It’s never good when HUD Secretary Ben Carson is in the news and sure enough his latest appearance carries on the tradition. The Washington Post reported this week that 1 out of 3 of his senior political appointees, who represent the highest levels of housing policy, don’t have any housing experience. I mean, they probably have lived in a house, but have not worked in housing.
It’s easy to forget that before coming to HUD, Dr. Carson didn’t have any housing experience either (still doesn’t), but that wasn’t enough to stop his abundantly insulting nomination from going through. Not having experts in housing, or even experienced in housing, in the federal department in charge of housing has barely registered with the the public, even though it should be an enormous scandal.
But that’s still not the biggest scandal about Secretary Carson’s run at HUD. As with many aspects of the Trump Era, the stupidity, pettiness, and corruption at the heart of the administration trends, but the insidious unraveling of policy aimed at protecting the vulnerable does not. In truth, Secretary Carson has been a highly effective agent of the president’s agenda: to unravel any attempts at racial desegregation of the American landscape undertaken by the Obama administration and others.
I’ll get back to this point in a second, but it bares repeating: Dr. Ben Carson is not qualified to run HUD. He has never worked in housing policy, never worked in development, and never worked in government. He has spent his career in medicine and then the self-help circuit. Both of those things are fine, even admirable, but they offer absolutely no rationale for his nomination, let alone confirmation.
His is insulting to the work done at HUD, to the thousands of HUD employees across the country, and to the millions of Americans who rely on HUD’s services. It has a budget of $53 billion, oversees the regulation of the mortgage industry and public housing authorities, administers rental assistance programs like Section 8 and homelessness aid, and enforces fair housing laws (more on that later.) The work HUD does is not trivial and shouldn’t be treated that way.
HUD has been a backwater in other presidential administrations and having an inexperienced secretary in other circumstances might not be such an issue if HUD is allowed to go about it’s business. But that’s not what is happening with Dr. Carson or the administration. It would be one thing if he was simply ignorant of policy, but he’s ignorant and hostile to it. That can be summed up by the fact that he considers enforcing fair housing policies that encourage more integration in wealth majority-white communities “social engineering.”
Of course, it is social engineering, but then again the entire development of suburban America was social engineering. None of the 20th century’s sorting of white families into suburbs and black and brown families into inner cities was “organic.” The federal government crafted a policy regime for 80 years that pushed that racial agenda. Dr. Carson’s ignorance or dismal of this perfectly aligns with the Trump administration and the Republican agenda.
As with immigration, law enforcement, and just about anything else, the Trump administration has defined itself by a transparent retraunchment of white supremacy, which it and its allies perceive as being under threat politically and demographically. Any attempt, through federal policy, at challenging the traditional view that white men should be in charge, white people should be privileged, and equal rights should be a administered on a limited allowance has been purposefully halted or reversed wherever possible.
Nothing has codified white supremacy more than housing policy. Most Americans are simply unaware of this. For a short period of time during the Obama administration, there was a surprisingly successful challenge to it.
First, in 2015, HUD outlined rules drawn from the Fair Housing Act called Affirmatively Furthering Fair Housing (AFFH) that required local communities that receive federal block grants to submit plans that show how they are taking active steps to reverse years of racial segregation. It took a long time to get through the approval process, and the Obama administration could have taken bolder steps, but it was significant progress.
That same year, the Supreme Court made an even more significant decision on a case in Texas that expanded the definition of racial discrimination (which the Fair Housing Act made illegal) to include “disparate impact.” This means that even if a housing policy was not explicitly racist, if it still resulted in a disproportionately negative impact on a minority group, it would violate the Fair Housing Act.
Combined, both efforts opened a window to address deeply entrenched racial segregation in the US that has only accelerated over the last 50 years since the Fair Housing Act passed. It is no coincidence that this corresponds with skyrocketing wealth inequality. Fixing one fixes the other and both are required to make America fair and prosperous.
But since Dr. Carson has taken over at HUD, this agenda has quietly and effectively been halted, abandoned, or reversed. He hasn’t fought for HUD on the Hill. He has tried to raise rents for public housing residents. He has killed AFFH and tried to say it was in support of more development. He is there to stop attempts at addressing the legacy of racial discrimination in housing. You can see why he doesn’t want people with housing experience.
I don’t know what is in Dr. Carson’s heart. He may sincerely believe, based no doubt on his remarkable personal story, that racism is at best a mild hinderance and self-determination can help a family overcome any obstacles. He may look at the American landscape and not see that actively racist policies sorted communities. He may not think its the federal government’s role to fix this even if it is a problem.
But even in this generous guess, he is still dangerously wrong and still guilty of supporting the goals of an administration that is blatantly racist and actively pursuing the protection of white supremacy. His personal policy ignorance and indifference to acquiring it or requiring it is not a bug, it is a feature. And a very effective one that is erasing a small window of progress against racial segregation.