mass-production techniques on concrete slabs to construct as many as 30 homes a day. Originally a rental community of 2000 dwellings, the project was so successful that 4000 more were built, and when federal government supports for housing took effect, the company pivoted from renting to selling, with 30-year mortgages with no down payment and monthly costs the same as rental payments. 

The development was a great opportunity, but there was a dark side. The leases, and later the deeds, went into considerable detail about how the properties were to be maintained. And right after Clause 24, “cut or cause to be cut the lawn and remove or cause to be removed tall growing weeds at least once a week . . . ” was Clause 25 — “The tenant agrees not to permit the premises to be used or occupied by any person other than members of the Caucasian race, but the employment and maintenance of other than Caucasian domestic servants shall be permitted.” (,116981)

At this point in American history, this was not only legal but government policy. (,_New_York)

For more on the segregated housing policies of this era, see The Color of Law: A Forgotten History of How Our Government Segregated America by Richard Rothstein.

What has been the cumulative impact of these policies? Most Black veterans and their families were denied the opportunity to buy homes, and thus build equity for their future generations. They were also frequently denied the chance to attend college or receive a loan to start a business. Remember how money compounds. Pile on generation after generation, and you can understand why some estimate the median wealth of black households at $35,000, as compared to $150,000 for white households. (,parents’%20median%20wealth%20at%20%24150%2C000.)

Remember the cliche about a chain being only as strong as its weakest link? Our society has some pretty weak links.

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