By Kent Willis, Executive Director
I am privileged to kick off Black History Month at the ACLU of Virginia by reminiscing about the Fair Housing Act and the good fortune I had to witness the creative ways it was used in Richmond, Virginia, to fight racial discrimination 30 years ago.
Passed quickly by Congress shortly after the assassination of Marin Luther King Jr., the Fair Housing Act of 1968 did for housing what the 1964 Civil Rights Act did for employment and public accommodations, and the 1965 Voting Rights Act did for access to the polls.
In 1978, ten years after the Fair Housing Act became law, I took a job with a small fair housing organization in Richmond, and there my eyes were opened to the wonders of what good laws, combined with good people, could do to help bring about change.
This organization, called HOME, or Housing Opportunities Made Equal, was small but had a staff of talented, deeply committed individuals who wanted to use the still relatively new and untested fair housing law to boost the fight against racial discrimination in housing.
The law itself was clear, but the problem with housing discrimination was proving that it happened. An apartment denied on the basis of race, for example, typically came down to the word of one person against that of another. For by this time, even in Virginia, discrimination had become subtle for the most part. Landlords didn’t tell minority apartment seekers they couldn’t rent a unit because they were black. Instead, they simply told them the apartment was already rented, even when it wasn’t.
The best way to win a case in court was to confirm the act of discrimination by having the landlord do it again. This was handled by “testers,” black and white actors (for want of a better term) who would approach landlords, ask for the same housing sought by the bona fide apartment seeker who had sensed discrimination, and see what the answer was.
In Richmond in 1978, it was often, “Come on in and look at the apartment,” to the white tester, but “I’m sorry, we just rented that unit,” to the black tester.
Testing worked because it put witnesses on the stand to corroborate an accusation of discrimination. Over and over, HOME’s lawyers represented black home seekers, who won their cases primarily because of the testimony of testers.
I know this because in my first years at HOME, I was a white tester, spending my days being welcomed by landlords while my black partner endured an unending string of lies about the unavailability of apartments.
It was the toll testing took on my black partner that gave the leadership at HOME an idea. Why not sue on behalf testers and the organization itself when discrimination occurred. After all, the testers suffered first-hand the humiliation of discrimination, and the organization had to spend its resources to pay testers to bring these cases.
Merely by happenstance, I was a tester in the first case in the nation to try out this theory. It went all the way to the U.S. Supreme Court, which held that testers and fair housing organizations had standing to sue under the Fair Housing Act.
Imagine how this energized fair housing organizations across the country -- transforming them from passive, reactive organizations waiting for victims of discrimination to call, to proactive advocates who could sue whenever testing showed that discrimination had occurred.
A couple of years later, this little organization in Richmond had another creative idea. By this time, I was executive director, so my role was different--but the developments were no less remarkable.
As part of our work, we collected ads for housing -- brochures, magazines, newspapers, flyers -- which piled up around the office. One day someone noticed that these ads often included photos of tenants, but that none of them, it seemed, was African-American.
The message to racial minorities was clear: You are not welcome here.
If the Fair Housing Act banned discrimination in advertising, we wondered, shouldn’t we be able argue that an absence of pictures of racial minorities in housing ads violated the law?
We chose our target carefully, an apartment management firm whose large, colorful brochure prominently displayed a fair housing logo, but depicted more than 300 white people enjoying the amenities of apartment living. There were blacks in the brochure, to be sure, but only four or five, and they were all in a nearby park, not at any of the apartment complexes.
When the management firm refused to voluntarily add minorities to its brochures, we sued. At the end of the day, a federal judge ruled for the first time that the fair housing law applies to pictures of people in advertisements. Within a few years, every advertiser in the country had added minorities to their housing ads. And, it’s still that way.
I like to think that we were special at HOME in Richmond, Virginia, in the late 70’s and early 80’s. But the truth is that these kinds of adjuncts to the big civil rights movement were taking place in varying shapes and sizes in small towns and big cities across the country -- and wherever good people got together to combat racial inequality.
They helped transform this country from separate water coolers, schools, and neighborhoods to the more equal and integrated society we are today. We’re not where should be yet, but we’ve come a long way, and we have organizations like HOME, the NAACP, the ACLU and thousands of other adjuncts to help us get there.
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