Conservatives do love their phony wars. Remember the war on Christmas? Remember the “war on coal”? (Donald Trump promised to end that war, but in the third year of his presidency coal production fell to its lowest level since 1978, and the Department of Energy expects it to keep falling.)
Now, as the Trump campaign desperately searches for political avenues of attack, we’re hearing a lot about the “war on the suburbs.”
It’s probably not a line that will play well outside the GOP’s hard-core base; Joe Biden and Kamala Harris don’t exactly come across as rabble-rousers who will lead raging antifa hordes as they pillage America’s subdivisions.
Yet it is true that a Biden-Harris administration would resume and probably expand on Obama-era efforts to finally make the Fair Housing Act of 1968 effective, seeking in particular to redress some of the injustices created by America’s ugly history of using political power to create and reinforce racial inequality.
For what Trump calls the Suburban Lifestyle Dream didn’t just happen; it was created by government policies. The great suburban housing boom that followed World War II was made possible by huge federal subsidies, via programs — especially the Federal Housing Administration and the Veterans Administration — that protected lenders from risk by insuring qualifying home mortgages. By 1950 the FHA and the VA were insuring half of all mortgages nationwide.
Of course, these subsidies didn’t just help homebuyers. They were also a gold mine for real estate developers, among them a guy named Fred Trump, who was later sued for discriminating against Black tenants, and whose son currently occupies the White House.
But these subsidies were only available to white people. In fact, they were only available in all-white communities. As Richard Rothstein reports in his 2017 book “The Color of Law,” FHA guidelines specifically cautioned against loans in communities in which children might share classrooms with other children who “represent a far lower level of society or an incompatible racial element.”
Indeed, the FHA went well beyond favoring all-white locations; it set out to create them. After the war, when developers like William Levitt began building new communities on what had been farmland, they cleared their plans in advance with the FHA, thereby guaranteeing that buyers would have automatic access to subsidized mortgages. And one of the things the FHA required from such plans was strict racial segregation, supposedly to insure property values.
Now, all of this may sound like old history. But the raw racism of postwar housing policy cast a long shadow over our society. For the 20 or so years that followed World War II represented a unique opportunity for the middle class to solidify its position — an opportunity that was denied to Blacks.
You see, the ’50s and ’60s were an era both of relatively good pay for ordinary workers and of relatively cheap suburban housing. Wages were fairly high, in part because America still had a strong union movement, and houses were affordable, as long as you had access to those federal housing programs. So millions of Americans got a chance to build some wealth.
Then the window of opportunity closed. Wages, adjusted for inflation, stagnated. Housing prices soared, in part because building restrictions in many suburbs banned multifamily units. And Black families, who were shut out of a rising market at a time when many Americans were sharing in the fruits of a housing boom, found the financial barriers to homeownership especially daunting.
So Trump’s Suburban Lifestyle Dream is basically a walled village that the government built for whites, whose gates were slammed shut when others tried to enter.
What is Biden proposing to remedy at least some of these injustices? Reasonable, significant, but hardly revolutionary stuff — things like expanding rental vouchers while cracking down on redlining and exclusionary zoning. Trump may claim that such policies would “destroy suburbia,” but that only makes sense if you believe that the only alternative to bloody anarchy is a community that looks exactly like Levittown in 1955.
And it’s very important to understand that none of the scare talk about a war on the suburbs has anything to do with the usual conservative rhetoric about “freedom” and not having the government tell Americans what to do. Individual choices and free markets aren’t what made America such a segregated, unequal society. Discrimination was a statist policy, involving the exercise of political power to deny people free choice.
And it still goes on. What the Black Lives Matter movement has done is to reveal to many white Americans that we’re still a long way from being a society in which everyone is treated equally by the law, whatever the color of their skin. (Blacks already knew that very well.)
But the big difference between the parties now is that Biden and Harris are trying to make things better, trying to make us more like the country we’re supposed to be. Trump and Pence, by contrast, are basically trying to make open racism great again.
Paul Krugman, Ph.D., winner of the Nobel Memorial Prize in Economic Science, is an Op-Ed columnist for The New York Times.