By Yvonne Scruggs-Leftwich, Ph.D.- Pasadena, MD – During my tenure in Governor Mario Cuomo’s Cabinet as the first African American Commissioner of New York State Housing, I had first-hand knowledge of the management and rental tactics employed by Donald Trump’s organization and how he played fast and loose with black folks’ destiny in the early days of Fair Housing laws. Many people believe Trump’s questionable housing practices related to “single-family tracks” or to luxury housing only, but the truth is that his company was charged with denying affordable housing to hard-working middle class African American families. With so much at stake, I feel compelled to offer my insight into what Trump may really mean when he says he will “make America great again.”
As a professor of research, I often tell the story of Julia Outterbridge Robinson, whom I interviewed. Although she never went to undergraduate college, Julia was accepted into the ivy league University of Pennsylvania’s graduate school of City and Regional Planning, where she earned a Master’s Degree. Despite the fact that her parents strongly discouraged her academic aspirations, she became the first black valedictorian ever to graduate from her high school and went on to become, at 17 years old, one of the first three blacks ever hired by a Philadelphia bank into a white-collar position.
Angry because red-lining, race-coding, steering and other archaic strategies of post-Reconstruction discrimination had denied African Americans the education, housing and/or the jobs they deserved, Julia became an activist and got involved as a Fair Housing volunteer with the Quakers’ American Friends Service Committee (AFSC), inspired by white folks going to such lengths to support blacks. AFSC test teams and scouts, which were composed of equally qualified white and black “test” couples, worked in suburban neighborhoods, identifying houses for minorities, (because) realtors wouldn’t list– or tried to hide – these houses, as a way of keeping minorities out of communities.”
These same 1970’s “Fair-Housing test teams and scouts” also were employed in New York State where the heavily State and Federally subsidized, middle-income housing stock was a rich target. New York State’s expanding middle-income black population was energized by the Civil Rights Act of 1964 and by regular up-dates to New York State’s own 1945 iconic anti-discrimination law, – the very first State in the nation to enact one. The evolved-New York State Division of Human Rights stood squarely on the shoulders of the often vulnerable “scouts” and “testing couples”, like Julia and Harold Robinson and others, who volunteered to become the expeditionary forces for affordable and desegregated housing in New York State, Pennsylvania and elsewhere. Included within this scrutiny were most of New York State’s 183 modern, Mitchell-Lama, middle-income housing developments, accommodating millions of occupants, living in thousands of publicly-subsidized units, managed by their builders and/or by contract-managers.
Donald Trump and his organization were one such housing provider, with dominion over at least 14,000 publicly subsidized, middle-income units of housing in New York. A Federal legal action, targeting some of these housing units (U.S. v Trump, October 1973), is only occasionally mentioned in partisan arguments among critics and journalists, and thus is severely marginalized as an intentional act of discrimination against black people. Trump also cavalierly dismisses the Federal case. He has pointed out that the settlement to which he agreed did not require that he admit to any wrong-doing.
Based upon the Fair Housing strategies and specific documentation by scouts, test-couples and observers like the Robinsons, as well as AFSC’s and other advocates’ empirical audit reports and evidence of staffs’ actions, the impact of Trump’s discrimination against African Americans was draconian. Donald Trump’s solution – settlement to avoid verification of the discrimination charges brought by the Civil Rights Division of the U.S. Department of Justice – helps to explain his negative image in most of the African American community. Now retrospectively disregarded, both by election-season analytical laziness and Donald Trump’s convenient superficiality and congenital callousness, Trump’s acknowledged Settlement Agreement was anything but inconsequential.
The shrinking volume of standard, affordable, taxpayer-subsidized housing supply was documented in the NY State Division of Housing and Community Renewal’s (DHCH) Housing Needs Analysis, which my staff and I presented to Governor Mario Cuomo in 1983, when I was the DHCR Commissioner. The data in this Analysis also described the increase in New York State’s black population during the 1970-1980 US Census years, which increased middle-income housing demand, especially in the New York City’s urban and suburban areas, where most of the 183 Taxpayer-subsidized Mitchell-Lama developments were concentrated. Thus, the demand for the very housing supply, which was the target of Fair Housing activists’ and AFSC’s efforts to support blacks and other minorities seeking affordable, decent housing, was both compromised and thwarted, by the challenges of intractable segregation, steering, race-coding and other tools of discrimination, just as documented in the 1973 U.S. v Trump Complaint.
As black and white couples worked in teams to expose discrimination, the impact of continued racism and segregation was two-pronged. White families were provided a disproportionate share of middle class entitlements and hardworking black families were routinely excluded. Donald Trump’s cynical refusal to acknowledge his un-American practices employed in the 1970’s is clear evidence that his “Great America” is reminiscent of an era when minorities were relegated to the negative life-altering dynamics described above. Therefore, when Trump asks African American voters: “What the Hell have you got to loose ?” – our answer must be “access, opportunity, fairness, everything!”
Dr. Yvonne Scruggs-Leftwich is a political Scientist, award-wining writer and Smithsonian HistoryMaker. She formerly served as Deputy Mayor of Philadelphia, Pa., Deputy Assistant Secretary of HUD, Executive Director of President Jimmy Carter’s Urban Policy Task Force and as first Executive Director/COO of the national Black Leadership Forum, Inc., She has authored several books including SOUNDBITES OF PROTEST.