Racial Segregation and Concentrated Poverty: The History of Housing in Black America

On Jan. 26, 2021, President Joe Biden signed four executive orders designed to address racial equity in the United States. With one particular action, Biden hopes to right the historical wrongs Black folks have faced when it comes to housing and homeownership in this country.


Per a White House statement: “He will direct the Department of Housing and Urban Development (HUD) to take steps necessary to redress racially discriminatory federal housing policies that have contributed to wealth inequality for generations.”

And that’s why the story of what housing and other living conditions look like for many Black Americans is pretty bleak. It’s by design.


Sheryll D. Cashin is a professor of law at Georgetown University and author of the upcoming book, White Space, Black Hood: Opportunity Hoarding and Segregation in the Age of Inequality.

According to Cashin, the modern phenomenon of concentrated Black poverty was an intentional government-sponsored institution by the Department of Housing and Urban Development, especially based on the department’s funding of “separate and unequal public housing.”

“When you require that one hundred percent of the units of a high rise new housing project be poor people, and then you intentionally assign Black people to single projects, boom, you get instantly concentrated Black poverty, which had not been the phenomenon prior to that,” said Cashin.

The full story’s origins go back even further.

An estimated six million Black people left the South during the Great Migration and the predominant response of the United States government to the mass exodus, as well as state and local governments, was to contain Black folks in their own neighborhoods.


“HUD was particularly a part of this role when the precursors to HUD introduced and encouraged racially restrictive covenants [and] redlining of every major city where African-Americans landed,” said Cashin.

The federal government was also a sponsor of “urban renewal,” infamously called “Negro renewal” by the great American writer James Baldwin, which primarily displaced people of color and “gave cities the power and money to condemn ‘slum’ neighborhoods.


“Each time this country created a peculiar institution that subordinated Black people—slavery, Jim Crow—and dismantled it, they replaced it with another one,” Cashin said. “And the iconic Black ‘ghetto’, I don’t use that as a pejorative; I use it as a descriptor, was a follow on [the] institution to slavery and Jim Crow. That’s the legacy that every new administration inherits and the Biden administration has, as well.”

Watch as Professor Cashin breaks down the Black housing experience in the U.S. from the Great Migration to today, how President Biden’s executive order fits into it all, and more in the video above.

Jessica Moulite is an award-winning Video Producer at The Root passionate about dismantling unjust societal power structures and all things Black culture. She's also probably watching “Living Single.”