Housing discrimination Summary

  • Last updated on November 11, 2022

Attempt by government entities or private parties to bar the sale or rental of housing to members of minority groups.

The first type of housing discrimination addressed by the Supreme Court was attempts by cities and towns to establish separate residential areas for different races. In Buchanan v. Warley[case]Buchanan v. Warley[Buchanan v. Warley] (1917), the Court struck down such policies as unconstitutional, holding that they violated the equal protection clause of the Fourteenth Amendment by forcing property owners to sell or rent only to certain groups.

Housing discrimination persisted, however, through restrictive covenants (contractual agreements by property owners that they would never sell or rent property to nonwhites). In 1926 the Court let stand a lower court decision upholding their legality. Discrimination in this form continued undisturbed until the Court declared in Shelley v. Kraemer [case]Shelley v. Kraemer[Shelley v. Kraemer](1948) that these agreements denied minority groups their constitutional right to equal protection of the law. Although restrictive covenants were not forbidden, it was held that state and federal courts could no longer execute them. This decision was broadened in a 1953 ruling that monetary damages could not be sought when such contracts were breeched. Therefore, although restrictive covenants remained as a tool of private housing discrimination, they were no longer legally enforceable.

During the late 1960’s and 1970’s the Court began to focus on private acts of discrimination. In Reitman v. Mulkey[case]Reitman v. Mulkey[Reitman v. Mulkey] (1967), the Court ruled on an amendment to the California constitution that declared the state could not limit the right of citizens to discriminate in the sale or rental of their property. The amendment was struck down, as it was found to overly involve the state in such actions. A year later the Court made a more sweeping decree, holding in Jones v. Alfred H. Mayer Co.[case]Jones v. Alfred H. Mayer Co.[Jones v. Alfred H. Mayer Co.](1968) that public and private acts of housing discrimination had been banned by the Civil Rights Act of 1866, even though that provision had never been enforced.

In 1968 Congress passed a fair housing act that clearly restricted private and public acts of housing discrimination. After its enactment, the Court’s role was increasingly to rule on cases involving more subtle attempts to exclude particular groups. For example, the refusal of cities and towns to approve the construction of low-income housing or apartments was challenged as indirect discrimination against minorities. However, in several cases in the 1970’s, the most notable of which was Arlington Heights v. Metropolitan Housing Development Corp.[case]Arlington Heights v. Metropolitan Housing Development Corp.[Arlington Heights v. Metropolitan Housing Development Corp.] (1977), the Court refused to limit such zoningZoning restrictions, finding that acts that have the effect of excluding particular residents do not amount to proof of an intent to discriminate.

Further Reading
  • Hall, Kermit L. Freedom and Equality: Discrimination and the Supreme Court. New York: Garland, 2000.
  • Klarman, Michael J. From Jim Crow to Civil Rights: The Supreme Court and the Struggle for Racial Equality. New York: Oxford University Press, 2006.
  • Rasmussen, R. Kent. Farewell to Jim Crow: The Rise and Fall of Segregation in America. New York: Facts On File, 1997.
  • Rosenberg, Gerald N. The Hollow Hope. Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1991.
  • Vose, Clement. Caucasians Only. Berkeley: University of California Press, 1973.

Arlington Heights v. Metropolitan Housing Development Corp.

Civil Rights Acts

Jones v. Alfred H. Mayer Co.

Race and discrimination

Restrictive covenants

Shelley v. Kraemer

Categories: History